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For Internet Week, NY's tech elite emerge from bunkers

The second annual digital culture extravaganza starts Monday, and it will be taking place in a very different New York than last year's, to say the least.

The Gawker Media-True Blood party last week: They even rented a tent. Kate Miltner

Last Thursday night, entertainment blog network Gawker Media held a rooftop party at its downtown headquarters to commemorate its advertising partnership with HBO vampire drama "True Blood"--as well as to toast to an edgy publicity stunt in which a fictional "True Blood" blog, Bloodcopy, passed itself off as an actual vampire news blog that Gawker Media had acquired. At least one reporter had been fooled.

As guests left the open-bar soiree, they had the option to sign up for a mailing list to attend future Gawker Media events. It's a far cry from just a few months ago, when Gawker founder Nick Denton was slashing budgets, laying off bloggers, and consolidating underperforming titles.

The city's digital media crowd, at long last, appears to be coming out of hiding.

As New York's tech industry gears up for its second annual Internet Week this week, a seven-day, city-sanctioned hodgepodge of conferences, parties, and the Webby Awards ceremony, there's a vague sense of relief about: things just haven't turned out as badly as everyone feared they would.

"Anecdotally, things feel a little different," said David-Michel Davies, Internet Week chairman and Webby Awards executive director. "It feels better. It feels like the market sort of loosened up a bit. I'm not really sure if that's because it became so hard to be hunkered down for so long and people just had to relax, or if it seemed like the bottom had come and people started to stress out a little less."

Not so long ago, more than a few people around town were wondering if companies were even going to be willing to stretch their budgets enough for a Webbys entry fee. But this week, the concerns appear to be limited to whether it's possible to catch both an Al Gore keynote at Digitas' NewFronts '09 event and a subsequent panel across town featuring both Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, or what costume to wear to Wednesday night's CollegeHumor party, which has a theme that seems to be vaguely inspired by comedy troupe Lonely Island's much-blogged video "I'm On A Boat."

Nobody's pretending that there hasn't been a rather brutal recession humming along in the background. The administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose Office of Film, Television, and Broadcasting co-organizes Internet Week, has put several initiatives into effect to attempt to get laid-off Wall Streeters back to work at finance or tech start-ups. There are about a half-dozen Internet Week events where employment is the clear focus. Events with entry fees have been advertising discounts, and some parties feature drink specials rather than open bars.

David-Michel Davies said he still expects an upbeat climate.

"The interesting thing to me is that all the conversations I've had with people running internet companies is that a lot of them are doing well and still trying to hire. If ever there was opportunity somewhere, it's in this industry," Davies said. "There's a ton of opportunity in this sort of industry, and it's always been hard to have any great engineers in New York because they were so well paid in financial services."

And the across-the-board difficult financial climate could, in fact, be the catalyst for a more productive week of tech networking, eliminating some of last year's evident gulf between scrappy start-ups and seemingly invincible stalwarts of Gotham finance and media. The big guys, these days, are in need of some ideas.

"We have more participation from companies and organizations than we did last year, and to be honest, at the beginning of the year we were all pretty worried," Davies said regarding the health of Internet Week. "It's 100 percent dependent on the energy and participation of the city at large."

We'll see if they have their game faces on.