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Internet Week New York revs up its (many) engines

Gotham's inaugural digital-culture festival kicks off on Tuesday, and if you're a member of the city's numerous Web-related industries, get ready for a wild ride.

Here's a tip for East Coast geeks who are gearing up for this week's Internet Week New York: Make a schedule. And leave room for last-minute additions.

The first citywide tribute to the Web revolution, sanctioned by the office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and set to run June 3-10, isn't a cohesive weeklong event, nor is it a central nucleus with satellite events like the South by Southwest Interactive Festival or the city's own biannual Fashion Week. There are a few anchors like the Webby Awards ceremony, the Advertising 2.0 conference, and Federated Media's Conversational Marketing Summit. But the organizers proclaimed "open access for all," and encouraged any person or company to start a loosely-affiliated event adding to the few large-scale ones.

The city has held a "Digital Technology Week" before, but that didn't go far beyond a label and was unfortunately centered on the faltering DigitalLife gadget expo. Internet Week has an official online hub, a kick-off ceremony on Monday evening at the mayor's Gracie Mansion, and an official media partner (the local NBC affiliate). It also has a mission: to show how the digital revolution is fueling innovation in one of the most prolific global cities. That's a wide net to cast, and it could mean that Internet Week succeeds as a colorful celebration of digital business culture, or just turns into confusion and incoherence.

"If you look at the organizations that are participating, it's an incredible mix of really big companies, like the biggest company in the world, Time Warner; really, really small (start-ups); and everything in between," said David-Michel Davies, chairman of Internet Week and executive director of the Webby Awards, the digital-media accolades that are getting handed out on June 9 and 10.

He's right. Internet Week promises a melange of panels, mini-conferences, screenings, and parties ranging from the buttoned-up ("Applied Cryptography and Network Security Conference") to the popped-collar (the invite-only quarterly gathering of new-media elite known as the Founders Club) to the proudly shirtless (Thrillist's "Information Superparty," which has rented out the Hiro Ballroom nightclub for a performance by a Daft Punk cover band). Some might find the diversity of activities exciting; others might just find it headache-inducing.

In a sense, it's a microcosm of New York technology culture itself, which has made great strides in visibility in the past few years but still isn't anything as cohesive as what you'd find in the Bay Area or a smaller tech hub like Boston or Boulder, Colo. The reasons have been well-documented: rents are high, there's no Stanford or MIT next door pumping out engineers ripe for hire, and any enterprising tech start-up has to compete for developer talent with the finance industry and the big-media business on the ad sales front.

Plus, there's so much else going on in New York that an outsider seeking a "Web 2.0" culture would have to know where to look. Segments of the "tech" community--bloggers, video bloggers, start-up entrepreneurs, digital ad and marketing types--have their own social scenes, their own leaders and figureheads, their own hangouts and events and after-work spots. Twitter has only recently begun to make a splash among local bloggers. The digerati have no boisterous, everyone-knows-him figurehead the way Silicon Valley has Robert Scoble (or rather, they haven't had one since Jason Calacanis decamped for LA.)

But the leadership of Internet Week calls that diversity, not incoherence, and that New York should be proud it doesn't have an insular, self-referential "tech culture." The tech scene in New York "is only fragmented in the sense that it's so big," Davies said. "The idea that it can be entirely united through one big event is kind of crazy, and that's not what we're trying to do."

Davies has a point. In New York, if you work in technology, you're just as likely to be working for a company that's been around for over 50 years as one that just got its first round of venture capital. A developer working for investment bank Goldman Sachs would likely have little in common with the bloggers at Curbed or the founder of the latest local-news aggregator, except maybe a common distaste for Times Square tourists.

You can't even really call it a "tech scene," Davies argued. "The community that we're trying to talk to is not the 'New York technology community.' I think that's a far smaller community than what our goal is here," he explained. "The Internet and people working on the Internet--whether that's a blogger or a writer or someone who's building Ruby on Rails applications, somebody who's running an ad agency--it's an extremely diverse group of skill sets, industries, et cetera that can't be described by 'tech'...It's everything. It's media, it's finance, it's advertising. It is technology, it is start-ups, (and) it is innovation, but that's a slice of the pie. That's not the whole thing."

For New York's small Web 2.0 start-ups, many of whom have a tough time getting their name on the map when they're surrounded by the Gotham business establishment and are a country away from the entrepreneur-friendly Bay Area, Internet Week is an exciting opportunity for publicity and networking. But some are concerned that there's too much focus on the big guys. Even the monthly New York Tech Meetup, which usually focuses on brand-new, unfunded start-ups, will be using its Internet Week installment to showcase local success stories like the publicly traded IAC/InterActiveCorp and established start-ups in the league of Etsy and the Huffington Post.

"It's a really good thing to bring attention to technology in New York, obviously...(it'll be) a nice week that everyone's coalescing around and putting together parties for. It's like South by Southwest except without the central event," said Sam Lessin, co-founder of file-sharing start-up Lessin has managed to nail down venture funding; many of his friends and cohorts in the New York start-up community haven't, and he's concerned that big conferences and glitzy events like the Webbys will overshadow the smaller businesses in town.

"(Internet Week) seems like it's a larger-media-company sponsored type of thing," Lessin continued. "Honestly, the thing I'm most excited about that week is the Founders Club event, and those are year-round anyway." The Founders Club, currently in its second year, pulls together a mix of big-media and venture capital leaders to mix with the young executives of semi-established start-ups, many of whom are hunting for some series B dollars, big-name clients and partners, or an acquisition.

Event director Davies said that despite the broad reach of Internet Week and some of the powerful names behind it, it remains a great opportunity for smaller companies to showcase themselves and network. "One of the things that the city is trying to do is make New York a more competitive place for start-ups, and one of the ways that they do that is by promoting all of the amazing start-ups that are here already," he explained. "The kind of benefit that brings to a small start-up might not be something that (happens) the next day, but I think over the long run, this is part of a program that is designed to make New York a good place for start-ups to be in."

And indeed, amid the fray of open-bar parties and "power breakfast" panels hosted at corporate event spaces, there are more than a few events designed just for small-time entrepreneurs: a seminar on Wednesday night devoted to getting financed, a free yoga class for overworked geeks, a softball game pitting start-up founders against "everyone else." Internet Week, like the city itself, has countless identities. You're going to have to make it your own week.