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Internet Week New York: Let it blend

Media companies big and small pitched in for the city's first-ever digital culture festival, but there wasn't enough of the cohesion and collaboration that the industry needs.

NEW YORK--The inaugural Internet Week New York was eight days of open bars and missed opportunities.

On the red carpet at the 12th Annual Webby Awards on Tuesday night, the final event of the week-long city-sanctioned festival, I called out to Internet Week executive director David-Michel Davies and asked him what he'd do next year to change it. "We'd like to do a better job with the schedule," he said to me after hesitating for a moment. He added a few more words about how a better calendar could help Internet Week-goers connect, before publicists snagged Davies for a string of photo ops.

That was the problem with Internet Week: connecting. But it's an issue that can't just be solved by hiring a few extra Ruby developers for the festival calendar.

As a string of individual events, Internet Week was wildly successful--there was, literally, something for everyone. Tech enthusiasts were treated to job seminars at Google, industry roundtables at Time Warner, and free beer at the "Wiimbledon" tournament. There were no fewer than four digital-ad conferences, two evenings of Webby Awards, a whole BlackBerry's worth of parties every evening, and enough power-breakfast panels to make you never want to see a cheese danish again.

The crowd at the New York Tech Meetup. David Karp

But even all those cheese danishes couldn't fill the sizeable gulf between Gotham's stalwart media-advertising machine and the digital start-ups popping up across the country.

It's an age-old stereotype: the friction between the big guys with the deep pockets and the business expertise who are short on new ideas, and the newcomers teeming with innovation but lacking the financial cred. And in New York's digital scene, it's a reality. Given the shaky economic conditions and uncertain outlook for the ad industry both online and offline--display ad spending dropped in the first quarter of 2008--an effort toward more cohesion in the media business would be a smart move. Internet Week was a stellar opportunity to focus on that cohesion, and it didn't happen; that's why the festival was a disappointment.

True, Internet Week was hindered from the start: because there was no central conference or event, a la South by Southwest Interactive, festival-goers were less likely to encounter new people and make new connections, and more likely to be socializing instead with the people they already knew. During the day, Internet Week's conferences were populated by ad-industry types in suits; at night, it was local entrepreneurs and their fun-loving groupies who were out on the town.

Neither party looked good in the process. It didn't do much of a service to the image of the big-media guys that they rolled into town for a handful of expensive conferences--the Federated Media Conversational Marketing Summit, Digital Hollywood's Advertising 2.0 conference, ContentNext's EconAds--where, in typical New York fashion, the focus was on the money rather than the innovation.

Revelers at Thrillist's 'Information Superparty' Nick McGlynn/

The tech start-up CEOs who'd been called in to speak at those conferences seemed very conscious of the ad industry's impatience. "This whole 'application economy' that was meant to emerge is really concentrating on a handful of developers," said Joanna Shields, president of Bebo, the social network acquired by AOL earlier this year, in a panel at the Conversational Marketing Summit.

She was speaking to a crowd of ad-industry types who, with pens and notebooks out, were attempting to get an idea or two on how to tackle social-media marketing campaigns. Regarding developer platforms' failure to explode into a cash cow, Shields said, "that's just the reality of the situation." In other words, the advertisers needed to calm down.

"I think it's important to also acknowledge the fact that...the concept of a platform and application developers is one year old, that's it," Gina Bianchini, CEO of the hyped social-media start-up Ning, said in the same panel about cashing in on social-network platforms. "I think that certainly everybody is motivated to enable more people to have the freedom to create and customize and use what they want where they want to use it, but we're still really early here."

"This whole 'application economy' that was meant to emerge is really concentrating on a handful of developers."
--Bebo President Joanna Shields

On the flip side, there are those on the big-media side who perceive their start-up brethren as brash, fiscally irresponsible, and unduly disrespectful of the status quo. Some current leaders in the Valley don't disagree with the characterization.

"There's a little bit of the sense that you have to come in and tell people that things have to change and that you have to be this visionary," Bianchini told CNET in an interview during Internet Week. Instead, she said, the focus should be problem-solving. "I think you have to be a lot more respectful of a business that is established."

Bianchini went on to emphasize that the dialogue between old media and new media, San Francisco Bay Area and New York, is more than crucial given the fact that she estimates the economy will be very challenging for the next year and a half. "It's going to take advertising and marketing teams a few years to catch up," she said. "(The media business) is under pressure...and I'm respectful of that, and I think online media companies need to be. That's not to say that things aren't changing."

Somewhat ironically, the brightest glimpses of industry-wide cohesion were at the Webby Awards ceremony, which some members of the New York media like to rip on for its exclusivity and ostensible irrelevance. True, the overlong ceremony and seemingly endless parade of "winners" seemed to underscore the common wisdom that the Internet industry in New York is just too jumbled and scattershot for a week-long festival.

But on the other hand, the lavish event space at Cipriani Wall Street was a more diverse crowd than Internet Week had seen yet: the heads of oddball start-up blogs were seated alongside representatives from the world's biggest media companies and advertising agencies. (I was placed, for example, between an ad strategist from the BBC and one of the editors of political activism site

When it came to the Slinky-shaped Webby Award trophies, sometimes it was the big corporations that won. And sometimes it was the start-ups, as emphasized by the five-word acceptance speech on behalf of Web browser Flock when it won the Webby for best social-networking product: "No s***! We beat Facebook!"

Love them or hate them, the Webbys were Internet Week New York's finest example of digital media's big and small players standing side-by-side. It was a closing note that would do well as a catalyst for a hypothetical Internet Week next year: not just a way to show off the diversity of New York as a digital city, but to help it march in lockstep.

And Davies' team will likely get a chance. Considering Mayor Michael P. Bloomberg took the inaugural Internet Week as an opportunity to throw an official press conference and launch a new venture fund for local tech start-ups, signs indicate he'll want to bring it back next year.

But for the sake of the entire industry, let's just hope everyone will be using the word "monetize" about one-fifth as often.