Although the Webby Awards are international in scope, not surprisingly, many nominees reside in the Bay Area, the cradle of Silicon civilization.
“The Webby Awards are the only Web awards I’ve ever taken seriously,” says Craig Newmark, founder of www.craigslist.org. “They’re for real.”
Newmark speaks his praises on his cell phone as he leaves the first official meeting of the Craigslist Foundation. The San Francisco site, nominated in the Community category, has helped out thousands of Bay Area residents on the lookout for something, whether to unload a couch, find a mate, hire an architect or work for an erotic Web site.
Now the nonprofit has expanded its mission of altruism to help small nonprofits get started, get visible and get going. As for why, and why now, Newmark says simply, “because it just feels right.”
His success reflects exactly the gospel that the Internet continues to thrive. The Activism category-nominated Volunteermatch (www.volunteermatch.org), which Webby Awards founder and director Tiffany Shlain reverently calls a “beautiful example of the Internet,” matches nonprofits to people across the nation. The idea grew out of NetDay 1996, when about 3,000 California schools were wired to the Internet. Jay Backstrand, a Sun Microsystems market manager, wanted to expand this notion for the 750,000 nonprofits in the United States. In three years, its database has reached 16,000, and soon it will reach half a million matches.
In a networked world where “free” comes with small print, S.F.-based Volunteermatch “was charting a course through all the clutter,” says director of communications Jason Willett. Its staff grew from a mere six to a whopping 19.
The awards also call attention to the elders who walked the Earth before computers became wireless. Albin Renauer, Nolo.com’s director of online development and twice a Webby judge, shares the belief that the shakeout was healthy. “There were a lot of ideas that were out there that should have died.”
The Berkeley publisher of self-help books, which changed its name from Nolo to Nolo.com “to get religion,” defied common Internet wisdom such as sharing resources between its physical and online businesses. It did go through periods of anxiety as competitors touted “boatloads of venture capitalists, and they were all going to eat our lunch.” Many went out of business.
Another veteran, Mother Jones magazine, has been enjoying a renaissance despite a downslide both in independent magazine journalism and online. In a March relaunch of its 7-year-old www.mojowire.com, the magazine shed the name and adopted www.motherjones.com.
Mother Jones celebrated recently when it won the prestigious National Magazine Award. When the site received its e-mail notifying of the Webbys nomination, the online staff was gratified and so was the print side, once it was explained to them.
“It’s a strange award, the Webbys,” muses Vince Beiser, the site’s senior editor. “When Mother Jones is up for something, it’s a straight journalism thing. With the Webbys, it’s the whole world kind of thing. We’re up against a couple of highbrow porn sites.” While disconcerting, the flip side is “that’s even better. We stand out, period.”
During a time when layoffs have been the more typical news site scenario, Mother Jones reaffirmed its online presence. Its Internet staff can nimbly react to time-sensitive stories, unlike the bimonthly publication, which must plan its stories six to eight months ahead.
Aside from these quicker bites, its Web exclusives and databases accommodate information that would be unwieldy in print. For instance, every two years the magazine compiles its Mojo 400, a list of the 400 biggest campaign donors. Rather than a laundry list, the Web site presents the information as a searchable database that allows browsers to punch in the name of their government representative or the local millionaire and see who got how much from whom.
“You never want to print that much in a magazine, but it’s kind of thing you can do online perfectly,” Beiser says. “It’s those kinds of projects that made me take this job It’s one of the smartest uses I’ve seen the Internet put to in the service of journalism.”
This was the Internet utopia before commerce moved in. “It was supposed to be the great incubator of independent journalism. The guy who puts out a little newsletter in Des Moines, Iowa, would reach millions of people, and it would be great for democracy.” Beiser appreciates its marketing savvy, but “it’s very gratifying that places like the Webbys are still taking notice and getting respect for the truly independent outlets that are still on the Net in this day.”
Past Webby winner and current Print + Zines nominee Salon.com still clings to existence with a significant cheering section. Business writer Janelle Brown recently did a postmortem on the 2000 Webby nominees, but diagnosed the Internet and the ceremony as alive and well.
“The Net has always been populated by the fringe, countercultures, creative types, writers, artists and innovators more and more every year, rising with the population of the Net,” she points out. With the fall of giant dot-coms, the shadows have been lifted from these small, spry Internet operators. It’s not surprising that this year there may well be a greater focus on the smaller, more innovative endeavors.”
With all this good cheer, it takes a New Yorker to inject a note of gleeful bitterness into the business of the Internet. Philip “Pud” Kaplan’s enormously popular site probably doesn’t get as much mainstream mention because of its carnally obscene name (an unprintable parody of “Fast Company”).
His postings are one of the top stops for dot-commers who want to know if they will be next to get the shaft. With sneering running commentary, he lays out rumors of impending layoffs and reports of excessive dot-com business practices much of which turn out to be true.
“I love profiting off the misfortune of others,” says the 25-year-old New Yorker and self-described “old-schooler” (who feels his site is misnominated in the humor category). Nor is Kaplan afraid to make predictions, and he sees upheavals in the next year.
“About a year from now, you’re going to see a lot more sites like mine,” says Kaplan, who works with an assistant. “An e-commerce site really only takes one smart person to build.” Companies like Amazon might require a bigger staff, but the model would be the traditional “grow as you need” and not grandiose venture capital funding.
“You haven’t seen anything as far as the next 12 months,” Kaplan says ominously. “We haven’t heard from the big boys yet.” And that can only help business.