After the Cool Site of the Year awards in 1997 (being the 1996 awards) I sat with Derek Powazek and Andy Gems at a table at a Mexican restaurant in The Mission and agreedover a pitcher of Margaritasthat the CSotYs weren’t a great thing. It was apparent even then that they were destined for what they arguably have become; a meaningless excuse for the cross-promotion of site sponsors in return for recognition. The criteria was popularity. If you were You Don’t Know Jack and had millions of faithful visitors, you were Cool Site of the Year because they all voted for you (usually repeatedly).
Far be it for me to downgrade the bandwagon effect. I garnered an award that year for “Coolest Design” largely because I campaigned good and hard to win. What did it take except to place a link on my page and ask visitors to go to one more site, click a radio button and then go about their business? I can also not downgrade the effectiveness of that recognition on my own career, although I try to. Because the truth of the matter is that there simply was no other recognition happening at the time.
Except The Webbys.
But The Webbys, at the time, were awarded by a magazine and weren’t taken very seriously by anyone, either. The magazine is now long gone but the awards remain, largely because of the eager and unending promotional efforts of Tiffany Shlain. It’s her full-time job to organize and run the yearly event. Seriously, that’s what she does. She has to schmooze sponsors, tirelessly and constantly, to get them to help pay for all the swag you get for attending. I guess. Because there’s no money given out with the award, so it must all go toward her and her staff’s expenses, even though the Webbys are still sponsored by the defunct magazine’s publisher, IDG.
As I was living in Boston at the time, The Webbys weren’t even a small blip on my radar screen. Derek, I think, remarked that people in San Francisco (meaning Web People) didn’t pay that much more attention to them, either. In fact, there was nothing at all that any of us could think of that gave us worthy specimens of Web creativity our due recognition.
Time Of Whoa
There was (and is) the Communications Arts awards. There was (and is) the Prix Ars Electronica awards. There was (and is) the I.D. Magazine interactive media design review. But these weren’t exactly recognizing Web achievements so much as recognizing design achievements. A distinction that was important to me at the timeand is.
So, getting back to me for a minute (or an hour), let’s steer the ship back toward the iceberg known as Web Awards.
Sitting there with the tequila running through my veins, it seemed like a good idea at the time to make a public proposition, and that was for the organization of, well, somebody that would recognize various Web… stuff. Now, all the little nagging details of such a proposition, um, those I wasn’t so concerned with. Because, see, I did not want to actually do it. I just thought it was a good idea for somebody else.
Because, okay, just think about this for a minute and you’ll see the incredible downside of all of it. Firstly, if you’re in the field which you are proposing to recognize, you will be accused of elitism. Not that I’m new to that particular accusation in my short, inglorious career as a personal Web page demigod. I started a little page called Word of Mouth that I thought was a happy little way to point others to sites that I thought were good for one reason or another. But I don’t update it anymore (and haven’t even looked at it myself in God knows how long) because I started getting all these “submissions” for inclusion on what was, for all intents and purposes, a links page. My links page. When I didn’t choose to include a page or site, blah blah blah, how dare I use my power for evil, blah blah blah, what a bastard, blah blah blah, fuck you.
So, whatever. But the point was to provide some recognition for good work, to try and give people who might not otherwise receive any recognition… some recognition. To say that this creativity in all its forms, whether that’s technological, artistic, interface, mechanical, organizational and so on, that it’s all worthwhile and there’s a reason to strive to do it well, that other people appreciate and recognize it and want to reward it.
Which, to me, seemed like a good thing.
Soylent Green Is…
But, the problems, as I said, immediately manifest. So, you’re going to recognize people for their talents. Great! How? What are the categories, and how do they break down? Take, for example, design. What does that mean? Graphic? Interface? Site? Should you separate professional design (for which you are getting paid by an employer or client) from personal design (which you do for yourself and are therefore, theoretically, allowed more freedom and innovation)? Is it fair to put all design into one category, given professionals probably use the best tools and have teams of people and more time when compared to people doing it on their own time, uncompensated, using whatever they happen to have? If you separate them, are you then implying that the personal designer couldn’t possibly compete with the professionals (or vice versa)? Is one, then, more important than the other?
If you recognize professional site design, are you recognizing an individual or a company? If you decide not to recognize professional creativity, how do you expect to get any sponsorship or attention from the Real World? Sponsors provide sponsorship so they get “free” press and professionals (those who have money) buy their tools. If the professionals don’t care about your recognition, nobody else (i.e. the press which provide coverage so people not involved with the Web actually hear about the recognition and think it means something) will, either.
Categories. What are they? Breaking down sites by categories seems sort of… dumb. I mean, they don’t give Oscars for best comedy, best science fiction, best drama, best war film, best movie about talking babies, et al. They recognize talents and creations. Acting. Cinematography. Scoring. Directing. They recognize individuals. The picture may win the award, but the producers pick up the statuettes. And what you want to do (or, to be precise, what I wanted to do) is promote various disciplines and the people pushing the boundaries or doing it right which, in turns, promotes those goals in others.
Because otherwise, there’s no reason to do it.
So I wrote up a page with the proposition. And, as you might expectme being relatively no onenothing happened.
“Yeah,” some people agreed, “that’s a good idea.” To which I thought, “Okay, then do something about it.”
“No,” some people disagreed, “there’s nothing worth recognizing anyway.” To which I thought, “Yeah, but that’s exactly the point. There never will be because there’s no reason to try.”
Because when I stopped to think about it, one reason I started glassdog, in the beginning, was to get some recognition. Whether you think this is a worthwhile site or not, the reason I kept trying new stuff, kept expanding what was here, simply kept going, was to get some recognition. And all there was then was High Five, Cool Site of the Day and Project Cool. Badge sites, as they were called. And they’re all, in one form or another, now dead.
Badge sites had criteria, by and large. They were somewhat nebulous and fairly confusing because the badges were awarded based on individual tastesthe individuals in this case being David Siegal, Glenn Davis and Richard Grimes. David Siegal was the sometimes loved, more often reviled head of the High Five badge which allowed him to spin off two expensive books and instruct people how to use single pixels as spacers. Siegal stopped doing High Five about two years ago and it was taken over by Christopher Schmitt for a few months but the site is currently in limbo.
Davis started Project Cool as the next logical step after Cool Site of the Day, creating a site about Web development and enabling new Web users and newbie site designers with links to tools, resources and what were, in his opinion, great sites. He recently sold Project Cool to devx.com and subsequently quit his job and is currently seeking employment elsewhere.
Davis started CSotD and left it to his former employer, InfiNet, which handed it over to Grimes. Under Richard, Cool Site became a free-wheeling, loose site with a sense of humor. Obviously, it was doomed. InfiNet fired Grimes and sold the name to some other loser fly-by-night ad-driven numbskulls who’ve managed in a few short months to drive it off the face of the map and turned it into what can be politely described as a colossal and pointless joke. Last I heard, Richard was starting a freelance Web content studio hoping to franchise his humorous writing for other sites. I’m not aware of any takers.
So much for badges.
Taking The Reins
After the roaring silence, and after sufficient time had passed, I decided “What the fuck,” and proposed to a few people that we start our own damn organization to promote, protect and defend Web developers everywhere.
It would be called The Academy of World Wide Web Arts and Sciences, taking a cue from other creative organizations such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (Oscars), the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (Grammys) and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (Emmys). Because I saw the Web as another media, and as such thought another Academy made sense. I specifically chose to use the phrase “World Wide Web” in the organization title rather than Internet because that was what we were singularly interested in.
At almost exactly the same time as we started AW3AS, The Webbys announced that, since the magazine on which they had been based was a dead duck, they would now be presenting awards under the auspices of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. I have no idea which came first, but shortly after we put up our Web site, I got some email from a Tiffany Shlain asking to talk about our similar goals.
I didn’t know who Ms. Shlain was, frankly, and thought of the the Webbys as just slightly less ridiculous as the CSotYs. But after asking the others involved in the creation of this nascent organization whether to reply or ignore the request, we all agreed that talking to her couldn’t be a bad thing. This was in early ’98, as I recall it. Whatever. The gist of the phone calls was that she was interested in getting our group involved with her group and avoid competing groups for the same space. I explained that we were only interested in WWW recognition which accounted for the name. She explained that she was seeking a wider landscape, basically taking in not just Web sites but eventually all digital media, whatever that might be, including video games, kiosks, and unforeseen stuff coming in the future. Her opinion was that the Web was a stepping stone but probably not a end unto itself. The digital future would surpass the Web and become something else. Maybe a visionary, maybe covering her ass. She also explained that she hoped that the IADAS would give the Webbys a more professional, more serious facet. Even given the choice of such Web technologists as Dennis Rodman already as members.
To those of us in our Academy, it was clear we had very different visions in mind for what we wanted to do, so with a “thanks but no thanks,” we went our separate ways.
Whipping the Horses
So, down the road we started, but there were potholes the size of Buicks in the way.
People have asked me what happened to the grand dream. There was a site announcing plans and things to come, but no plans were ever posted and nothing ever came. We started accepting applications for membership but the process of actually accepting anyone was never formalized enough to work correctly. The nomination process was rather involved and time-consuming, and no one really had the time to devote to it. We tried to assign roles and responsibilities in the Academy among the founding members, but handling any organization via email and phone calls just doesn’t work. Inevitable misunderstandings and miscommunications caused more than one member to want to quit altogether rather than try to iron out differences and agree on something.
But mostly, the failure was my own fault.
I had never accepted the role of leader. I never wanted to dictate what was to be, even though I had a clear picture of what was to be in my own head. But I was a ball-less coward for the most part. I wanted everyone to be happy and I wanted to be able to please all personal goals of each member. Some had very specific goals they wanted to see come out of the Academy, others simply wanted it to succeed, others never really took a role at all.
But since I was unwilling to put my foot down and act as this corporation’s C.E.O., the ship started floundering in rough waters. What was the nominations process? Well, before we tackle that, what are the categories? Well, before we tackle that, what are our own goals? We’re going to need money, so where do we go calling? Microsoft? What message would that put out to the Web culture? But clearly they had money and a vested interest in using it to foster Web… stuff. What about Adobe? But would that say we were only interested in design? Because we aren’t.
Everywhere we turned, another problem cropped up. What would this decision imply about our goals? How can we ignore this piece? Do we recognize a “Site of the Year” and how? And why? Based on what? Usability? Design? Overall “Webness”? Does it really matter, since we leave it up to the membership? Who is the membership? What’s the criteria for membership? Do we charge money for membership dues? Do we have corporate memberships?
Calling It Quits
So it was that I gave up. I quit. I sent out an email to my fellow organizers asking if anyone was interested in keeping this going. Given the obstacles in our way, the differences of vision, the almost insurmountable problem of subdividing the Web into recognizable categories worthy of awards, did anyone want to tackle this bear. It was clear it would take a lot of money to do it because it would take a lot of time which meant someone would have to quit their job and be totally devoted to this project. A show of hands yielded a very quiet room.
Seeing the Webbys, the inevitable rears its head inside me again. (I know, bad metaphor.) Because I feel like the Webbys are doing it wrong. Whatever “it” is.
But then I have to step back and consider just what “it” is.
And is there anything worth recognizing? When I was initially asked to be a judge in the H5-ALA Web Design Contest, I sort of knew what was coming. I asked “What’s your criteria? What is Web Design? Is this about graphic design? Usability? Are you ready for the inevitable labelling of elitism and snobbery?” I accepted the role and saw pretty much everything happen that I thought would happen. There were initial cries of unfairness regarding the selection of the judges. When the winners were announced, there were questions about criteria, usability, download time versus beauty factor, etc. Having seen what was put forth for considerationsome of which in my opinion was pretty but useless (or just pretty useless)I shook my head and thought, well, maybe the detractors are right. Maybe it doesn’t matter, and there’s no reason to have any sort of Web Academy after all.
With another Webbys under our collective belt, and a loud yawn coming from the world at large, I suppose the answer should be obvious. The Webbys have a long way to go, and should they continue as they are, they’ll only become a bigger version of what they are now, namely an excuse for a party in San Francisco to which a private few are invited so that they can talk marketspeak, pass around business cards, parade their silly and stupid Web ventures out in front of a press hungry for weird video snippets on the 11 o’clock news and masturbate in public that some group of pseudo-celebrity judges have deemed to choose their unknown site over four other unknown sites (three of which won’t be around next year anyway, one way or another) in ridiculous, fast-and-loose categories which sometimes don’t even describe the nominees anyway.
So what I’m doing is as equally meaningless. And what I’m doing, in my own distorted view, is this: I want to show people what else the Web is really for. I don’t want people to be only an audience. I don’t want people boarding this ship thinking they are all passengers. I want someone out there to see the light. I want someone to say to themselves, “I can do this, too. I can take a piece of the endless empty ether and fill it with something other than another dubious e-commerce solution, another excuse for ad banners, another flashing annoyance. I can do anything. I can. I can be a ridiculous or inspirational as I want, or I can do both.”
Because, you silly people, right now you still can. The corral is closing in. Can’t you feel it? They’re rounding up the wild horses and taming them. They’re sending in the thought police. They’re closing down the library and burning any book they deem dangerous, inappropriate, wrong.
And what are you doing with your piece? Did you even know you had one? I want to give it to you. That’s my gift, to teach you that one simple thing if you never understand anything else. That everything I can do, you can do. That you have to try, you have to learn, you have to scream back at everyone else who says you can’t, who says they don’t understand, who says it’s all meaningless anyway.
Fuck them. They don’t get it and they never will.
But you do. And you don’t need anything to spur you to your own greatness. No recognition to seek. No awards to aspire to.
May 15, 2000