Webby awards recapture glory days of dot-com

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The Independent Online

The red carpet was there, and so were the outrageous costumes. A celebrity compere was on hand, along with a bevy of famous co-presenters. There were lights, video shows, specially commissioned ballet sequences, a full gospel choir and rousing music to enhance the emotion of the moment.

The red carpet was there, and so were the outrageous costumes. A celebrity compere was on hand, along with a bevy of famous co-presenters. There were lights, video shows, specially commissioned ballet sequences, a full gospel choir and rousing music to enhance the emotion of the moment.

This year's Webby Awards – the Internet equivalent of the Oscars – certainly looked and sounded like an awards show. The only problem was that most participants, including several of the nominees and winners, were flat broke and fast heading out of business.

"We're not just here to reward excellence. We're here to celebrate tenacity and survival," the event's organiser, Tiffany Schlain, proclaimed at the start of the show – fighting words for an organisation whose winners' list from years past now reads more like a war memorial. Etoys, Kozmo, Webvan: Webby winners all, now consigned to the dustbin of dot-com history.

Still the revellers came, in violet fake fur and devil's horns, in loud floral jackets and black bondage gear adorned with unplugged telephone receivers, to the big event at San Francisco opera house on Wednesday night. There hadn't been a dot-com party like this for months, and everyone wanted to recapture memories of a time when the festive spirit – and free booze – flowed freely several times a week.

It was quite a show, largely thanks to sponsors like Intel and Adobe and Getty Pictures. What tickets could not be sold – the Opera House holds more than 3,000 people – were given away to anyone prepared to doll themselves up colourfully enough to attract webcam attention. The dress code, appropriately, was "gutsy".

On stage the Scottish actor Alan Cumming was master of ceremonies, cracking jokes about homeless people begging for 25 cents to buy a batch of shares in once-promising dot-com companies. There were 30 categories of awards, from sport to news to personal websites to the downright weird. One rule gave the evening particular zip: acceptance speeches were restricted to just five words.

"Bankruptcy never felt so good," said Steven Johnson, publisher of the news and discussion site Plastic, winners in the webzine category. Since starting at the beginning of this year, Plastic has laid off its entire paid staff and is now run on an emergency basis by volunteers.

The online media site Inside, which won for news, has also been beset by corporate blood-letting: lay-offs, a change of ownership and a furious debate about editorial policy. In a symbolic gesture Inside's Webby, a metallic spiral sculpture, was snatched by two men in gas masks before a more respectable Inside representative could come on stage to claim it.

Commerce was the most keenly watched category. Travel agencies were in abundance here, and indeed the winner was the ticketing site Travelocity. The acceptance speech: "Thank you – now go away."

"Anyone in the industry knows the Webbies have nothing to do with real excellence in design or content," said Heather Brossard, who was observing for the online design site Builder.com. "It's a for-profit event, a PR opportunity." Such cynicism was not shared by hundreds of paying participants who saw the event as a glimmer of hope for the future.

Deborah Graham, wearing a "nominee" badge on her flowing ink-spot evening gown, said: "I hope to be a future nominee. I want to set up my own business." A business that would involve delivering freshly baked biscuits around San Francisco in response to emailed orders.

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