The Geeks Return
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The Fifth Annual Webby Awards marked the return of the geek. Sure, there were a few slinky model types and well-suited men who might still be millionaires at the San Francisco ceremony honoring the best Internet sites. But gone was the bacchanalian sophistication of yesteryear, or rather, last year, when the venture capital-driven Ponzi scheme of the New Economy put a glazed smile on many a Web worker's face.
This year the subject was dot-com crash, not dot-com money madness, the suggested dress code was gutsy, not glitzy, drinks were scarce, food was scarcer and puerile pranks, the hallmark of the geek work world, were back in their rightful place.
Of course, the Webbys have always leaned heavily on the side of goofy satire. Instead of the gushing, rambling acceptance speeches typical of the Oscars and Emmys, Webby winners are required to be terse and preferably silly. This year's five-word acceptance declarations included "Spy on Washington, it's fun" (from the editor of OpenSecrets.org, the winner of the politics category) and "Sam Donaldson, dude, gnary toupe" (from the founder of the surfing site Swell.com, in recognition of the starchy news anchor who was reporting live via webcast).
Still, the New Economy pomp of 1999 and 2000, which had made such goofy satire cool and even glamorous, was gone this year. Limousines were few. Garments were tacky. It was like a tragic-comic play in which the geek emerged once again heroic, Internet culture's holy fool.
Scene I: Outside the Herbst Theatre, downtown San Francisco. Three Internet workers from an Annapolis culture site have arrived in various states of undress. The lead figure is a lanky twentysomething male with braces, a rainbow-colored wig and a polyester-shirt-and-pant ensemble circa Saturday Night Fever. His sidekicks: a buxom woman in a second-hand slip, rouged like Betty Boop, and an undertaker type, wall-eyed, perhaps from too many hours coding his beloved Web site.
"We are going to paaaaarty!" exclaims the man in braces, bouncing up and down on one foot. "I always get pussy in San Francisco." Something which, if true, explains why Net culture will never be like Hollywood, Academy Award-style award ceremonies or not.
Scene II: Herbst Theatre Auditorium (empty seats abound). Tiffany Schlain, the peppy blonde founder and director of the Webbys, is on stage making a disclaimer in a blue spandex halter top. "This is not a wake. It is a tribute," she says. And then blusters on: "It's been a hard year. It's important to honor people in good times and bad."
Tiffany is obviously suffering in the dot-crash clutch, for no one has worked harder than she to bring glamour to an industry birthed by shaggy-haired men with science PhDs who favor Birkenstocks. Whispers a person to my right, "The Webbys. Will there be a next year?"
Scene III: Auditorium (air heavy with lack of expectation). Enter the night's M.C., Alan Cumming, a Scottish actor who seems to be channeling Pee-Wee Herman, in sneakers and a worn tuxedo jacket. Cumming is up to the task given his opening theme -- "Do You Still Believe?" -- in which he argues the Internet was originally held together by the Star Trek mailing list, passed through an adolescent gestation period, went astray in the Great Cash Flood of 1999 and now has found its true mission: "To boldly take the Star Trek mailing list where it has never been before."
According to Cumming's analysis, Internet labor is on the right track. Marketing managers have become yoga instructors, former publicists now take their classes. Money is out. Spirituality is in.
Scene IV: Auditorium (much fidgeting in seats). Though the production value of the show is top notch -- as good as any BMW ad and definitely better than the Oscars -- its professionalism poses a troubling contrast to this troubled industry, for one fifth of last year's 135 Webby nominees are kaput.
But Julia Butterfly Hill, who sat in a redwood tree for two years, is here, in black vinyl hip huggers and a sequined camouflage tank top. Thank god. Julia is the bequeather of the Webby for best grassroots site, which goes to VolunteerMatch.com. There is much excited stage talk that the Internet has refound its original purpose: to connect people, spread needed information, get outside the box. Offers Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist.com, "Before money, money. After money, community." His elation is not fully met by the crowd.
Scene V: The Lobby. The lobby is full. Many a Webby-goer, disgusted by talk of community in lieu of cash, has left seat for bar, to quaff medicinal-tasting vodka concoction that would test the stomach of a hard-drinking Russian. Centerpiece: the founders of Google.com in Geek boy attire set off by flowing silver capes. They are on roller blades, hands clasped, whirling in circular fashion surrounded by TV cameras. The happy duo have received a Webby for "best practices," and are spinning and giggling, giggling and spinning, as if their real expertise lay not in search engine technology but playground highjinks. A beautiful chick in breast-revealing dress spits out, "Kinda pathetic," and turns from the elated whirlers with curled lip.
Scene VI: Herbst Theater Basement. Post-Ceremony Party. Everyone needs a drink, yet the bar is manned by four slow men and two sleepy women. And there are no waiters, which means hundreds of people are queuing for liquor. The only food companies that have showed offer itty-bitty pieces of cheese on itty-bitty crackers.
Hungry and sober, the partygoers begin to empty onto San Francisco's cold, foggy streets, dragging their gutsy bell bottoms and polyester sashes. But there is still geek light. On the dance floor are the employees of the Annapolis Web site, shimmying awkwardly to a techno beat.
And looking on is Randy Constan, winner of the "weird" category for his Peter Pan site. Constan extends a stockinged leg and tips his pointy green cap, "Groovy night, huh?"