Brains and Beauty: Vancouver Digital Goes 2.0

The Vancouver digital industry is coming of age. This year's bounty of Webby Award nominations bolster the city's reputation as an incubator of Web 2.0 innovations.

In front of the camera is one reason Vancouver digitalpunches above its weight, Stewart Butterfield. And behind it, another: Kris Krug.

The Vancouver digital industry is coming of age. This year’s bounty of Webby Award nominations bolster the city’s reputation as an incubator of Web 2.0 innovations.

The Webby Awards – which each year recognize websites that embody excellence on the Internet – just celebrated their 12th annual edition. They are the Internet world’s version of the Academy Awards – only they run much shorter. (Webby winners are permitted five words for their acceptance speeches.) And the speeches rely less on rhetorical loft: In 2005 Al Gore brought the house down with his thank you for Lifetime Achievement: “Please don’t recount this vote.”

This year the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (IADAS) received 8,000 submissions from 60 countries. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary web users from around the world voted on sites in more than 100 categories that run the gamut from Best Web Writing (won by to Best Visual Design ( to Best Homepage (Los Angeles Film School). The June ceremonies also cemented the emergence of Web 2.0 – which is, in a nutshell, the idea of using the Internet not simply as a source of news and entertainment but as a platform for creativity, information-sharing and, most importantly, collaboration.

The concept uniting Web 2.0 firms is that their content is provided by users, usually for free – and the idea is starting to demolish the long-standing platforms upon which information is passed and business  done. Vancouver, as it turns out, is part of the advance demolition crew, with local websites such as NowPublic, Flickr and Raincity Studios leading the way to 2.0. This year’s winner of the Community Webby Award was Flickr – founded by Vancouver’s Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield in February 2004 and bought by Yahoo in March 2005 for an undisclosed amount.

The photo-sharing site is one of 2.0’s earliest applications, and it now hosts more than two billion pictures. NowPublic, launched by locals Michael Tippett, Leonard Brody and Michael Meyers in 2005, is a pioneer of citizen journalism and last year achieved the largest 2.0 coup to date – signing a deal to sell user-generated social news to the Associated Press. Raincity Studios Inc. is another rising star in the world of building “people-powered communities” – which amounts, says president Kris Krug, to growing the content and raising the clamour of opinion on your website. The reason is simple: the web is where people find you.

Brains are nothing without looks, and web collaboration, however innovative, is nothing without an interface that entices. In websites this means simplicity. The trend, as identified by recent Webby winners, is toward liberal use of white space and away from Flash animation, sunbursts of colour, numerous typefaces and general clutter. Scanning the winners, it’s clear that websites are emerging from their adolescence, with its concomitant penchant for bling and exaggeration, and entering a Banana Republic adulthood of subtlety and understatement.

Next to the leading websites of today, the sites of yesteryear look like the ’59 Eldorado out of your father’s photo album – all baroque swoops and fins and conical tail lights. Back then ornateness felt like futurism. Today, in websites and cars, we prize the clean line.

Interestingly, the New York Times – which picked up two 2008 Webbys, for Best News and Best Newspaper and over 11 years has a Webby-leading eight trophies – decided to savage the ceremonies in its technology-business blog, Bits. They’re irrelevant, sneered contributor Saul Hansell; we may as well be giving out awards for the best uses of paper – “the best supermarket tabloid, the most disingenuous autobiography by a former government official, the best folding of a paper airplane.” (Pity there’s no Webby for “Best Use of Lacerating Sarcasm on the Way to the Podium.”)

But Hansell’s dismissal is misguided. The web may be a generic medium, but unlike paper is has no fixed state. With so many uses (and misuses) possible, celebrating best practices makes sense. The days of web design and functionality being the concern solely of young urbanites are over. The technological landscape is changing quickly, and intelligent businesspeople will see this as a boon, not a threat. As we hurtle into a digital economy, a well-conceived website that uses Web 2.0 innovations like blogging, wikis, video hosting and community forums will not only get your message to potential customers more efficiently; it will help you create a branded space where those customers can interact.

Oh, and the best part? It will cost you next to nothing. And that’s something to celebrate.

John Bucher is digital editor of BCBusiness.