NY’s Tech Evolution Viewed by the Master of the Webutante Ball

In a city where people know people who know people, Richard Blakeley sits at the heart of a web that connects New York’s tech community.

That enviable position stems in part from his annual Webutante Ball. While preparing for next Thursday’s big gala, he spoke to Xconomy about the city’s evolution into a place not only to be seen, but to create new innovation.

Blakeley held the first Webutante Ball in 2009 and the event has grown into a casual, yet high profile way to meet the local who’s-who in tech. It also shows, from a social perspective, the diversity that makes up the city’s innovation scene.

“Take any industry from around the world that is based in New York, add tech to it, and that’s exactly what’s happening,” he says.

More than just a social butterfly, Blakeley is known largely for his prior editorial work at Gawker and Thrillist and does not expect the local innovation community to evaporate any time soon. “When Google has a massive space in Chelsea, Facebook is here, Twitter has an office here, and everybody else that’s a big name on the West Coast has an office here, it’s legit,” he says. “There are a lot of things happening that will solidify New York as a high-tech hub for many years to come.”

Since its inception, the Webutante Ball has been held in the midst of Internet Week New York, an annual spring series of programs to showcase Web-based companies and ideas being developed here. Blakeley calls Webutante an excuse for hackers to dress up (or not) and mingle with their peers—and possibly run into such people as Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley or David Karp, founder of Tumblr.

The festivities include the crowning of a king and a queen of the ball, chosen from the tech community by online vote. This year’s nominees for queen are:

Callie Schweitzer, director of marketing and communications at Vox Media.

Maura Johnston, founder of Maura Magazine.

Sarah Austin, star of Bravo’s “Start-Ups: Silicon Valley.”

Jenna Wortham, technology reporter with The New York Times.

Rachel Sklar, co-founder of The Li.st.

The nominees for king are:

Michael Martin, editor-in-chief of Time Out New York.

Josh Gondelman, co-creator of Twitter’s Modern Seinfeld.

Ben Hindman, co-founder of SplashThat.

Omri Mor and Colin Hodge, co-founders of Bang With Friends.

Jeremy Fisher, co-creator of Days App.

Webutante brings out New York's tech community.

A native of Northern California, Blakeley had a front row seat for the West Coast boom and sees a different dynamic coming together in New York. “In California, the tech scene happened because people were around electronics and working in their garages,” he says. “Here, people are close, connected, and solving real-world problems.”

The urban culture and lifestyle in this city, Blakeley says, spurs the development of technology that might not emerge elsewhere. “When I started [the ball], I didn’t think Foursquare could work outside of New York,” he says. “It was a great test bed for location services because people [here] don’t drive. They constantly meet up with friends after work and we have an amazing public transportation system.”

New York is saturated with networking parties for the tech scene, Blakeley admits, that have cropped up in recent years. It is rather common to see hackers and their ilk gather after work with laptops still strapped to their backs. He wanted to create a big, splashy event that stood out in the crowded landscape.

Naysayers might think the New York tech community is more concerned about partying than writing code, but Blakeley believes it’s a healthy way to bring developers and founders together. “Everybody can use a break once in a while,” he says.

The growth of the Webtutante Ball, which Blakeley says typically sells out its usual home at the Marquee nightclub in Chelsea, is a bit of reflection of the city’s efforts to firm up its innovation ecosystem. “As the tech scene’s flourished, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped create, it is interesting to see this mature and going strong as he leaves office,” he says.

[Blakeley is offering Xconomy readers a discount (as long as tickets are available) if they use the code XCON13 to register online.]

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