Susan Lucci, I feel your pain.
In what the Netly News has dubbed the “Oscars for the taped-glasses set,” my Web site (alone representing Silicon Alley) got its ass kicked last month by Silicon Valley. In a San Francisco music hall stocked with Web celebrities and hundreds of computer professionals, New York City’s hopes for capturing the Cool Site of the Year award were, sadly, dashed.
And while it’s supposed to be “an honor just to be nominated” (as La Lucci has been forced to claim at Emmy ceremonies since 1953), the tiny staff of The Smoking Gun www.thesmokinggun.com can’t help but feel that we somehow let down every New Yorker, from Red Burns to Rudy Giuliani.
In its third year, the Cool Site competition is probably the best-known of the Web’s various annual honors. Sponsored by InfiNet www.infi.net, a Virginia-based internet service provider partly owned by the Gannett and Knight-Ridder newspaper chains, the awards are given in nine separate categories, including best design, programming, and writing. Past winners have included HotWired, Netscape, The Spot, and the Discovery Channel, which copped the 1996 Cool Site of the Year crown.
Award nominees (five in each category) were drawn from a pool of 365 sites that, during the past year, won daily honors from InfiNet’s Cool Site of the Day site. The finalists emerged after each of the 365 sites voted for their individual favorites. Then, for two months beginning in early August, voting was open to the Web-surfing public. At that point, nominees could begin pimping for votes from friends, family, coworkers, and visitors to their Web site.
When the staff of The Smoking Gun learned of our Cool Site nomination, we hastily gathered in our designer Barbara Glauber’s Broadway office to plot campaign strategy. At the time, our site-which features scanned-in copies of “cool, confidential, and quirky” documents-was barely four months old and not nearly as well-known as the competition.
So, Agenda Item One was obvious: could we fix the election? Mike Essl, our 23-year-old programmer, was confident that-through the wonders of modern technology-we could level the playing field between us and the competition, which included the humor site The Onion and beZerk, producer ofthe wildly popular You Don’t Know Jack games.
Alas, we decided to play it straight, abandoning our Richard Daley pretenses. We would rely on the strength of our content and design-a decision we would unfortunately come to regret.
The Smoking Gun concept is pretty simple: hunt down interesting documents, scan them in, and write pithy headlines and introductions. We’re not (that) ashamed to admit trafficking in all the tabloid staples: JonBenet Ramsey (ransom note, autopsy report, search warrants), Bill Cosby, Sammy Gravano (FBI debriefings), Martha Stewart, MarvAlbert (DNA report), Frank and Kathie Lee, and others. Weget this stuff-police reports, lawsuits, FBI dossiers, etc.-through Freedom of Information Act requests, via courtfiles nationwide, and from good old confidential sources.
But the site, which is updated twice weekly, is not alwaysso lowbrow. We’ve featured documents on John Lennon, Martin Luther King Jr., Waco, Bill Gates, Oklahoma City, and assorted FBI screwups-material that can actually be educational and, at times, rather titillating (a killer combo, we’ve discovered).
And what does this stuff add to the public discourse? Well, um, nothing. But how can one fail to embrace the abject beauty of a Michigan police report detailing the DUI arrest of comedian Tim Allen (real name: Timothy Alan Dick)? “Mr. Dick was asked to recite the alphabet,” the May 1997 report states. “Mr. Dick attempted the alphabet, but when he reached the letter ‘O’ he then stated ‘Q, R, Z.’ ”
This is the kind of top-drawer material that prompted one visitor to generously offer to engage in phone sex with us, while another fan claimed that he would “crawl into a hole and eat lettuce the rest of my life” if we ceased operations. On the other hand, a week’s worth of documents on Howard Stern infuriated fans of the radio personality. “HOWARD STERN IS GOD !!!” one man wrote, while another e-mailed a death threat set off by exactly 847 exclamation points.
But with our audience steadily growing (and the threats numbering just a few), we were feeling pretty confident upon arrival in San Francisco for the October 20 Cool Site ceremony. Held in the Great American Music Hall, a 1907 jewel box just up the street from the landmark Mitchell Brothers porno pavilion, the awards drew several hundred attendees. Presenters included musician-composer? multimedia guy Thomas Dolby, Suck cofounder Carl Steadman, and Robert X. Cringely, host of Triumph of the Nerds, PBS’s history of the computer industry.
Mingling among hundreds of Web designers, programmers, and content providers, The Smoking Gun (that would be me and coeditor Daniel Green) struck up a conversation with a young techie named Thor, who gleefully explained (in great detail) how last year he hacked into the Cool Site system and came close to rigging the election for a client.
As he spoke of writing scripts and breaking codes, we worried that Thor might inquire about our own technical credentials, of which we have none. Unable to even fake it, we would have to admit that we’ve never multitasked, have no idea what URL stands for, and couldn’t tell a JPEG from a GIF. Christ, we own one 14.4 modem between us, and my computer’s a fucking 286!
Probably sensing that we didn’t belong in the vicinity of Silicon Valley, the judges gave the Cool Site of the Year award to the Bay Area’s beZerk (though we’re certain we won the popular vote). When the final envelope of the night was opened and the presenters didn’t shout, “The Smoking Gun!,” we were pissed. Didn’t these nerds know Entertainment Weekly called us one of the 30 most entertaining sites “in the world”? Were these geeks unaware that even New York Post cyber babe Cindy Adams has saluted us (above a column item about Brooke Astor, no less!)?
When some online reporter interviewed us after the fix was unveiled, we politely expressed our displeasure with the result. But his subsequent report wildly misquoted us, claiming we vowed to “get the dirt” on beZerk and that we said “Give us a few months, and they’ll be under indictment.”
Though awardless, The Smoking Gun didn’t return home empty-handed. A preshow visit to the California superior court turned up some wonderful content involving a celebrity. The man, two former assistants alleged in sexual harassment lawsuits, had stuck his tongue in one woman’s ear, fondled the breasts of both plaintiffs, and suggested that one woman would have to trim her pubic hair to a more acceptable length.
These documents were better than any lousy trophy, we decided later. But don’t get us wrong, we’d still love your vote for 1998’s “Still Cool Site of the Year.”