NEW YORK (MainStreet) Internet Week is an annual New York phenomenon, a four-day festival with speakers on multiple stages excavating the web in its current state. Imagine a music festival like Bonnaroo ... but in a highly air-conditioned building with people dressed a lot more professionally.
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The event has been around six years, but it's grown dramatically in size. Its character has also started to shift over the years, and more markedly so since its acquisition by Crain Communications last year. There are still some people with a more bohemian startup vibe, though it would also seem that everywhere you look, there are heads of ad agencies or chief marketing officers looking for new digital ideas.
For the lay of the land on the conference and the ways its mission has shifted, we spoke to Festival Director Caroline Waxler.
What are the overall goals of Internet Week?
Caroline Waxler: The biggest general goal is to showcase NYC as the premier city for technology. The Internet Week festival was started six years ago in conjunction with the City of New York to shine a light on New York's tech startups. We want to be a place where business culture and tech meet. From the city's perspective, NYC wants to promote the fact that New York is the place to be for tech, and we need to get the word out there, so talent knows that this is where all these great things are happening.
What's the main motivation for a business to attend Internet Week?
Waxler: People want to keep up on what's new, see what's going on with the latest startups, and to network. A lot of brands are here, so from the point of view of a startup, you can just go and talk to people who are important decision-makers, unlike many other conferences. So from the attendees' perspective, Internet Week is a great place to do business and make deals.
Other companies choose to hold conferences that are co-located, so they will rent out space next door or nearby. For example, Twitter has been doing a co-located conference for marketers talking about how to use Twitter for brands. This year at Internet Week, Twitter debuted a platform to integrate Twitter advertising with TV.
Do you think Internet Week is mostly a mirror for what's happening in New York tech, or does it influence, too?
Waxler: Internet Week happens at a nice time in the year when things tend to happen in the tech space, when people tend to come to New York, deals are announced, people make connections, and so on. Just this week, Yahoo announced its Tumblr acquisition, and Seamless and GrubHub announced a merger. I can't speak to timing and whether Internet Week was a direct influence, but this is a good time of year for the event to happen. Internet Week is the best place to make an announcement, and over the years, it's been a big place to break news in tech.
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How has Internet Week changed over time?
Waxler: It's gotten exponentially bigger. The first year there weren't any headquarters. The number of people and events have multiplied, and people are coming from farther and farther away. This year, there were people here from Belfast, Peru, Sweden and more. The New York City Mayor's Office had the digital leads from lots of different cities come and present the most interesting things their cities are doing digitally. That included Paris, Belfast, Shanghai, Buenos Aires. The NYC Mayor's Office was arguably the first in the United States to have a Chief Digital Officer, Rachel Sterne Haot. A lot of others followed.
Has there been a shift in the population or focus of Internet Week?
Waxler: There's more of a focus now on business deals getting done here. Before, it wasn't so much about deals getting done, so now we want to have a mixture of that business aspect and the artsy, community feeling. For example, there was an interactive art show at Internet Week this year, curated by Eyebeam. The conference is creative, but I'm also seeing a lot of deals getting done this year.
Internet Week was acquired by Crain Communications last year: what effect has that had?
Waxler: Crain took a majority stake in Internet Week, which they bought from a company then known as Recognition Media, now called Webby Media Group. They still have a minority stake in the event and are great at recognizing people and having award shows. But they felt they had gotten the festival as big as they could, and Crain has expertise at live events. It was [Advertising Age publisher] Allison Arden's vision to bring Internet Week into the Crain fold.
We've added a lot more content tracks to recognize New York's character this year. Before, it was mostly CEOs of advertising and marketing companies, but we've made an effort to reflect New York more. We added a day devoted to fashion and beauty technology, because fashion is such big part of New York. We also had a sports day to talk about sports technology and how companies like Major League Baseball have become digital powerhouses, and a day focused on tech in the food industry. For the first time, we also introduced a series on women in tech. I was thrilled to see that there are many more women walking around headquarters than in past years.
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Has the demographic of Internet Week changed, too?
Waxler: It's probably become a bit more professional. In a way, it's switched from people seeking jobs to people hiring for jobs. I'm honored that there are so many thought leaders in one place. Many people who are typically on stage at a conference like this were in the audience. Speakers were returning day after day, even after their sessions were over, just to attend.
Do you think that the influx of professional-types to this formerly underground festival is representative of the 'mainstream-ification' of the internet in general?
Waxler: Well, different sorts of people who normally don't talk about tech and who hadn't even heard of Internet Week are now hearing about it. Some of them are unexpected. Fred Armisen dropped in, and speakers included less typical faces for a tech event, like Proenza Schouler and the CMO of Amtrak. We've never done that before. This shows me that companies are valuing the Internet Week audience and want to get in front of it. It's kind of like Comic Con, but for techies. That also means that the internet is not a weird subculture anymore, not exclusionary. It's now open and welcoming and important for every business to not only have a site, but to know how to really navigate the digital world.
--Written by Allison Kate in New York
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