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from The Industry Standard, July 19, 2001

Webby Awards Push the Envelope
By Alex Lash

And the winner is - a low-key, self-deprecating affair that keeps its sense of humor and limits the acceptance speeches to 5 words or less.

The biggest surprise at Wednesday night's fifth annual Webby Awards was not that the Web still existed - though many media outlets mined that vein until exhaustion - but that the organizers and participants put on a pretty good show. The theme of the event, which was held at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, was congratulations, not just for the winners in 30 different categories but for the Web community that lived through the great Internet massacre. Fortunately, the self-congratulation for survival was kept to a minimum and replaced with a good dose of self-mockery, much of it from show host Alan Cumming, an up-and-coming Broadway and film star who kept the proceedings humming with wry comedy sketches and an adorable Scottish accent.

Make no mistake. Despite the pretensions of Webby honcho Tiffany Shlain and the self-styled International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, the Webbys aren't the Tonys or the Oscars. Instead of Bjork in a swan dress singing "I've Seen It All," the Webbys featured dancers in skintight body-glo suits writhing on a jungle gym - and all over each other.

In fact, it's the hokiness - an only-in-San-Francisco chutzpah that leads people to believe they can throw a "major" awards show and pass off their Burning Man friends as national entertainment - that adds to the charm. Because despite the inclusion of "world" in "World Wide Web," the Internet community still expects everyone to come to it and learn its language.

ABC News stalwart Sam Donaldson was the perfect example. Donaldson, who in recent years has found a home on the network's Web site, donned a tux and a hairpiece and, perched on a platform covered with white shag, gamely interviewed a parade of industry insiders and oddballs while a Divine-like drag queen schmoozed in the background. The interviews were Webcast on, and so was the whole show, which is why founder Phil Kaplan insisted that Donaldson say the name of his Web site. "You can say it. This isn't TV!" insisted Kaplan, whose boxer shorts were visible through his white Versace suit. Donaldson didn't fall for it.

In the spirit of the evening, Donaldson didn't try to make grander sense of the event for the world at large. He happily became part of the show, taking the stage to announce the Online Voice Awards, tell a few George W. Bush jokes and flirt with the "Tele-Actor," a statuesque woman with fluorescent hair who prowled the venue with a Web cam embedded in a pair of opera glasses.

The Webbys will never be a major awards show, thank goodness, as long as the winners are limited to five-word acceptance speeches and aren't even announced by name. Some acceptance speech highlights: "Bush volunteers. It's that easy," from the representative of activism category winner Volunteer Match; and Peter Pan, whose site to attract a mate made him the weird category winner: "Weird? God loves us all."

For the most part, the short speeches are a very good thing, though they underscore this reality: Web sites, and the people who build them, are not a big attraction. When faced with the choice between giving three minutes of airtime to, say, the unknown creator of Sputnik7, winners of the music category, and giving five minutes of spotlight to two dancers connected by rubber cables, the Webbys choose the latter. Despite his hipster attire, Mr. Sputnik7 isn't Julia Roberts or Alan Cumming or Sally Field. And, after all, it's a party, first and foremost.

The only exceptions were rousing ovations for Craig Newmark, creator of Craig's List, a hugely popular community site with classified ads, discussion groups and event postings, and the founders of search engine Google, which won the "Best Practices" award for overall excellence. Both sites have won loyal followings for not going for the gold. Craig's List remains resolutely dot-org, while Google has kept its focus and avoided becoming a portal - and a public company. At the after-party, Google cofounder Sergey Brin was more interested in roller skating and socializing, offering only a shrug and a "We didn't think we'd win" when asked about the audience reaction.

In the grand scheme of things, Brin, Newmark and their fellow winners aren't celebrities. After the last few years, that's a refreshing thought. It allows us to focus on what's really important, as the guys from surf site, winners of the sport category, reminded everyone in their acceptance speech: "Sam Donaldson. Dude, gnarly toupee."