Friday, October 24, 2008

The Chutzpah of Ignoring History

Google won a Chutzpah of the Week award for throwing the super-exclusive party in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention, which was trying like hell to put up the front that theirs would be a ticket of national unity across all strata of society. AIG did not win one for the $440,000 spa getaway they organized at the St. Regis hotel in Laguna Niguel within days of receiving $85 billion worth of government bailout money, but only because even more outrageous things (relating to the election) were happening that week. This week they were in the running again for hitting up the Federal Reserve for another $90.3 billion, but I have to confess that they were scooped basically because I always prefer sticking it to the Web 2.0 set. Thus I have Caroline McCarthy to thank for the latest post to her CNET blog, The Social, for at least giving Laguna Niguel a second crack at being a venue for chutzpah:

When the economy heads south, anything involving beaches and luxury resorts is a terrific recipe for guaranteed bad press.

That's why there was a fine line to be walked at the WebbyConnect conference, the second annual retreat-slash-ideafest organized by the directors of the annual Webby Awards. In the diverse vegetable patch of media conferences, this one is the organic arugula. The venue was the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel resort, a sprawling beachfront complex and occasional filming spot for MTV's haute-reality soap Laguna Beach, just down the road from the St. Regis hotel where American International Group executives famously spent $440,000 on a spa getaway days after an $85 billion government bailout.

But even with wallets shrinking and belts tightening across technology, digital media, and advertising, the people who shelled out more than $2,000 for a WebbyConnect ticket insisted on one thing: this event, unlike so many others on the industry's calendar, is worth the price tag.

"What an amazing, diverse group of people we have gathered under this roof, and I know that's a cliche but like most cliches, it's true," Jamie Pallot, editorial director of Conde Nast's CondeNet, observed while moderating a panel on Wednesday. "We all work for a bunch of very different companies, we play wildly different roles in those companies...what brings us all together here and what we are excited about is the innovation that technology can bring, and how that can change the places where we work, and what we can do in those places."

Getting to the intimate, 200-person conference from the entrance to the Ritz involved winding through groves of palm trees and ponds of bright orange and white koi, past stunning ocean vistas dotted with surfers and pools surrounded by the resort's usual clientele, wealthy retirees in town for Orange County's famed golfing. The three half-days worth of conference panels featured a slew of digital media's glitterati, from The Huffington Post CEO Betsy Morgan to The New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., to Aaron Koblin, the Google Creative Labs designer who worked on the video for Radiohead's "House of Cards."

As the reader can tell, McCarthy herself preferred seeing stars (presumably on someone else's nickel), rather than a case study in conspicuous consumption. Her report focused on the free-flowing California wine rather than the evangelical Kool-Aid. Nevertheless, this was a highly exclusive event, possibly in the same league as the Google shindig in Denver. Now I doubt that presenting the WebbyConnect organizers with the Chutzpah of the Week award will persuade them to stop throwing circuses and start thinking about bread, but at least the award can serve to hold them up as an example of the real priorities of Internet evangelism for all those in need of bread to see.

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