The herd of VIPs on the steps leading up to the San Francisco Masonic Auditorium turns away from the cameras to watch the spectacle. A frail-looking man, incongruously-dressed in running shorts and singlet, is weaving among the Versace-clad throng, looking like he must have sprinted all the way up steep Nob Hill. From somewhere a brass band has appeared too, playing oompah-oompah trad jazz. Suddenly the jogger passes out on the pavement, provoking the immediate arrival of a sexy blonde nurse, and then a doctor, decked out in operating gown and gloves. "We can't save him!" they yell. "What shall we do?" Their answer comes in the form of a black stretch limo which screeches up to the pavement. The door swings open and a portly man in a tux waddles out. "Stand back!" he shouts. "This guy needs Intellihealth.com!" With a wave of his hand he miraculously revives the runner and hands him a large placard emblazoned with the company URL. Intellihealth's CEO has just made his big attention-getting entrance. Just another minor piece of dotcom madness at the 2000 Webby awards.
In San Francisco these days, eyeball-grabbing is the name of the game, and there is no better place to do it than the Webbies, which in four years have grown from a casual industry party in a North Beach nightclub to a huge Oscars-style ceremony that has eclipsed the many other Net awards to become the dotcom industry standard backslapping event . The scene outside the VIP pre-party, held just across from the auditorium in Grace Cathedral, is a demonstration, if any is needed, that today's Bay Area is the site of the largest concentration of wealth and power on the planet. As lycra-clad dancers abseil off the façade, a line of limos disgorges a seemingly endless parade of twenty-something millionaires, trophy partners on their arms, thousand dollar suits on their backs. Mixed in are local glitterati and the occasional mainstream face from film and TV. In 'ironic' San Francisco style they are snapped by actors posing as forties paparazzi and shown their reflections in little hand mirrors held by a black clad 'hospitality patrol', who tell them they look fabulous, which, by and large, they do. The occasional old-school-nethead ponytail and sneakers combo is in evidence, notably sported by RU Sirius, but the Mondo 2000 founder and his buddies look like refugees from another country, one with less sunshine and fewer per capita gym memberships. If this is a geek crowd, it's definitely geek nouveau, the geek reinvented as master of the universe. As SF Mayor Willie Brown tells us in his welcoming speech, "thanks to you this city is the centre of the world!" Around me on the balcony, the people yell back their approval.
Though 'slick' Willie is playing to the gallery, there is more than a grain of truth in what he says. If the dotcom movers and shakers in London or Berlin reckon they're fly, they should take a reality-checking trip to San Francisco. The atmosphere in the city is best described as feverish. Nightly networking parties attract a scrum of big-talking upwardly-mobile net players, all trying to freak each other out with tales of the percentage market share their start-up is guaranteed by this time next year. As each new company struggles harder than the last to make a buzz and up their brand recognition, the parties have got more lavish. Bars dispense the week's latest drink (at the Webbies: Absolut mandarin, cranberry and a dash of lime) and mere sushi is not enough to win the canape battle. One current fad is for Japanese chefs to cut up tuna live on stage, and throw pieces of fresh sashimi into the crowd.
If anything, the recent tech-market collapse has only accentuated the last-days-of-the-Roman-Empire vibe. It is generally acknowledged that fifty percent or more of the current hopefuls will not make it through the next financial year. One hears words like 'shake out', 'sifting' and 'massive consolidation' bandied around, and the lucky few whose IPO's went off during the glory days of 99 are looked on with envy by those whose options have not yet vested, or whose startups will have to face a market that is newly-cautious, and newly-cynical about all but the most well-founded dotcom plans. It is time to party while ye may, for tomorrow ye may be back on a salary.
At the Webbies, however, such troubles are forgotten, if only for a night. People dressed as astronauts and jumping beans mingle with the crowd taking their seats for the ceremony, and as the logos of sponsors are flashed up on the giant circular screen behind the podium, company employees cheer wildly, the Intel posse trying to outdo the Adobes and the Hewlett Packards and the Visas. Actor Alan Cumming makes a winsome MC, and MTV-style video clips introduce the winners, who are each limited to a five word acceptance speech. "Three words - I - P - O" drawls the guy from Adbusters, victors in the 'activism' category. Maybe he's being ironic. Maybe not. "Can you spell silent period?" giggles the CEO of finance winner gomez.com. He's not being ironic. He knows that his forthcoming NASDAQ launch has just been blessed with some seriously good karma. Later, at the after-party, he and his team will be hitting the Krug - hard. When IOD's Web Stalker wins in the art category, Simon Pope comes on and incongruously mumbles 'net art is class war'. No one appears to notice, or care. Bigger crowd-pleasers are Napster, which garners the music prize, and Cocky Bastard, a guy in a white fun fur coat and matching bootees, who has the best personal homepage. When etoy.com is nominated for the commerce category, a lot of people boo, but they all clap politely when the winner is revealed as babycenter.com, owned by the same people. Mahir, pointless net celebrity of "I kiss you!" fame, is treated much like Thor returning to Valhalla after a hard day's slaying, although many insiders claim to be bored of him. He's been touring in the Bay Area for some weeks, and his novelty-value is felt to have worn a little thin. By far the biggest applause of the night goes to Michael Zamyn and Aureia Harvey, whose site entropy8zuper wins the special $30,000 dollar SFMoma prize. The Webby crowd aren't necessarily big art fans, but they appreciate the fuck-you way the pair accept the award, silently walking up to the podium and passionately kissing for one...two...three minutes. Superstar behaviour. At the after-party a lot of people want to meet them, and not a few wonder if they would care to go home with them.
The next day, at the after-after-after party (that's the one after the after-party in the marquee, and after the after-after party in the hotel suite, and after the morning-after brunch in the brasserie), held in a Tenderloin bar decorated to look like a SoCal motel circa 1955, there are a lot of dark glasses in evidence, and margaritas are cradled in quivering hands. Last night's main after-party (the one in the tent) is generally felt to have been a success, despite Sandra Bernhard's 'low key' disappearance, and the un-London-like absence of cocaine. The Chronicle and the Examiner both have the event on their front page, and the press verdict is good. I'm asked if I saw the protestors outside the ceremony, the ones holding the banner saying 'Dotcoms Displace'. I say I talked to them. They were upset at the insane real-estate prices in the city, which in parts are rivalling Tokyo, and are forcing many low-paid workers to leave San Francisco altogether. "Weren't they sweet?" says someone. "So polite! Like they were protestors from central casting." As the next plate of barbecue prawns is placed on the table, and a round of cosmopolitans is ordered, conversation moves on to tonight's Hustler Ball, a non-dotcom party for gay renters and porn industry people. Liana is going, because she's casting a short film, and wants cute boys to be strapped Barbarella-style into sci-fi sex devices. Doug isn't going, because he needs to catch up on his sleep. His b2b venture is at a crucial stage. "We're pulling some long hours at the moment," he admits. "But it's worth it. We're going to stick around. We're going to be players." He looks like he believes it, sort of.
- San Francisco May 14, 2000