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Matt Welch Posted July 25, 2001
The Webbys' Ode to San Francisco

Internet awards celebrate and console the town that started it all
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version

Matt Welch:
08/01       Media Criticism Gone Horribly Wrong
07/01       The Webbys' Ode to San Francisco
06/01 From Oasis to Mirage
05/01       The Web's Most Curious Man
03/01       Off-Campus Speech v. School Safety
The 3,000 people who attended the 5th annual Webby Awards last week could have been forgiven for thinking that, for this one night at least, the "World" in "World Wide Web" had been replaced by "San Francisco."

The gala event started with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown telling a suitably randy political joke to the hip leftish crowd: "[In] 1997, when a young woman on the telephone called and said, 'I want to discuss the Web with you,' I immediately started thinking of something kinky -- no, my name's not Condit!" It ended with six male tap dancers and one fat lady with a 30-foot hat of the San Francisco skyline singing a show-tune tribute to -- what else? -- San Francisco, at the conclusion of which the spotlight switched to a Divine impersonator waving good-night from the opera-house balcony.

Why not follow the lead of the Online News Association and separate online-only nominees from those affiliated with Old Media properties like CNN?

The two hours in between served as kind of a group-therapy session for a dot-com community dizzy from the severe ups and downs of the past seven years. There were cathartic potshots taken at venture capitalists (and the apparently worse "marketers"), dozens of references to being bankrupt and/or unemployed, and an overarching if inaccurate theme of "the Internet returning to its roots."

When not enjoying Judy Garland-as-Dorothy numbers, inventive modern dance routines and hilarious film/animation clips, the audience saved its lustiest cheers for such deeply local Web sites as "Community" winner craigslist (Bay Area classifieds), "News" nominee Salon, and, above all, "Humor" nominee (which, amusingly, the San Jose Mercury News described the next day as the "Web site that tracks dot-com deaths and rumors, and has a profane name").

Even the crowd's adopted eccentrics -- "Personal Web Site" winner Dancing Paul and "Weird" favorite "Peter Pan's Home Page" -- were about as San Francisco as you can get without actually living there.

After the ceremony, on the sparsely populated smoking balcony, a San Francisco enthusiast who co-founded an actually successful Internet company shook his head and laughed. "Can you believe how bloody provincial that was?" he asked, as a dominatrix dot-com she-cop searched for eager young male programmers to butt-whip.

Because they are fabulous

It's easy to mock the Webby Awards, and the goofy, insular culture they have come to represent. Last year's ceremony, a reportedly decadent affair which took place two months after NASDAQ started nose-diving, was criticized for "degeneracy" and worse by the likes of Upside Today, the Sydney Morning Herald and lesser commentators.

But this year, with guys on the steps holding cardboard signs saying "will trade options for food," and improptu hand-counts showing half of any given group to be recently laid-off, criticizing the feather-boa set seemed about as sporting as kicking a bum.

"Can you believe how bloody provincial that was?" asked a San Francisco enthusiast who co-founded an actually successful Internet company.

Fittingly, emcee Alan Cumming's first joke was: "It's so great to be back in San Francisco, but you know, an awful lot can change in one year. On the way over here from the hotel I didn't see any dot-com billboards at all, and I actually ran into a homeless person wearing a Webvan cap, and you know he asked me if he could have a quarter because he wanted to buy a few shares in DoubleClick."

Still, given the way the awards have come to represent Internet excellece (not unlike how nominee Feed somehow came to embody "online content"), it's worth jotting down a few of the Webbys' head-scratching choices:

You could quickly come up with a long list of such quibbles; you could also flap your arms and sing, "Who Let the Dogs Out?" in Hungarian. Like it or not, the Webbys were there first, they have institutional momentum, and they've made a decent stab at adapting to the rapidly changing times. Like Web content as a whole, it will take more than just sniping to dislodge the Bay Area from its position of prominence.

Why so much NPR and PBS, ... yet so little WorldNet Daily, and Matt Drudge?

Even in the throes of the Internet collapse, a quick look around San Francisco reveals a thousand minor and major evidences of how the Web continues to transform the life and journalism of the city. The San Francisco Chronicle now actually covers the technology industry in its backyard with some vigor, and even publishes e-mail addresses in its staffbox. Lunch-rooms in unfashionable neighborhoods are still filled with female twentysomethings discussing back-end database systems and sensitive office-politics that were almost completely off-limits to their forebears not even 10 years ago. Even the town's storied filth is now being broadcast live via Webcam, as a protest, by a fed-up resident of Crackhead Alley.

The Mercury News, despite its recent lamentable cutbacks, is still one of the better newspapers in the country, a development significantly inspired by the Internet boom. Sure, the San Francisco Examiner is still often embarrassing -- on July 19 alone, the struggling paper used AP wire to cover the decline in venture capital funding, Apple's latest product releases, the online humor magazine (and Webby nominee) Modern Humorist, and even how dot-com layoffs were adapting to a job market that now requires things like resumes and socks. But sophisticated Bay Area readers now know they can get faster and better information on all those stories and more at such locally produced sites as Wired News, Salon, CBS, The Red Herring, The Industry Standard, and a dozen others.

Even topics that newspapers are supposed to own -- local government, police blotters, entertainment news -- are now routinely covered better by Internet renegades. Examiner subscribers unsatisfied with the paper's four-graph story July 18 of how the Board of Supervisors' meeting was shut down by protesters, for example, could have read a far more lengthy and witty eyewitness account by ex-Suck editor Tim Cavanaugh a full two days before. Regular Matt Drudge readers knew long before the Mercury News' brief July 19 that Rush Limbaugh had inked a huge new radio contract.

Back to the future

It's precisely these kinds of quixotic, one-man efforts that Webby winners, presenters and attendees had in mind while endlessly invoking the "true believers," and how they will benefit from "getting back to what the Internet is all about." I heard variations on both phrases at least 20 separate times throughout the evening.

Of course, defining exactly what the Internet really is all about proved a bit more elusive. For Survival Research Laboratories guru Mark Pauline, it's a "free library." For some dude with a rainbow afro holding court on the red carpet, it's about "expressing yourself." For hipster-bar owner Jennifer Fiorillo, it's "creativity." For retrospective futurist Howard Rheingold: "Before money, after money: Community."

Webby founder Tiffany Shlain summed up the disparate but related sentiments nicely in the event's official program: "This new place where we have arrived reminds us again that diversity and creativity thrive on the Internet. A crisis helps identify core strengths -- in this case it forced us to return to our roots," she wrote. "We made it, and the light from the moon is beautiful."

Uh, sure.

The problem with this back-to-basics storyline is not necessarily that it relies upon San Francisco's not-for-everyone hippie instincts, but rather that 1995 can never happen again. Hearing an early Netizen trying to recapture his or her youth is not unlike watching a Summer of Love-era video clip of an earnest folkie insisting that Pete Seeger and Joan Baez will win the day over the Grateful Dead and Creedence.

The genie is out of the bottle, the squares have long since been dosed, and the exciting new action is just as likely to spring from Hillside, New Jersey or Templestowe Heights, Australia as south of Market Street. The Webbys look and feel like a Generation X parade; the Gen Y crowd takes the Internet for granted, like cable television, and can toss off weird Web sites without seeming to break a sweat, or issue a press release. Internet connectivity is stagnating in the U.S., exploding in Europe and Asia.

The Los Angeles media these days is making great hay out of the minor exodus fleeing south from the high rents and bad vibes of San Francisco, whether it be alternative dance companies or bewildered dot-commers. Just this week, the L.A. Business Journal based a cover story on U-Haul statistics from March to May that show 12.7 percent more families moved out of the city than in, and their number-one destination was far-cheaper L.A.

This is all amusing and perhaps overdue for long-suffering Angelenos, who have been the butt of national jokes these past 10 years while Seattle and then San Francisco took turns basking in the limelight. It's not unsatisfying to see the once-smug Pacific Northwest, which has long defined itself in part as the anti-L.A., suffer through riots, droughts, sprawl and even earthquakes, while Southern California breezes through another mild summer without even suffering much from the west coast's electricity crisis.

But don't bet the farm against Frisco just yet. The Silicon Valley has had a 30-year head start in the technology business, and at this point the network effects of having such a large and concentrated knot of programmers, engineers, venture capitalists and designers gives the Bay Area a similar advantage over the rest of the Internet world as Los Angeles has on the global film industry (remember -- Hollywood's costs are outrageous, too, but it still doesn't matter).

As long as San Francisco keeps playing its crucial role in embracing the misfits Middle America can't process, you can bet that some new cycle of creativity and passion will once again rise from the bay and command the world's attention. And, as anyone lucky enough to have been involved with a startup at a young age knows, the entrepreneurial virus never quite leaves its host -- today's unemployed will be tomorrow's employers, and those who've stayed on the sidelines (at newspapers or other companies in "mature" industries) will never fully understand.

Time will tell how San Francisco's mid-1990s burst of media activity will compare to the great newspaper wars of the late 1800s, the Beat explosion of the 1950s, or the Rolling Stone/Ramparts days in the late '60s and early '70s. When the dust from the dot-com collapse settles, and the excesses of the most annoying New Economy media-hogs fade from memory, I'm guessing it'll stack up nicely.

In the meantime, it's worth remembering what happened the last time the U.S. journalism industry faced gloom and mass layoffs: a bunch of young people created their own damned publications, and eventually learned to use a cheap new publishing tool called HTML. If there is still a Webby Awards five years from now, one imagines -- and hopes -- that the "News" category will be dominated by sites we haven't yet heard of, rather than and Salon.
Matt raises some interesting points about provinicialism, narrow scope, and even the possibility of too much Generation X in the Webby's bloodstream. Are the awards current and legitimate or simply a farewell parade for 1995? Share your thoughts in the OJR Forums.

Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at

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