At the 23rd annual Webby Awards in New York on Monday night, presenters and honorees reflected on the advances that led to both the highs and lows of the internet in 2019 – and how the organization itself has had to evolve to accommodate that rapid shift.
“When we started in 1997, pretty much the only thing people were using on the internet was the World Wide Web. There was no Snapchat, no Instagram, no social media, no mobile phones – it’s changed a lot!” Webby Media Group CEO David-Michel Davies told Variety before the ceremony. “But I think the spirit of what the internet was about then and is about now hasn’t changed. It’s about accessing information, being able to ask questions and have answers all the time and being able to connect with people.”
The ceremony is adapting accordingly – this year’s awards included voice categories for the first time in light of innovations like Amazon’s Alexa – but host Jenny Slate had some suggestions of her own. “I wish the Webbys would recognize some more of the categories that I’m into,” she said. “For example, why isn’t there a Best Site for Browsing Through Hundreds of Turtlenecks After Four Glasses of Red Wine? I don’t mean to critique the event as it’s occurring, but I think somebody should look into that,” she quipped.
The comedian also revealed her personal favorite thing on the internet: YouTube clips she describes as “Peter Pan” fails. “They’re really all about somebody backstage yanking the wrong cord and then one of the children getting ripped out of their beds,” she explained, laughing. “Just Wendy, Michael, or John pretending to sleep in a local production and then being like, ‘Whoa!’”
Amid the jokes, memes, and appearances by the likes of Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty, Issa Rae, Hasan Minhaj, Monica Lewinsky and Michael Douglas, guests of honor also acknowledged the darker aspects of life online today. Half a century after the first message was sent on ARPANET, the web has evolved in ways no one could have anticipated – even its co-founder, Vint Cerf.
“There are a lot of things that happen on the net that you and I wish wouldn’t happen. It’s a mirror of our society,” Cerf said. “But the Webbys tell us what’s possible. It tells us why we should be optimistic about the future.”
The internet was “a completely different place” when Claire Graves, now the Webbys’ executive director, first joined the organization a decade ago — and recent events nearly made her abandon it entirely. “Hate on the internet is building; fake news is spreading,” she said. “In March, not far from my home in Australia, a white nationalist went into mosques in Christchurch and live streamed himself murdering 50 people, in a chat engineered for the internet, maximized to go viral, to spread his message of hate and incite further violence. That was the moment for me, after everything that has happened this year, that I finally wanted to put the internet down.”
One of this year’s winners changed that: 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg. “Since stopping school last October to protest the climate crisis, Greta has gained nearly three million followers and inspired millions of young people from Melbourne to Mumbai to strike with her on Fridays and demand action on the climate emergency,” Graves said. “The climate strike makes me want to turn back to the internet. It represents the promise of the internet: the ability to unite people all over the world in pursuit of something better.”
DeRay Mckesson of “Pod Save the People” stressed the same values, noting how social media can amplify social good and praising honorees whose work helped to “defend the marginalized” and “shed light on dark corners of our world.” The ACLU’s five-word acceptance speech for “Trans in America: Texas Strong,” which won best longform documentary, summed up that ethos perfectly: “Great stories make people change.”