There were searchlights scanning the night sky, and valets opening car doors for anxious nominees who stepped into the flashbulb assault of the paparazzi.
OK, so there were more old Volkswagens than limos and the paparazzi weren't real photographers but hired hands who didn't even have film in their cameras. This was not the Oscars, but the Webbies, a celebration of the Internet that is equal parts kitsch and class.
The event, which had its inaugural last year, took place Friday night at the stately Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. And though there was certainly an element of parody to the proceedings, it was clear that the more than 1,000 nominees, judges and fans in attendance appreciated the chance to call attention to some of the best sites on the World Wide Web.
"This is a big deal," said Kevin Dando, who flew out from Washington, D.C., to represent PBS Online (http://www.pbs.org), a nominee in the television category. "It does herald what's happening with the Web. It's like it has arrived."
Dando's trip proved worth the trouble because PBS Online won, beating out other sites from NBC, the Sci-Fi Channel, TV Guide and one called http://www.thegist.com
The awards are divided into 19 categories with five nominees each. The nominees are selected by the editorial staff of The Web magazine, but winners are voted on by a panel of five independent judges assigned to each category. Among this year's judges were Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman and former California Gov. Jerry Brown. But most were more anonymous members of the online community, much of which is concentrated in the Multimedia Gulch district of San Francisco.
The categories cut across the wide interests of Web users around the world, including arts, education, film, games, business, news, science and sports.
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown kicked off the evening by proclaiming the event the awards ceremony of the future. "You can go to New York and dig the Tonys," he said. "You can go to L.A. and catch the Oscars. But this is ground zero for the millennium."
Chris McGuire, a former software marketer turned stand-up comic, was the master of ceremonies, dishing out plenty of digitally themed barbs. Winners were supposed to limit their acceptance speeches to five words, and a few actually did, including a representative from Salon Magazine, who said only, "You ain't seen nothing yet."
The biggest cheers came at the end of the ceremony, when the winner of the Weird category was named. It was a strong field, with entrants including the Museum of Dirt, the Crash Site and The Onion. But the audience roared its approval when the award went to Bert Is Evil, a site centered on the stern Sesame Street character.
The site, at http://fractalcow.com/bert, has become a cult hit by placing Bert in all sorts of incriminating situations. There's Bert on the grassy knoll, Bert standing alongside Hitler and Bert dragging Ernie into a nudie bar.
Afterward, winners were supposed to congregate in a media area to answer questions. But fittingly, Bert Is Evil's creators--who flew in from the Philippines and the Netherlands--hid outside, wearing trench coats and not only smoking cigarettes but rolling their own.
"I felt I needed an icon to bash," said Dino Ignacio, 23, explaining why he created the site. "Everyone knows Sesame Street. I myself am a product of Sesame Street. In fact, I was very much affected by the death of Mr. Hooper as a child."
Somehow, that was all he needed to say.
After the awards, the crowd moved next door to the giant Exploratorium science museum for a post-Webbies bash. It remains unclear whether there will be a third installment of the awards because The Web magazine, published by International Data Group, folded in January.
But it appears to have gained a certain momentum that will be difficult to stop. "So many of these people work virtually," said show producer Tiffany Shlain, "that it's a great thing to get them all together physically."
A complete list of the Webby winners is posted at http://www.webbyawards.com