The first time I went to South by Southwest in 2005 it was an amazing experience (this was before it grew so massively large that its gravity well sucked in all the social media marketing biz dudes in the universe):
I’ve never met so many wonderful people gathered together in one place. It was tribal in the true sense of the word (that would be the cool, fun-loving sense as opposed to the hippy-dippy sense).
There was a great sense of openness and sharing. In a way, it was like the web made flesh—a terrific community of enthusiastic people eager and willing to share their knowledge and experience.
Towards the end of the week, there was the annual web awards show. Everything else about South by Southwest had been so great, I figured I’d go along to that too. Also, someone I know had been nominated for an award.
It was like stepping into opposite-web. The mood switched from one of sharing and openness to one of basically not giving a shit. Everyone in the room was there because either they or someone they knew had been nominated for an award, and that’s all they cared about. Everything before and after that point in the awards ceremony was irrelevant.
In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. If the point of the web and community gatherings—like the SxSW of yore—is for individuals to be subsumed into a larger group that is greater than the sum of its parts, then the whole point of an awards ceremony is to do the exact opposite: to single out some individuals in the group.
I made the mistake of going back to the Southby awards ceremony a year or two later, simply because Ze Frank was presenting it. “How bad could it be?” I thought. But even the inimitable Ze couldn’t save the day.
Every so often, some smart, talented web designers will bemoan the lack of recognition afforded to their
craft, industry, . They wish for the same level of respect that architects or film-makers get, or for the iconic status given to the best of the advertising world’s output in decades past.
Be careful what you wish for, I say. Not only are these the same industries that are rife with horrible business practices like spec work, they are notoriously unfair when it comes to praising individual achievement over the efforts of the group. Worst of all, the proliferation of high-profile awards leads to the practice of producing “award-winning work” i.e. work designed purely to win awards.
I’ve spoken before about the spirit of the web; how I believe certain design principles have influenced the creation and growth of the web. I see that same spirit imbued in online communities and tools like Github. I don’t see that same spirit in the awarding of prizes.