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Tech Industry

A tangled Webby we weave

Though it feels great to win an award like the Webby, the question remains whether Oscar-like awards are healthy for the still-irreverent Web.

"Future swank attire," the invitation read. My younger colleagues persuaded me not to wear my navy blue blazer and khakis, but it probably wouldn't have mattered if I had.

This was, after all, the Webby Awards, and the hosting city was San Francisco. So nary a glittered eyelash was batted at the eclectic fashion of the night, which included one attendee in a frock of aluminum foil with a flower pot on her head.

They called it the Oscars of the Web, and the event was suitably irreverent for a medium known for its iconoclastic ways. But I had to wonder: If these awards become as established as their counterparts in other media industries, would they maintain their sense of independence? And would the resulting recognition of "model" Web sites unwittingly encourage a narrower range of creativity?

Granted, I am the first to acknowledge my own obsession with professional prizes, and I fully admit my hope that NEWS.COM wins the news Webby again next year. (Insert shameless pandering to judges here.) At the same time, however, the Web is at a critical juncture that behooves us all to think about the effects of applying a formal rewards system of any kind.

Let's take a look at the real Oscars, for example, as The Event approaches Monday night. I doubt that many Netizens would openly favor a virtual version of Hollywood with all its power-breakfast trappings. It has long been argued that those awards, born from a box-office mentality, have discouraged independent filmmaking--at least, until very recently.

Official awards of any kind also inevitably fall prey to the politics of infighting. Behind-the-scenes political pressure on the Academy of Motion Pictures is par for the course.

The Holy Grail of print journalism, the Pulitzer Prize, is the subject of relentless politicking as well. The clamber to this professional pinnacle has never been pretty, as publishers and editors lobby, cajole, network, and browbeat the judges every year to get their work considered.

The uglier side of this process came into its sharpest relief years ago when a reporter for the Washington Post manufactured a story about a child heroin addict in her zeal to win the award. More than an example of editorial corruption, the incident underscored the desperate lengths to which some journalists will go for recognition.

The tawdry side of music industry competition has been exposed as well. Remember Milli Vanilli and their temporary Grammy Award?

Nor is hubris a stranger to professions considered more "respectable," such as science, health, and medicine. The late Randy Shilts made that clear in his book And the Band Played On, which chronicled the petty political maneuvering among those seeking to take credit for work in the AIDS epidemic.

Certainly, the intentions behind many industry awards are good. The Webby, for one, is meant to "honor the most creative, innovative, and valuable Web sites, and the outstanding editorial, technical, and design teams behind them."

All laudable goals, to be sure. Yet the whole notion of awards for Web sites of any type seems antithetical to the free spirit that is the Internet. These trophies, plaques, and certificates inevitably imply a larger value system for a medium that has violently resisted every attempt to label it in any way.

In mass media, industry awards are often equated with commercial success. And the drive for commercial success invariably leads to a creation of formulas.

Formulas can be a good thing when building bridges or mixing dangerous chemicals, when exact measurements are needed. I'm less certain about their value in creative work--such as building a Web site dedicated to the arts.

Ultimately, the question becomes one of recognition vs. individuality.

Will the Internet have its own version of the Sundance Institute or the National Endowment for the Arts to encourage those on the creative fringe? I don't know. Will sites like Bert Is Evil still be able to win a distinguished Webby Award ten years from now? I sure hope so.

In the meantime, I'll be sleeping with our Webby under my pillow.

When he's not submitting contest entries, managing editor Mike Yamamoto writes a monthly column for NEWS.COM.