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Webby Awards Low-Key but Still Unconventional

Internet: The tech meltdown leads to drop in frills, people at event honoring online's best.

June 20, 2002|JOSEPH MENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — If last year's Webby Awards ceremony honoring the best of the Net had all the hallmarks of denial--Hollywood guest stars and glitz sold out the 3,100-seat Opera House--Tuesday night's sixth annual celebration felt a lot like acceptance.

Two years into the dot-com meltdown, only 600 people turned up for a drastically scaled-back affair with no emcee and no multi- media introductions, and some of those in the audience were asked to participate by reading the names of nominees and winners.

The result was an event that felt more like a New England town meeting than a hip version of the Oscars.

"It's not about technology. It's about people connecting," said event founder Tiffany Shlain. "It's the Webbys unplugged."

Not everyone could afford to connect in person. Some nominees didn't attend, for lack of air fare.

But the only-in-San Francisco ceremony still brought out the wackiness of Web-heads dressed as butterflies or dominatrixes and the traditional five-word acceptance speeches.

The crowd's favorite speech came from Tim Harrod of humor site the Onion, who hefted the odd metallic coil that is the Webby trophy and said: "Airport security should love this."

The event also showcased a once-highflying spirit that has morphed into grim determination. Web pioneers argued that just as the medium had been over-hyped in the short term, it is being under-hyped in the long term.

"The silver lining of the overestimation of the last several years is that it brought 500 million people online, and they haven't left," Shlain told the audience at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, an out-of-the-way museum in a little-trafficked urban park. "Now, instead of thinking big, let's think long."

Others echoed that sentiment.

"We're trying to connect every mind on this planet, and I think we'll do that," said John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

But Barlow said that with the humility he gained during the dot-com collapse, "I don't talk about people who don't see it that way as being clueless."

The Webby Awards came into being before the big boom and always recognized not just dot-coms but also dot-orgs, dot-edus and dot-govs: It was never about which company had the biggest initial public stock offering.

This year, the winners chosen by expert panels in more than 30 categories ranged from Internet giants Amazon.com and Yahoo to www.freelori.org, a Web site run by the Committee to Free Lori Berenson, an American woman imprisoned in Peru, and Tolerance .org, run by the Southern Pov- erty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.

Tolerance.org producer Ashley Day, who joined the education and activism site after working at two New York start-ups, doesn't miss the money chase of the old days.

"We hear from people every day about how our material has changed their lives," she said.

Search engine Google, which won for "best practices," came late to the Internet dance and missed a window to sell shares to the public. In some ways, said co-founder Larry Page, that's been a blessing.

"We got to learn from other companies," said Page, speaking as seriously as one could while wearing silky soccer shorts in honor of the World Cup.

Even Page toned it down for this year's affair. In 2001, he accepted Google's award on in-line skates.

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A complete list of winners is at www.webbyawards.com.

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