NSFW: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crunchies

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cpp498x333I’ve never understood the attraction of CES.

Why in January – a month set aside for recovering from the excesses of the holiday season – thousands of people would fly to Las Vegas for a gigantic tradeshow. Why they’d even consider spending four days wandering around an aircraft hanger filled with vastly oversized television sets, or sitting through endless product launches that are being simulcast online anyway.

Why they’d subject themselves to three nights of well drinks at a succession of disappointing after-parties before passing out in overpriced, soulless hotel rooms that charge $10 a day for wifi. Frankly why they’d willingly submit themselves to any of those horrors when they could simulate the entire experience from home simply by wiring a thousand dollars to Steve Wynn, dropping a tab of acid and then heading to Best Buy with a hooker.

Still, there was a moment earlier this week when I thanked the gods that CES exists. And that was the moment when Heather Harde emailed Sarah and me, politely but firmly informing us that we were introducing this year’s Crunchies. CES clashes directly with the Crunchies, an overlap that at least meant fewer people would be in San Francisco to witness the inevitable train wreck of us standing on stage, trying to make jokes about Twitter.

Which is not to say that we didn’t do our best to write a non-trainwrecky introduction. On the contrary, the day before the ceremony we decamped to the lobby of the W Hotel for two whole hours where – fuelled by Champagne (Sarah) and cheeseburgers (me) – we brainstormed ideas. We are after all, professionals.

“How about this? ‘Hello and welcome the Crunchies. We want to start with a couple of jokes about Spotify, mainly because if we wait until the end they’ll probably be out of business'”.

“Meh. It’s only funny ‘cos it’s true.”

“Good point. Okay, how about a Bing joke? Are there any Bing jokes?”

“No. But I just got another email from Heather. She says she’s willing to dress up in a gorilla suit if we think it’ll be funny.”

“It may yet come to that. What else is funny?”

“People slipping on banana peels are funny.”

“People slipping on banana peels are funny.”

“Shall we do that?”

“No.”

Still at least by agreeing to open the show, our night’s work would be over after four minutes and we could head out to the auditorium to watch the award presentations. Like hundreds of thousands of other people, I’d cast my votes in the awards – although I’d completely forgotten for whom – and so was eagerly anticipating the results. More specifically I was looking forward to bitching when my preferred winners inevitably failed to even scrape in as runners up. (My inability to pick winners is just one of the many reasons why I made a terrible book publisher.)

Sure enough, barely ten minutes into the main event, I found myself gripping the arms of my chair and gnashing my teeth in frustration and despair as yet another of my votes turned out to be for nought. “The Nook as best gadget?! No one even has a Nook!”

Talking to friends after the after-party, I realised I wasn’t alone: almost everyone I ran into had a complaint about at least one of the results. But, then again, that’s how it was supposed to be. The whole point of the Crunchies is that they’re voted for by the public – the readers of TechCrunch, GigaOm and Venture Beat – and as such they represent the wisdom of the crowd, not some cabal of Silicon Valley insiders – soi-disant experts, out of touch with what services and apps the real Internet users use. Vox populi, vox dei.

Sure.

Okay.

That kind of democra-fetishism might make sense for consumer awards like The Webbies – which, perversely, are awarded by a cabal of insiders – but it’s completely ludicrous for an event specifically aimed at industry professionals. Don’t get me wrong, there are some seriously smart and well-informed people who read TechCrunch – you, dear reader, are one of them. But for every one of you, there is your polar opposite: the kind of knuckle-dragging jizz-wit who  is – even as we speak – scrolling down to the comments to ask what, exactly, about this column is Not Safe For Work. And I have no reason to believe that the same ratio of smart to dumb isn’t true for GigaOm and Venture Beat. We wouldn’t trust these people to review a dive bar on Yelp so why on earth should we trust them to vote whether Jeremy Stoppelman & Russ Simmons are worthy Founders of the Year?

“But” – you might argue – “that’s the great thing about the masses; if you have enough people voting then the majority of intelligent people drive out the minority of idiots.”

Sure.

Okay.

Even accepting that the majority of our readers are smart and well-informed, there still remains an inevitable problem that occurs whenever huge numbers of people vote for something: the most popular nominee – as opposed to the best qualified – always wins. It could be total coincidence that Facebook has won the Overall Best Startup for three years running, but it isn’t. 2009 was, by any metric you care to use, the year of Twitter. And yet we’re supposed to believe that Facebook – a company that more than any other has been racing to mirror Twitter these past twelve months by buying Friendfeed, changing the language of its status messages and rapidly shifting from private to public – is a more worthy winner? Because of Facebook Connect? Oh please. Facebook won for one reason: it has between 15 to 20 times more users than Twitter and so is at the front of more people’s minds when they come to vote.

Worse still, public voting is such a flawed way to hand out industry awards that even sensible results are rendered all but meaningless. Consider Ron Conway: a more deserving winner of Best Angel it is impossible to imagine. Not only did Ron keep his investment head while all those around were losing theirs, but he is also a dedicated philanthropist and one of the nicest men you could wish to meet: if he hadn’t picked up the Best Angel gong, then the world would have been destroyed in a supernova of wrongness. And yet, as Heather pointed out as she handed over the award, Ron has invested in hundreds of companies – to the point where almost everyone in the theatre, and by extension, thousands of those who voted for the Crunchies had some kind of connection with him. As a result, it’s impossible to know whether Ron won on his obvious merit or simply because he has name recognition and popular appeal – and that kind of uncertainty does a worthy winner a huge disservice.

The same is true of Mark Pincus who picked up CEO of the year. There’s a powerful argument for Pincus winning the award: his response to Scamville and pledge to turn over a new leaf is, arguably, an example to us all. And yet there’s an equally powerful argument that Tony Hsieh was an even more logical winner this year, having built Zappos into one of the best respected ecommerce companies on the planet, before selling it to Amazon for $928m. But again public voting makes that debate irrelevant: thanks (ironically) to Scamville, Pincus has a ton more recent name recognition than Hsieh and so the award was his by a landslide. Hsieh didn’t even come in as runner up.

And what about Aaron Patzer as founder of the year? Mint is a cool company which enjoyed a decent enough $170 million exit. But, then again, if you want to talk about cool exists, the runners up – Stoppelman and Simmons from Yelp – just turned down half a billion from Google. The key difference between the two companies is that – thanks in large part to TechCrunch’s championing them since they won TC40 – Mint has an image as the cool newcomer, while Yelp is considered old hat. Meanwhile Elon Musk, the dude who built an electric car company for Christ’s sake, doesn’t fit into the narrative at all and so doesn’t even make the top two.

We at TechCrunch need to accept our part in all this ridiculousness. Look at all of the winners this year and you start to see a  pattern. Foursquare won best mobile app – an award they should rightfully share with MG; Animoto – Arrington’s favourite – won best design; Chrome OS and Google Wave – which we’ve covered endlessly, despite no one understanding the latter – shared the top spots in Best Technological Achievement. These were awards chosen by the public and yet they almost perfectly reflect the narrative that we have been subconsciously writing all year. You can argue it either way: that TechCrunch writers are freakishly good at spotting what’s popular, or that TechCrunch writers make things popular – but either way, it’s painfully obvious that Crunchies are won and lost based on a media profile we’ve helped to created, rather than any kind of objective merit.

So what? So if I were one of the winners this year I’d be rightfully proud of my success, but I hope I’d also be confident enough in my merits to lobby for next year’s awards to be judged differently. Specifically, I’d encourage the organisers – TechCrunch, GigaOm and Venture Beat – to make a decision: are the Crunchies going to continue as a popularity contest, or are they going to become a true award for excellence? If the former, then fine – popularity is a perfectly legitimate metric, especially for an industry where fortunes are built on eyeballs and traction. But then at least the categories should be renamed. Replace “best…” with “most popular…”. Call a spade a spade.

If on the other hand, we really want the Crunchies to be our industry’s highest accolade then it’s time we took a leaf from the book of every other media industry and created a formal judging academy, made up of industry experts, succesful entrepreneurs, veteran investors and previous winners. Produce clear guidelines on how each award should be judged and publish those guidelines online for all to see. That way, even though everyone would still disagree passionately with the results, they could at least be confident that something resembling critical and expert thought had gone into the process.

Of course no system is perfect – and there’s every possibility that Mark Zuckerberg will still find himself on stage in 2011 picking up his fourth Crunchie. But at least next year he might look a bit less embarrassed when he does so.

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