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Netizens' Nutty Night Out

Online pros left their computers to take part in the shenanigans of San Francisco's annual Webby Awards shindig.

May 15, 2000|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — With revelers wearing wings, fruity-colored feathered hats, pink hair, boas and bindis, the Webby Awards were far from nerd central. So what if there were no borrowed diamonds, almost no limos and a red carpet that fell a few feet short? Thursday's awards show honoring the Internet's best sites was a wild Web-surfing safari, a digital version of Pasadena's Doo Dah Parade.

Fake reporters mingled with real ones and popped fake flashbulbs as the digiterati filed into the Masonic Auditorium, which was crawling with acrobats, rappelling the outside wall. In the ruckus, techies in search of publicity staged a medical emergency on the sidewalk to catch the attention of passersby.

"Tell them Health.com saved you!" a "nurse" cried after administering to a man who had "collapsed."

Industry heavyweights Amazon.com and ABCNews.com were among this year's nominees, and sponsors for the pre- and post-parties on Nob Hill included corporate giants Intel and Adobe. But the Webbys are also about renegades like Napster, embroiled in a music piracy lawsuit for its song-swapping software. (Napster nabbed the music Webby this year.)

"The Internet first came together by bringing together all of us that really hated high school," said Tiffany Shlain, 29, founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences here, which created and produced the event. "And in this last year, it seems to have brought in all those who loved high school."

Before the show, the Masonic's lobby had a carnival-like feel. Nominees knelt at a Dia de los Muertes-style "altar" in the lobby, throwing lucky pennies, stroking rabbits' feet and consulting a Magic 8 Ball.

Others lined up to peek inside a kind of human portal, courtesy of a site called Vainglorious.com. (A huge image of those peeping into the hole was then projected on a screen inside the auditorium, which made for quite a few laughs, especially when one woman exposed her chest to the camera.)

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The judges, who chose winners in 27 categories, included luminaries such as David Bowie, "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, rapper Chuck D, Virgin tycoon Richard Branson and ACLU President Nadine Strossen. (Netizens could also vote for their favorite sites online, and results of a separate People's Voice Awards, which varied slightly from official winners, were announced during the ceremony.) Some bemoaned the fact that the event did not draw many celebrities. Sandra Bernhard, Tina Brown and host Alan Cumming, the Tony-winning actor, were the biggest names there.

Still, the Webbys, in their fourth year, are gaining clout. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had tried to woo Webby executives to Manhattan for last year's ceremony, but they didn't bite.

And, in his welcoming remarks to the crowd, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown explained why: "San Francisco has become the center of the globe as it relates to the Web."

Despite the number of categories, the event clocked in at just under two hours, thanks to a strict (and humor-inspiring) five-word acceptance speech rule. (Last year, for instance, when Salon.com won for best print/zine, its founder, David Talbot, said, "I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Shlain." There was nothing quite as funny this year.)

For some, even five words can take awhile to say. Accepting the Webby in the education category for Merriam-Webster's Word Central site, a dictionary-toting Susan Shaeffer was almost booed off the stage for her labored effort: She looked up each word of her speech, which included antidisestablishmentarianism, pseudopsychoanalysis, onomatopoeia and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

The audience seemed to be expecting Napster's 19-year-old founder, Shawn Fanning, to say something meaningful. He's been a cyber hero of late, since his site was sued in December by the Recording Industry Assn. of America. But Fanning didn't take the microphone. Someone else from Napster did the honors, saying only, "Thank you. This is great."

As for fashion, the Oscars have nothing to fear: There was nary a designer dud in the place. The look was not so much geek chic as creative black tie. The after-party, held under a tent in the park next to Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill, had the relaxed but fun feel of a college graduation party.

"You mean Internet people have style?" joked San Francisco's David Collier (president and CEO of Gamelet.com), when a reporter said she was working on a style story.

Decked in a cow-print suit he bought on Hollywood Boulevard, Collier was stampeded by a woman in pink, who said, "I'm from Texas. Can I take a picture with you?"

"She must have been feeling homesick," said his friend, Nikki Veda.

Techies wearing wings to promote Flyswat.com (which creates hyperlinks based on topics of interest to individual users) downed kamikazes (very collegiate of them), buzzing, "Swat, swat, swatswatswat!"

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