For the last 16 years, the Webby Awards have touted themselves as the internetâ€™s answer to the Academy Awards. In their words, the Webbys are â€œthe leading international award honoring excellence on the internet.â€
Flipping through the past nominees, the selections often feel arbitrary: a mishmash of corporate websites, usual suspects, and Flash ad campaigns. Pioneering, innovative sites show up once in a while, usually when sponsored by a large company.
But theyâ€™re a rarity. Thatâ€™s because, unlike the Academy Awards, Tonys, Grammys, Golden Globes and most peer-reviewed awards, the Webbys charge a steep entry fee to be nominated. Their decision to charge excludes a huge universe of worthy candidates, leaving a list dominated by advertising agencies, public relations departments, and the occasional independent looking for attention. [Editor’s note:Â Wired is nominated in four 2012 Webby categories].
A Look Back
The first few years were silly and quirky, bringing together a group of people who all shared an early interest in the web. Back then, nominees were chosen by savvy geeks and judged by a small panel of celebrities and experts in each of the 15 categories.
If you want a flashback, Archive.org is streaming broadcasts of the first Webby Awards in 1997, as well as 1999 and 2000, with vintage screenshots from almost every nominated site. Itâ€™s an amazing capsule of internet history. Want to see a very young Larry Page and Sergey Brin rollerblade onto the stage? Try the 13:00 mark in the 2000 video.
For the first six years the Webbys were held in San Francisco, tracking the rise of the dot-com boom, peaking at a record 3,100 attendees packing the War Memorial Opera House in 2001. After the bust, in 2003 and 2004, the awards ceremony was canceled, moving to a webcast-only format. This year they will be held on May 21Â at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York.
In 2005, IDG transferred the assets to Recognition Media, a NYC-based producer of advertising awards shows. (Details of the transaction were never made public, but the trademark changed hands in March 2005.) The changes were immediate.
The number of categories doubled, and then doubled again two years later. Entry fees were raised for the first time in three years, and the show was moved to New York. Increasingly, the tone of the awards shifted from creativity to marketing, as 14 new categories were added for Interactive Advertising, as well as new category sections for video and mobile apps.
Meanwhile, the history of the conference was scrubbed, presumably to clean things up for an advertiser-safe image. The first Webbys had a â€˜Sexâ€™ category, with seminal web community Biancaâ€™s Smut Shack taking the prize, but that info was quietly removed from the nominee list sometime in 2006.
The Webby Awards survived into the new era under new management, and the award ceremonies continue to attract big names, but at what cost?
The Growth in Numbers
I was curious to see how the awards have changed over time, so I dug into the Internet Archiveâ€™s Wayback Machine, press releases, and Usenet posts to reconstruct a near-complete history of the Webby Awardsâ€™ categories, fees and number of entries, going back to the first awards in 1997. I collected the stats on Google Docs here, or you can download the spreadsheet or browse it below.
In the last decade, the costs for consideration have increased six-fold, from the original $50 entry fee to $295 today, and up to $495 for ad-related categories. The Webbys make roughly $3 million in entry fees alone. And if you win? You even have to buy the trophies.
For most indie developers and designers, the entry fees are off-putting. As a result, most of the sites entered appear to come from the PR departments of well-funded companies and ad agencies looking to beef up their portfolios.
Meanwhile, the number of categories ballooned from 15 categories to 141 categories today, an average 19% increase per year. The number of categories has increased every year since 2004, except a small dip in 2010.
Itâ€™s easy to get cynical looking at the list of categories added in recent years. If the Webbys didnâ€™t charge a fee, do you really think theyâ€™d have a category for Pharmaceuticals or Insurance?
Where the Webbys Went Wrong
Nominees are effectively paid advertisers. Companies are placing a small bet in exchange for a potentially big talking point. The vast majority of entrants end up with nothing in return for their money; only a handful get a nomination, and about 10% of the almost 10,000 entries this year will be listed as an â€œhonoree.â€Â But with a nomination in hand, companies like Esurance can breathlessly brag about the achievement in press releases and in badges on their websites.
If your goal is honoring excellence, the only way to achieve that is to adopt an open and free nomination process, usually from organization members or other group of peers.
The Webbys are judged by the 750 members of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (IADAS), but theyâ€™re limited to the entries that are handed to them. The Oscars and Grammys have a similar process of judging finalists, but nominations are instead selected by the same group. No entry fees, just open nomination ballots from a closed group of peers.
Alternately, the popular vote used by awards like the Crunchies Awards consistently leads to high-quality nominees. The nomination process is completely open to the public, but finalists are chosen by committee. Itâ€™s then opened to the public again, and results are chosen by the committee informed by the popular vote.
But the Webbys arenâ€™t an offshoot of another industry academy like the Oscars. The IADAS was created to support the Webbys, not the other way around. The Webby Awards are a business and their revenue hinges on a constant flood of new advertisers.
Large fees undermine the integrity of an award by turning off those who would otherwise be celebrated. The result is an award with less prestige and meaning; an award that doesnâ€™t make sense in a medium that prizes itself on openness.
That might work in the television industry where the barrier to entry is already ridiculously high, but on a level playing field like the web, itâ€™s not good enough.
The web is the great democratizer, where anybody with an internet connection can be heard, and the independent web could use a strong voice right now to recognize great work. With some effort, the Webby Awards could fill that role, but it would take major changes to drag them out of irrelevance and back into the modern age.