IQ News: Analysis - More Felix Than Oscar

The Web And Its Awards Shows Make For An Often Odd Couple.
As Todd Levin leapt onstage to accept online auction site eBay’s award for Coolest Shopping Site at January’s Cool Site of the Year Awards ceremony, he expressed his surprise with a profusion of expletives. “I was swearing like a monkey,” says Levin.
By the time Levin was shuttled offstage with the Lucite statuette in hand, a manager from Netscape, who was waiting in the wings, pushed his business card into Levin’s hand. “You guys should really switch your servers over from Microsoft,” he said and suggested scheduling a meeting.
But Levin won’t be able to make that meeting with Netscape, after all, because Levin doesn’t work for eBay. Instead, in a moment of whimsy, Levin transformed himself from contributing writer at e-‘zine Smug, a nominee in Cool Site of the Year’s Best e-‘zine category, to agent provocateur in the most traditional form of new media self-congratulation: the Web award.
“There’s an inordinate amount of pomp and circumstance surrounding these awards,” says Levin, “even though it’s still such a young medium.”
The medium may be young, but new media sure knows a thing or two about old-school hype. Web cheerleaders have long been quick to extol the online medium, despite a dearth of quality sites, especially in the early days of the Web. But like any Hollywood publicist worth the unlisted number to his or her Motorola StarTac phone, Web evangelists have sung the praises of their properties when there was often little to sing about. So in order to weed out the best from the rest and, seemingly, to emulate the myriad awards given out to Hollywood types, such as the Golden Globes and the Oscars, Web masters created their own sets of awards. The two awards the Web community most covets are the raucous, aforementioned Cool Site of the Year Awards and its more subdued, West-coast cousin the Webby Awards.
“There’s something nice about wanting to appreciate ourselves,” says Levin. “But in a very short amount of time, it seems like new media has fancied itself as a sort of New Hollywood, only without the style.”
Harsh words, perhaps, but are comparisons between Web awards and the Oscars valid? A gaggle of old media outlets from The New York Times to Canada’s Globe & Mail have written headlines that read “Internet Oscars” and “Oscars of the Web” while covering the two awards shows. Not surprisingly, both awards exploit the Oscar references on their Web sites.
It’s probably unintentionally misleading that both Web journalists and Web award masters have married Web awards with the brand name of the Oscars. After all, everyone, even most Luddites, knows what an Oscar is, so why not make the connection?
Perhaps the comparisons between Web awards and the Oscars are inevitable. Increasingly there is synergy between Hollywood and the online community. And as more old and new media companies form alliances, convergence may become more than a mere buzzword.
Now in its fourth year, the Cool Site of the Year Awards, held in Manhattan at the East Village club Webster Hall, has grown from a cult Web site developed by employees at Virginia-based ISP InfiNet to the lavish booze-and-schmooze spectacle it is today, complete with celebrity host (this year’s MC was a befuddled Robin Leach) and too-hip swing dancing for entertainment.
A rousing success, according to the presenters, the Cool Site Web site boasts that “with over 700 people in attendance, the wine flowed like beer and there was partying and networking GALORE!” But, if “Cool Site” aspires to be the online Oscars, it has a long way to go. By many reports, this year’s awards show unfolded more like an M.I.T. frat party gone way wrong than the post-Oscar Governor’s Ball. Levin, who may be one of the show’s biggest critics, complained, “It was a big let down to realize we were swimming in a pool of people who were just pushing business cards at each other.”
But the show’s quirkiness doesn’t bother entrepreneur Mike Corso, who purchased the “Cool Site” franchise last year. As “the original awards site,” says Corso, “Cool Site is about amusement and giving people a guiding hand on the Web.”
The Webbies, meanwhile, are seeking a more Oscar-like patina. While winners in the 15 categories of the Cool Site of the Year Awards were voted on by the online community, winners of the Webby Awards are selected by the august-sounding International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Its members include everyone from new media guru Esther Dyson to erstwhile-or-not Mr. Carmen Electra, Dennis Rodman. (Additionally, the Webbies give out their too-cutely named People’s Voice Award, voted on by Netizens). The third annual Webby Awards presentation is scheduled for March 18 at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre and has received lots of Oscar-like pre-awards buzz.
“The Webby Awards are like the Oscars only in the way that people value the award itself,” says Webbies founder and producer Tiffany Shlain.
Not so, according to Levin: “Frankly, the Oscars are honoring an industry that the entire world is enamored with, whereas the Webbies are not. The audience is very specific, as is the audience for the Cool Site Awards.”
“Our show is actually quite different from the Oscars in form and structure,” concedes Shlain. “The value the industry and the online community place on the awards is very high. However, the tone and nature of the show is more freewheeling like the Internet and not so staid like the Oscars.”
Either way, those who have won the awards say they matter. “We’re very proud of our Webby Award,” says Lara Hoyem, of San Francisco-based, which won Best Family Site last year. “It put us in the big leagues.”
But if Internet awards look destined to have a more colorful history than their offline predecessors, the thirst for them should continue unabated. And, in future years, it will probably be more difficult to claim an orphaned statuette, as Levin did with eBay’s. “I thought, anyone who was paying attention would have known I wasn’t from eBay,” he recalls.
Apparently no one was. The capper to Levin’s shenanigans came a week following the show when he made the eBay statuette available to the highest bidder at the best auction site online: eBay, natch. The high bid of $5,000 is going to charity.
What does Corso think of Levin’s audacity? “I was amused by it, I really was,” he says. “We should have, of course, been more careful the night of the show.”
When asked if she has heard of the Levin incident, Shlain says tersely, “Yes, I heard about it.” Could something like that happen at the Webbies? Not likely, she says. “People fly in from all over the world for our ceremony. Last year, we didn’t have any absences.”