At Internet Week, the Empire State of tech

The annual Gotham digital-culture festival has reached a fever pitch, with sponsors like Yahoo and Microsoft flooding in and local start-ups throwing parties left and right.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read

NEW YORK--In most of the technology world, Monday's most crucial item on the calendar is Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, widely assumed to be the official debut of the iPhone device that became quite the soap opera star earlier this year when a prototype was pilfered from a bar and sold to a gadget blog.

Not so in New York, where the kickoff of the city's third-annual official "Internet Week" was already promising way more open bars than any Steve Jobs keynote possibly could.

Last year, with New York's longstanding stalwarts of industry in a tailspin, the festival was more buttoned-up, hopeful but cautious in the face of a corporate climate that had proved apocalyptic for some media companies. Not so much in 2010.

Internet Week has turned into an amalgam of parties, conferences, and power breakfasts nearly as dense as the far more established South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas; a schedule with a swagger worthy of last year's Jay-Z Gotham paean "Empire State of Mind." Magazine feature stories about the tech start-up culture in New York have been so prolific over the past 18 months or so that it's almost a cliche for a publication to run yet another photo gallery of young, hipster-haired dot-com founders lounging about their office spaces in rainbow-colored Ben Sherman plaid shirts. This year, at least judging by the attitude at the festival's kick-off breakfast on Monday, the digital industries here are simply sick of being underdogs.

Internet Week New York's colorful home base (photos)

See all photos

The tech industry ethos in Silicon Valley and the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area is unequivocally developer-centric, with Mark Zuckerberg-inspired "hacker culture" held up as the driving force of the industry in the past decade. Not so much in New York, where Internet Week features plenty of start-up and developer-focused activities, but where the massive, splashy presences of the advertising, marketing, and entertainment industries can't be ignored. You could put it this way: This isn't the city that built the fourth-generation iPhone. It's the one that, indirectly, turned it into the media sensation of the year.

Internet Week chairman David-Michel Davies, who also spearheads the accompanying Webby Awards, referred to Internet Week in a Monday press conference as "an exciting festival that brings the Internet here to life in the city." That's an understatement. Internet Week brings the city to life only to see it down a few too many cocktails mixed with premium tequila and then pass out drunk in line for a late-night burger at the Shake Shack.

There are a few official conferences at Internet Week, like the annual Federated Media Conversational Marketing Summit and the Mashable Media Summit, both of which court attendees in the media and marketing industries. And there have been a few announcements in conjunction with Internet Week on behalf of big tech companies, like "presenting sponsor" Yahoo's deeper integration with Facebook and Hewlett-Packard's launch of a new "printing from the cloud" service.

But mostly, this is a cause for celebration for the heck of it. Thrillist, a digital publishing outlet with a focus on twentysomething men, had barely stumbled off the planes returning from a Miami party trip with sponsors and bloggers to set up its "Thrillist Loft" Internet Week party. Zozi, a Bay Area-based deals start-up best described as a "Groupon for travel," is launching its New York edition during Internet Week by throwing a party on a sailboat in New York Harbor. A new event and marketing firm called IRL Productions hatched a "Social Climbing" event that pits start-ups against one another at a Brooklyn rock-climbing wall. The official hotel partner of the week is the trendier-than-thou Standard, home to one of the toughest velvet ropes in the city. Some of Internet Week, in other words, isn't going to be particularly geeky.

Something else that's changed is that the "digital innovation" crowd everywhere, not just in New York, has recently grown into an appetizing target for marketers. Some of the brands hyping up the Internet Week mayhem are Pepsi, which is sponsoring an entire day of talks about corporate responsibility at the Paley Center for Media on Thursday, and Ford, whose social-media-centered Ford Fiesta promotional campaign is throwing a rooftop party that night with pop band Cobra Starship performing. The year-old Standard Hotel, through its Internet Week discount, is hoping to solidify itself as the ultimate place to stay for digital innovators rolling in from out of town.

But there is, underneath the mounds of party invitations and conference marketing jargon and hangovers galore, a purpose for it all. Internet Week New York was originally hatched by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a self-made technology billionaire, in an attempt to beef up a new generation of entrepreneurship and innovation in the city. This year, as Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the newly christened Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment (formerly the Office for Film, Theater, and Broadcasting) announced at Monday morning's press conference, the city is looking to hire a "chief digital officer."

"Three years ago we helped launch Internet Week and the hope was...for the New York City government to learn how we can help these entrepreneurs," Oliver said.

They might not act like they need the help this year, but they probably do. Most of these start-ups are still pre-revenue, and even the bigger ones looking to innovate (say, AOL) continue to have a tough path ahead amid slow economic recovery. Rents remain high and competition for technical talent is fierce. It's going to be a long time before New York is the birthplace of a company like Apple, HP, Google, or Facebook.

But as silly as it may seem from looking at a schedule of Internet Week parties, New York's technology start-up industry really has come a long way from the days when it time and again proved it had never recovered from the dot-com bust of the early 2000s. Whether it's yet reached a point of victory that's worthy of being toasted with open-bar parties on rooftops and sailboats is still open to debate.