Ezra Butler wonders whether the technology industry could do a better job with its awards shows. How seriously are the Crunchies and the TechFellow awards really taken? And why does the blogosphere cover certain awards but not others?
Growing up in New York, my mother would always complain whenever we visited her native Los Angeles about how there were no seasons. True, the weather in Los Angeles is pristine year-round, so much so that I am able to work poolside at the Standard Hotel in February or dine outside on Santa Monica Boulevard wearing little more than shorts and a light shirt. Angelenos wear sunglasses because, without them, the sun would be in our eyes all the time.
But surviving the past two months in LA has taught me how wrong my mother was. We do have a season here. It’s called awards season. Citizens are made to suffer during the Academy Awards, the Grammy Awards, the Golden Globes, the People’s Choice Awards, the American Music Awards and many others.
It seems like every Sunday there is another televised programme that grinds the city to a halt and prompts the world to watch, wonder, and tweet which actress will wear something scandalous on the red carpet, which actor’s antics will cause a brouhaha and which movie or album will win a coveted award. Many of the pre- and after-parties are positively Bacchanalian, a mere invitation worth its weight in gold. (Well, since they’re printed on laminated plastic, somewhat more than their weight in gold.)
The purpose of entertainment awards shows is multi-fold. The first is to highlight projects which may have been undertaken for the sake of the art of entertainment, as opposed to major blockbusters. The second is for the industry to remind the outside world that everything is alive and well. The third is to help drive sales. For instance, Adele has sold over 65,000 albums a week since winning the Grammy Awards. After her performance at the Brit Awards, she has sold an album every seven seconds.
The gravitas of the Oscars stems from the prestige associated with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, composed of over 6,000 motion picture professionals from all over the world. The Grammy Awards are given by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the United States. The body which confers the award confers its stamp of approval on the winner.
While the social purpose of awards is validating mainstream taste, the real prize is being judged well by a jury of one’s peers. The competitiveness is so intense that, once nominated, the director, actor or musician is referred to as “Oscar-nominated” (or “Grammy-winning”) in perpetuity.
A similar trend is beginning to be replicated some 380 miles to the north, in San Francisco. On 31 January, the Crunchies were held. The Crunchies are the successors to TechCrunch50 (and before that TechCrunch40), the partnership of Michael Arrington and Jason Calacanis. After the partnership publicly dissolved, TechCrunch, under the auspices of Michael Arrington, launched the Crunchies, while Mr Calacanis created the Launch Conference for early-stage startups. Currently, the Crunchies is an unholy ménage à trois of TechCrunch, GigaOm and VentureBeat. Mr Calacanis’ Launch Festival, which he runs alone, will happen on 7 March.
Last Tuesday, the third annual TechFellow Awards took place – otherwise known as the self-proclaimed “Oscars of Silicon Valley”. It is a product of Founders Fund, led by Sean Parker and Peter Thiel. Instead of being a competition in which the hottest startups vie for prizes and publicity, the TechFellow Awards chooses technology “luminaries” and gives each one $100,000 to invest in a company of their choosing.
It sounds like an amazing idea. So why was coverage of the ceremony conspicuously absent from ReadWriteWeb, PandoDaily, VentureBeat, AllThingsD, GigaOm and TheNextWeb? No mentions were recorded on Techmeme and only minimal coverage on TechCrunch, which happened to be a media sponsor of the event, was provided.
To make matters more intriguing, one of the winners in the “General Management” category was Heather Harde, former chief executive of TechCrunch and patron saint of Mr Arrington and the whole former TechCrunch clan. Still, not a single relevant industry blog of record deemed it newsworthy.
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Looking at the past winners of the Crunchies in 2010, I saw “Best Shopping Application: Groupon”, “Best Social Application: DailyBooth”, “Best Mobile Application: Google Mobile Maps for Android”, and “Best Technology Achievement: Google Self Driving Cars”. This year, Dropbox, Google+, Grindr, Evernote, Fab, Pinterest and others took home the coveted prizes.
So Crunchies winnders are a product of the hype du jour. I haven’t heard of DailyBooth since they pulled a semi-pivot and released Batch, which did not make any list this year. I will not speak of Groupon except to mention its current stock price. I guess that in Grindr’s case, any news is good news. (Okay, maybe not.)
The winners of the TechFellow Awards, by contrast, seem to be deserved and well-thought out. Instead of selections driven by hype, winners are lynchpins of the digital economy rather than darlings of the blogosphere. Tech bloggers seem strangely reluctant to recognise the legitimacy of the TechFellow Award.
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For all the scandal caused with the purchase of TechCrunch and the launch of PandoDaily, the reality is that the blogs manufacture their own reality of how well things are going. A recent article in the New York Times about evictions and bankruptcies in Hollywood contains a line that rings true for the tech industry as much as it does for Los Angeles:
“In the industry’s perverse social code, where appearances are everything, such private struggles are kept well hidden not only from public view but also within the industry itself. Failure is an affront to the accepted logic that, no matter what, Hollywood remains a lodestar of self-invention.”
In tech, the dirty laundry of mental health issues, depression and addiction are kept under wraps. Suicides are not spoken of beyond the initial reports. Failed companies just fade away, to be reincarnated as something newer and grander.
The obsession with garnering public support for every trivial action is where Hollywood differs from Silicon Valley. Upset victories are what make watching award shows thrilling. From the announcing of the nominations to the opening of the envelope, people become emotionally invested. If their favorite movie or actress does not win, their taste is being rejected by the Academy.
Failure to win a start-up award is scarcely even relevant. And when a startup cocks up badly, as numerous blogs have recently pointed out, they apologise. Blogs fan the flames and, after an appropriate pitchforking period, permit a satisfactory end to the scandal.
When the Crunchies were announced, advocates of the different platforms were able to vote every day. For a few months, the Crunchies were artificially relevant because many of the companies asked their users to vote for them, on a consistent basis. But at the end of the day, every user is a winner, because chances are everyone uses at least 50 per cent of the winners.
And people will tweet and share the company profiles as written about on the various blogs. In the same vein as Yoel Roth’s comments about Yelp reviews the other day, the Crunchies suffer from regression artifacts. People feel that they are part of making a decision, which makes them care about it, but they are happy with whoever wins, because it means a member of their ecosystem succeeded.
The Founder’s Fund, through their TechFellow Award, is trying to make individuals in the Silicon Valley truly judged by their peers and recognised for their achievements. But their mistake is they don’t understand narrative. They’re unable to get people excited about the winners, because their copy suggests they don’t truly understand who the winners are. The proffered bios appear like unformatted versions of résumés.
The Academy Awards, like every other entertainment awards show, is itself a production number designed to entertain. From the red carpet with dresses like Angelina Jolie or characters like Sasha Baron Cohen, the viewer is transfixed on the event, wondering what will happen next.
It is laughable that anyone in Silicon Valley would be audacious enough to think they could “kill” Hollywood with games like Angry Birds when Silicon Valley is so entirely inept at fostering its own mythology.