And the winner is ...

The geeks got their chance to be treated like film stars at the Webby Awards ceremony in San Francisco

The Webbies may bill themselves as the antidote to the Academy Awards, but that's a cover-up. Truth is, the internet awards gala has a severe case of Oscar envy.

The Webbies may bill themselves as the antidote to the Academy Awards, but that's a cover-up. Truth is, the internet awards gala has a severe case of Oscar envy.

It is a night for the web to recognise innovation and creativity from a remarkable variety of sites worldwide. Last Thursday many of the Net's leading designers and executives pulled up to San Francisco's Masonic Hall like movie stars.

Sure, there were no real groupies screaming for autographs like at that other awards ceremony. But when you're rolling in money as the Webby organisers apparently are, why worry? Just hire the fans.

"Oooooooh, oooooh, look who's here," said one of the rent-a-crowd girls, dressed in a 1940s dress and swooning as if Cary Grant had just pulled up. "Can I have your autograph pleeeeeease?" she asked again and again.

The event started out modestly enough four years ago in a San Francisco club called Bimbo's but has grown exponentially in prominence, budget and even star power since then. In this most wired of cities, organisers have had little trouble lining up A-list sponsors such as Intel, Price WaterhouseCoopers, and Hewlett Packard. A-list celebrities, however, remain somewhat more elusive.

Tony award winner Alan Cumming gamely hosted the event, comedienne Sandra Bernhard and celebrity editor Tina Brown made cameos, but the most rousing applause was reserved for Turkish internet phenomenon Mahir Cagri.

Mahir, the ping-pong playing romantic who gained worldwide celebrity status when word spread of his amateurish website I Kiss You!!, was discovered and playfully hijacked by digital pranksters. He positively basked in the approval of the more than 3,000 web-savvy guests.

If the ceremony is an "antidote" to the Oscars, as organiser Tiffany Shlain claims, it is for its brevity. Victory speeches are, by tradition, limited to five words so that each of the 27 awards - from introduction to highlight clip to euphoric stage exit - may be comfortably held in under two minutes.

But some winners went out of their way to tweak official noses with acceptance speeches that, while technically limited to five words, found ways to stretch their time in the spotlight. Susan Schaeffer, who collected the prize for Meriam-Webster's Word Central in the Education category slowly climbed the stage with dictionary in hand. When she arrived at the podium she found her glasses, took a deep breath, opened the tome and started with: "antidisestablishmentarianism" and proceeded with four words of similar length ending with a triumphal "supercalafragalisticexbealidocious".

Belgian-based artists Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey, who won the Webby's inaugural $30,000 prize for online art, embraced passionately five times for their "technically-by-the-rules" acceptance.

The awards are presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences, a group made up mostly of low-profile web luminaries and more than a few celebrities, including David Bowie, Francis Ford Coppola and Robin Williams.

While the awards have become increasingly glitzy, subversiveness and rebellion have not been nudged aside Top websites included corporate heavyweights ESPN.com (Sports category), MSNBC.com (TV) and Conde Nast's Epicurious (Living), but they also included many counterculture sites like AdBusters.com (Activism), Cocky Bastard (Personal) and Stile Project (Weird).

John Halcyon Styn (aka Cocky Bastard) - dressed in a white shag ankle- length coat, matching slippers and purse (made by his grandmother), glittering silver pants and unbuttoned shirt - was thrilled with his victory. "This is hard for me," he said, mocking the fact that he clearly revelled in the spotlight. "I sit in front of a computer all day."

As to what he would do next, Styn, who displays come-hither portraits of himself on his website under the title "beefcake", said with a mischievous grin.: "I gotta go porn."

But the truth is that despite organisers' Herculean efforts, the event still means very little outside a relatively small coterie of net junkies and insiders. Web voting for the People's Choice awards last year tallied just 110,000 and Webbies have been found to affect site traffic only marginally at best. According to web monitor Media Metrix, visits to nearly half of last year's winners declined the month after their awards.

"Let's face it," says Cate Schley, corporate marketing director at mobshop.com. "They still need fake paparazzi here. No one cares about this outside the industry."

A complete list of Webby Award winners can be found at www.webbyawards.com

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