rebecca lynn eisenberg on Tue, 23 Mar 1999 08:34:24 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> winner of webby award

(By request ... typos courtesy of the newspaper (and me, too lazy to edit

I liked it ... I really liked it

by Rebecca Lynn Eisenberg
NetSkink Columnist
San Francisco Examiner
Sunday, March 21, 1999

"Welcome!" smiled two photographers decked in retro Stetson hats, zoot
suits and matching cameras directing us toward the entrance of Herbst

Flashes lighting the path from both sides, we strolled down the red carpet,
smiled and waved. Four floodlights criss-crossed the horizon behind us. It
felt like a Hollywood film premiere.

Even though we had dressed for the part (tuxedos and all), we weren't in
Hollywood, and this was not a premiere. We were in San Francisco, and the
event was our own arguably contrived glam-night: the third annual Webby

What started as a small awards event to promote a no-longer-published
magazine has grown into a media monster. And, while it would have been easy
to mock the presumptuousness of it all, I couldn't. I was having too much

"This is Matt Beer," I told the five Webby Award staffers guarding the
press check-in area, lying about my escort, who was not the Examiner
technology reporter of that name. "He is not on our list," one of them
responded, paging through her lists of pre-approved guests and ultimately
letting both of us in regardless (with an admonishment that only one of us
could sit in the press area at the ceremony).

Flanked by similarly penguin-suited judges, sponsors and other so-called
digerati, we skipped up the stairs and into the VIP party, where technology
stars like Esther Dyson sipped champagne in tall glasses and television
crews from ZDTV and PBS Internet Cafe shined portable spotlights on guest

"Two of my sites are competing against each other for the same award," said
Mary Furlong, the ever-affable and charismatic CEO and founder of ThirdAge
Media and SeniorNet, before disappearing into the crowd of women wearing
shiny, silver, full-length evening gowns and schmoozing up tuxedo'd men.

The scene had nothing in common with the first Webby Awards, held at
Bimbo's in North Beach a mere two years earlier. I had attended that show
as well, working on behalf of MediaCast, the company hired to conduct the
Webcast of the event.

Although the awards ceremony had strived to be an A-list gala from the
beginning, it was not until this year that it finally came into its own.

Those of us whose roots remain firmly planted in the independent home page
and 'zine scene of the early Web days were supposed to be aghast at the
spectacle of it all: Well-coiffed, overnight-millionaire Internet start-up
entrepreneurs who couldn't write a single UNIX command if you paid them.
AOL-account-holding Internet newbies who happen to be Silicon Valley
venture capitalists. Scenester wannabes passing out business cards that
didn't have personal URLs.

But when I ran into fellow old-timers, they were smiling, too.

"I had to come because of the free drinks!" laughed one woman I knew from
the mailing list for San Francisco Women on the Web as we were ushered out
the door of the pre-party into the red-velvet performance hall, where the
ceremony was about to begin.

It takes a real touch to embrace deep-pocketed sponsors without alienating
computer geeks, and for that feat, credit belongs to Tiffany Schlain, the
Webby Awards' original and current creative director and executive producer
and a master of public relations at the young age of 28.

When she took the stage to kick off the ceremony, it was clear that Schlain
lives up to the hype she had generated for herself and the event.

"In the '60's, we thought that we would be speaking Esperanto," said
Schlain, speaking at the podium to the almost-full house (the press section
having ample seats for both my Matt-Beer-imposter and me). "But now we know
that the true international language is (Web hypertext mark-up language)

"The Web is still the great equalizer," Schlain continued, wearing a silver
shiny gown, 8-inch platform boots and a sleeveless vest decorated with
computer digit 1's and 0's. She gave a nod to the indies in the audience
before rattling off the list of high-powered sponsors of the evening,
including Hewlett-Packard, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Intel, Levi's, AboveNet,
BroadVision, local Web developer Vivid Studios, Absolut, and Visa, among

"Doesn't she look like a digital diva," said Mayor Willie Brown, taking the
stage after Schlain. "The Webbies is where it's at," he said before ceding
the floor to the third and most charismatic speaker of the evening:
Schlain's grandmother.

"I am 941/2 years old," Francis Schlain said as she sat in a wheelchair at
the stage's center, "and I have a song to sing: 'A good Web site is hard to
find. You somehow get the other kind. ...' "

Sure, it was cheesy, but with the master of ceremonies, comedian Marc Meron
(whose geek-savvy routine was replete with Web gripes, e-mail woes and
Radio Shack references); the silver-coil and latex-wrapped Awards Mistress
Marina Berlin; and the five-word acceptance speech limit gratefully
followed by the awards winners, the audience was entertained.

Like it or not, the Web has gone commercial. Even when the same
employee - Colin Needham of Amazon-owned Internet Movie Database - stepped
up to the stand to accept three of the 22 awards, few in the audience
seemed surprised or upset.

And even though the eccentric winners of the art category,, cursed
the crowd with their five-word speech ("Ugly commercial sons of bitches!")
their European accents belied their complicity in the ugly commercialism
they condemned: They had traveled thousands of miles to attend.

Perhaps they had hoped to see the celebrity judges, whose ranks included
musicians David Bowie and Bjork, X-Files actress Gillian Anderson and
Mary-Ellis Bunim, executive producer of MTV's Real World as well as very
few actual Web experts. If so, they left unsatisfied because the Hollywood
celebrities were absent.

Across the street at the Intel-sponsored post-ceremony bash at City Hall,
though, there was no shortage of genuine Web luminaries among the tables of
complimentary polenta, vegetarian noodles and Mediterranean wraps (not to
mention a bar in every corner).

" is punk rock," laughed Brian Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache
Group, the development team behind the world's most popular Web server
software, and chief of technology of new ventures at O'Reilly and

Behlendorf, who is credited with writing much of the code that powers the
majority of sites on the Web, is nothing if not humble. Was he having a
good time? "Of course!"

"It's a great time," agreed Jeff Burchell, the UNIX guru and Web programmer
who was one of the original hands-on creators of the Web's first commercial
site, HotWired, and a genuine Web luminary himself.

Now working as the vice president of operations for a Webby-nominated
popular investment site, ClearStation (, Burchell
didn't seem bitter about his site's loss in the finance sector to
Webby-sponsor Motley Fool or about the event's commercial aspect. "We were
happy to be nominated," he said.

Amid the crowds filling the food-and-drink rooms and the halls with dozens
of blazing fast Pentium III computers (which I admittedly found a tad
distracting), countless old-time Web geeks were around. From founder of
recently acquired 3D Web design shop, Lisa Goldman, to
Burning Man Festival mistress of communications Marion Goodell, they seemed
to be enjoying the corporate-sponsored festivities just as much as I was.

After the headline act, modern-retro blues performer G. Love, had played
his two encore numbers, we scooped up our party-favor feather boa and
exchanged good-byes.

As we left the festivities, one thing seemed clear: Commercialism hasn't
killed the Web. It has only brought us better parties.

Copyright 1999 San Francisco Examiner and Rebecca Lynn Eisenberg. All
rights reserved.

Rebecca Lynn Eisenberg, Esq. *

* *

Columnist, Nouveau Geek, CBS MarketWatch  http://CBS.MarketWatch.Com
Columnist, Net Skink, SF Examiner
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