Webby whiplash
by Ryan Tate
May 12, 2000
It was about one-quarter of the way through the edgy, fast-cutting Webby awards when John Perry Barlow, a founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences behind the Webbys, killed the buzz.

"I started this academy because I hoped to create some sort of community," he admonished 2,700 dotcommies filling the Nob Hill Masonic Center. "But I've been disappointed. I haven't seen barn-raising."

Emcee Alan Cumming, the Scottish actor who won a Tony as the ultimate emcee in Cabaret, moved things right along, and Barlow commenced with awarding the best community website award to Cafe Utne. But Barlow was on to something.

For while the Webby awards were indeed the height of spectacle -- performance artists in red jumpsuits descending from the ceiling, attendees strapping batteries inside their pants for outlandish, glowing costumes and silver-painted ballerinas tip-toeing around spiky-haired Cumming -- the show did not bring about the "convergence of people" yearned for by organizer Tiffany Shlain in the show's opening speech. If anything, the awards gala brought into relief a strain of degeneracy in the pan-Web community; a Generation-X-tinged impatience, computer-screen-induced zombie-numbness and digital tribal isolation. If this is a community, it is not a very pleasant one.

Video madness
The show was fast and flashy like MTV and, like the music network, played out entirely on the boob tube. Instead of announcing winners, Cumming was reduced to staring at the circular video monitor like the rest of the audience as the winner was displayed. His job seemed to be to read what was on the screen and insert bits of stand-up comedy between screenings. Indeed, during the videos for many categories, Cumming simply sat on the floor with his legs crossed and stared at the gigantic monitor in front of him.

Per tradition, victory speeches were limited to five words, and Cumming made no bones about rushing not only the speeches themselves but every facet of the awards. He became downright bitchy when decked-out winners failed to sprint toward the stage. "An hour and 45 minutes ..." he nagged at the laggards, meaning that the awards show was supposed to last no more than an hour and 45 minutes.

To be sure, Webby organizers were up front about running a show on crack. "People call us the Oscars of the Web, but this is the antidote to the Oscars," Cumming announced at the start of the night. "As Alfred Hitchcock said, a good show should be only as long as your bladder can hold."

And so it was short-attention-span theater, more suitable for an auditorium filled with 12-year-old "Star Trek" fans than a roomful of adult professionals. Flashy videos, absurdly microscopic speeches, the performance artists, Cumming's one-liners. Cotton-candy accolades -- unfulfilling fluff. When Sandra Bernhard took the stage to present -- err, read off the TV screen -- the best Comedy website award (it went to The Onion), she couldn't help but distance herself a little from the whole scene. "I don't want to get caught up in the tech era or dragged down the information superhighway kicking and screaming," she decreed.

Partisan whooping
The crowd, consisting largely of Palm-toting twentysomethings in collarless black shirts, organized into partisan dotcom camps that whoop-whooped when their company's name was read, began to leave their seats about halfway through the show -- halfway through the TWO-HOUR show. Cumming at one point had to lecture the crowd that it would be "rude" to get up and leave during the credits -- and besides, he promised them, the show is not over. (Rappers came out following the credits to sing about how it was time to leave.)

Apparently, asking the audience to sit through any sort of speech, demo or artistic performance (save for a hokey, schizophrenic 5-minute video called "Time Machine" and the aforementioned red-suited rappelers) would have been asking too much.

Is it any wonder, then, that John Perry Barlow could find, after four years, no Webby-generated community spirit to speak of? While occasionally thrilling and always suspenseful, the Webby's five-word speeches miss that sometimes boring but always humanizing cascade of names that washes over audience members at the other awards ceremonies. The herky-jerky show likewise does not even attempt any real-time, feature-length exhibition of the craft, also a staple of the other awards shows. The great irony of the Webbys, then, is that they are more one-to-many, hierarchically structured and less interactive, for the audience, than any of the old media awards shows.

Checking out the alternative
As if to show their appreciation for the tight Webby format, many dotcommies skipped the show for a performance of the rock band Barenaked Ladies at a simultaneously scheduled tech industry show across town.

The crowd did seem united on one count: It was crazy about Napster, going wild with applause on two occasions when the company was mentioned, and hostile toward the musicians suing it. In a dotcom remake of "A Few of My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music, Cumming sang, "Metallica's angry/And so is Dr. Dre/I love to pirate/On Napster all day/They look like old farts/And can't even sing/These are a few of my Internet things ..." Cumming also won enthusiastic applause for a subsequent put-down: "Dr. Dre has condemned the online music industry. He has continued to support crack-smoking pimps who slap their bitches."

And there was some thrill in seeing San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown extend thanks to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the firm that audited the show -- when else has Brown ever welcomed an audit? The crowd also went wild over a cameo by Mahir, the Turkish man behind the famous "I Kiss You!!!" personal website.

It was telling that the most touching, human and real part of the show came when an the inaugural SFMOMA Webby Prize for Excellence in Online Art award was presented. When Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey came up to accept it from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, they simply kissed, on-stage and on-camera, for upwards of a full minute. A teary Harvey eventually leaned into the microphone and delivered a gut-wrenching, simple, sweet "thank you." Counting the kissing, her acceptance was lengthy and self-indulgent -- just the sort of thing the Webbys could use.

A complete list of winners and their sometimes memorable acceptance speeches.

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