• SHARE

SAN FRANCISCO — The Webbys may bill themselves as the antidote to the Academy Awards, but the truth is that this Internet awards gala has a severe case of Oscar envy.

It is a night for the Web to recognize innovation and creativity from a remarkable variety of sites worldwide, and last Thursday many of the Net’s top designers and execs 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 organizers 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 ’40s costume 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 since grown exponentially in prominence, budget and even star power. In this most wired of cities, organizers have had little trouble lining up A-list sponsors like Intel, Price Waterhouse and Hewlett Packard.

A-list celebrities, however, remain somewhat more elusive. Tony award winner Alan Cumming gamely hosted the event, while comedienne Sandra Bernhard and celebrity editor Tina Brown made cameos. But the most rousing applause was reserved for Turkish Internet phenom Mahir Cagri.

Mahir is the ping-pong playing romantic who gained celebrity when word spread of his amateurish Web site “I Kiss You!!” which was discovered and playfully hijacked by digital pranksters (see Cyberia, Dec. 22, 1999). 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 organizer 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 presented in under two minutes.

But some winners went out of their way to tweek official noses with acceptance speeches that, while technically limited to five words, found innovative ways to stretch their time in the spotlight.

Susan Schaeffer, who collected the education prize for Merriam-Webster’s Word Central, slowly climbed the stage with dictionary in hand. At the podium, she took a deep breath, opened the tome and started with “antidisestablishmentarianism.” After three more words of similar length, she ended with a triumphal “supercalifragilisticexpealadocious!”

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.

Like the Oscars, the Webbys have their own “Academy” whom winners can thank for their selection. 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 sites included not only corporate heavyweights ESPN.com, MSNBC.com and Conde Nast’s Epicurious, but also many counterculture sites like AdBusters.com, Cocky Bastard and Stile Project.

John Halcyon Styn, a.k.a Cocky Bastard — dressed in a white shag ankle-length coat and matching slippers and purse (made by his grandmother) — was thrilled with his victory. “This is hard for me,” he said, mocking the fact that he clearly reveled 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 Web site under the title ” beefcake,” said with a mischievous grin, “I gotta go porn.”

But the truth is that despite organizers’ Herculean efforts, the event still means very little outside a relatively small coterie of Net junkies and insiders. Web voting for the “People’s Voice” awards last year tallied just 110,000, and the Webbys 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 the awards.

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