For a dozen years, the Webby Awards have tried to make the Web glamorous. But what they've really done is distill the hucksterism of the Internet into its purest form.
Among the inside crowd, the Webby Awards were always a joke, a masquerade where Internet fanboys and fangirls played dress-up and feigned the red-carpet rituals of Hollywood's real ceremonies. But somewhere along the way, the organizers figured out that this goofy charade could be milked for profit. And now that mainstream entertainers like Jimmy Fallon and Seth McFarlane are sweeping this year's awards, the parodic circle is complete.
The Webbys' survival was the product of one woman's relentless, no-talent ambition. Long before Julia Allison, Tiffany Shlain was using the Internet to make herself famous. After the magazine which had hired Shlain to produce the first awards folded, she kept the show going. The dotcom bomb almost did the Webbys in. After staging a ridiculous post-bubble extravaganza for more than 3,000 in 2001, the organizers cancelled the 2003 ceremonies, blaming SARS (rather than the reality of the group's strapped finances). (The retrospective clip jauntily skips from 2001 to 2005, when Al Gore accepted an award.)
Since then, Shlain has wandered off into an iffy film career, where she's unlikely to see the kind of red carpet she rolled out at the Webbys. And her heirs have converted the show into a purely capitalist endeavor. Andy Baio notes how the number of categories of awards has exploded since the Webbys' near-death experience. By charging as much as $275 per entry across 129 categories, the Webbys can milk the Internet's lust for self-promotion.
And what's obvious from the winners is that the people who are still hungry for the ever-meaningless recognition of a Webby award are the big-media players with marketing budgets to spend, and restless corporate overlords demanding some concrete proof that the websites they've funded are any good. Far easier to show off an award than to hit one's quarterly numbers. The Webbys seem to have no problem making theirs.