Network: Just like the Oscars ... almost

The annual Internet awards may lack the glamour of Hollywood, but the red carpet still gets rolled out. By Richard Kelly Heft
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The Independent Culture
HE'S SLIGHT, gap-toothed and polite to a fault. Britain's Colin Needham may not look like a celebrity, but in the world of the Web he is surely a superstar. Needham, managing director of the Bristol-based Internet Movie Database, picked up an armful of hardware at the Webby Awards in San Francisco.

The Webbies - Internet equivalent of the Oscars - crowned the world's best websites in 22 categories, ranging from the arts to humour and politics, on Thursday night.

With the millions of sites up for consideration, simply landing among the finalists is a major achievement. Needham's IMDB won a remarkable three Webby Awards: one for his Internet Movie Database site (http://imdb.com), voted best in the film category, and two more for his work on the Amazon.com site, which acquired IMDB a year ago.

Needham also came up with one of the cleverest lines of the night - no small feat given the five-word limit on acceptance speeches. "I'm King of the World... Wide Web,"he said. Afterwards Needham's arms grew shaky holding his three peculiar-looking, spring-shaped Webbies while talking to reporters. The IMDB site has now won the film category three years in a row.

"I'm just a guy who likes movies who happened to have a website,"said Needham, beaming like a crowned beauty queen.

Organisers clearly hope that the Webbies will eventually attain an Oscar- like cachet - but some recognisable faces in the crowd might help. The red carpet was rolled out, searchlights beamed into the sky, there were even paid groupies swooning and hooting for anyone who marched into the city's Herbst Theater.

The big problem, though, was that no one knew any of the movers and shakers of the industry, and the star judges, including Francis Ford Coppola (film), David Bowie ( music), Richard Branson (travel) and The X files' Gillian Anderson (weird) were all no-shows. "They declined to come," said the director of operations, Claudia Smuckler, who added helpfully: "They're here in spirit."

But while the celebs may have snubbed the event, there is little doubt about that it is gaining momentum and a profile. Just two years ago the Webbies were being held in a local night-club called "Bimbo's". This year it drew more than 3,000 guests, filling the decidedly posh Herbst Theatre downtown. A gala bash was held across the street at the newly renovated City Hall.

It's no accident that the city of San Francisco offered up its legislature for the affair. New York's mayor, Rudy Giuliani, spent the year trying to woo the Webby organiser Tiffany Shlain to the Big Apple. San Francisco's mayor Willie Brown, who took a few jabs at New York in his opening speech, pledged the city's support to keep the Webbies in town.

Since the inauspicious early days, the awards have clearly gone mainstream. Balloting this year was audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers and sponsors included those corporate bluebloods Visa, Levi's, Entertainment Weekly and Time Digital.

Still, the event seems to have retained some edginess. The crowd was sprinkled with guests wearing everything from Thirties vintage bronze- coloured dresses and pillbox hats to aqua-blue Marge Simpson wigs. Statuesque Suzy D, aged 24, a massage therapist and part-time Internet broadcaster, secretly videotaped the pre-awards party - including the words and image of one man who propositioned her - through a miniature camera clipped to a floral headpiece. The entire event was covered live on the Internet, naturally, and the hidden camera - the same kind used by the FBI - was used to spice up the coverage.

"I just wanted to make this interesting," said Chris Courtney, principal of 1st Byte, which provided the video streaming. "Can you imagine just broadcasting this party? What a bore."

The ceremony itself was remarkably efficient.With its five-word acceptance speeches lasting an average of 3.6 seconds, the awards were handed out in a blur.

Certainly the most bizarre incident of the night happened during the acceptance of first award, won by jodi.org in the Arts category. Representatives, who had apparently travelled from Barcelona for the ceremony, stormed the stage and angrily shoved a hapless cameraman. Their words to the world:"Ugly, commercial sons of bitches".

Other winners included in the News category CNN Interactive, which beat out the finalist BBC News Online, and Sportspages.com, which beat out the UK's SoccerNet in the Sports category.

The "Weird" class has become the most anticipated award of the evening. Like the best film for the Oscars, it is the last announced and receives the most attention. Up against some truly bizarre competition, Superbad (www.superbad. com) beat out Disinformation (www. disinfo.com) and the traditional favourite Absurd (www.absurd.org).

Superbad's acceptance speech was about as nasty as the fluffy kitten featured on its site. "Thanks a lot," said the site representative, who avoided a still-recovering cameraman."This is nice."

A full list of Webby Award winners is at www.webbyawards.com

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