15 Questions for Tiffany Shlain

We check in with the founder of the Webby Awards.

Tiffany Shlain, mistress of the Webbys (6k jpeg)
Tiffany Shlain, Webby Awards hostess.

What first attracted you to the web?

Ones and zeros. Ultimately, it was the power for people to transform that code into color and ideas that first attracted me to the web.

How did the Webby Awards get started?

The Webby Awards was inspired from a now defunct magazine called The Web Magazine. At the time, I was the design director for their website, Web Central Station. The publisher knew of my background producing and directing independent films. He basically told me that they owned the word Webby, they had a minimal budget, and wanted to do an award show. This sounded very similar to the constraints I have been presented with in Indy filmmaking.

What were your goals? Were you trying to boost the web's credibility to the not-yet-wired world?

No. If anything, I was trying to dispel the hype. The Webby Awards takes a very irreverent approach to all the hyperboles that surrounds the internet. I constantly try to ground the event in the past.
        Last year, we held the first 3D webcast. Not to add another bell to the cacophony of whistles that the industry thumps on its chest each week. It was a reminder of hubris. Thousands of 3D glasses were sent to public. There was this beautiful moment during the show when 1000 people in the audience donned the glasses. Suddenly, I was whisked back into the 1950s, The Temptations were playing, and we were being told that 3D glasses were going to change the world and entertainment. Which sounds all too familiar with the way that the web is touted.
        The Webby Awards snap a Polaroid in time. Hopefully, they inspire us to wonder: What will the future say about us? And, conversely, they make us reflect on what the future looked like in the past – 3D Glasses, Picturephones, Eight-track tapes . . . unsinkable ships. Predicting the future is risky. So our goal is to honor the best websites, while also keeping perspective at the nascent stage of the industry. (However, the opposite of insufferable optimism is skepticism. And we are way too whimsical to be cynics. I am a skeptic not a cynic.)

How did you build support? Mailing lists, speeches, conspiracies over dinner, or what?

Conspiracies over dinner of course; and coffee breaks, high tea – whenever people would listen. Then our judges started talking – and our nominees respected our judges, and the online community loved our nominees, and the attendees loved the whisky sours – and the rest is history.

How do you account for the success of the Webbies?

A lot of personal commitment. We care. Not in the schmaltzy way. We truly believe in what we are doing. And people believe in what we are doing and the way that we are doing it.
        International Data Goup, our parent company, is also very supportive of honoring the best.
        Boy, that sounded like a schmaltzy commercial.

Explain the rationale behind your choice of judges. From Dennis Rodman to Esther Dyson is a pretty big spread.

We have 22 different categories. There are two tiers of judges, nominating judges and final judges. The nominating judges must be web savvy in their particular field. The final judges should just be experts in their particular category. Esther was a final judge for money/business last year. Dennis was a final judge for weird. Need I say more?

What's the mission of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences (IADAS) and how did you choose the group's members?

Founded in April 1998 and based on The Webby Awards judging academy of the last two years, The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (IADAS) is dedicated to the creative, technical, and professional progress of new media. The goal of the IADAS is to assemble a unique and brilliant panel of leading new media experts, Web visionaries, journalists, and luminaries to propel the new medium into the new millennium.
        Membership in the IADAS is currently by invitation only and is limited to those individuals who have achieved distinction in the digital arts and sciences or in their particular field of expertise. Charter members in the IADAS are made up of the judging academy and the principal creatives of all Webby Award-winning sites.
        I know, I know, that sounded so "Mission statementish."

Last year you charged a small, hand-picked group with the task of selecting nominees. Why the change?

Last year editors of The Web Magazine chose the nominees . I then assembled an academy of 95 judges to do the final judging. So basically, we had a staff of editors reviewing websites full-time, year round. The Web Magazine ceased publication two months before last year's show. The Webby Awards are still here – and thriving.
        We saw this as an opportunity to assemble not only final judges but also our nominating judges from throughout the industry. The International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences was created to establish a solid foundation for The Webby Awards and other future events to grow.

All awards shows are plagued by politics – or at least are accused of having political agendas. How do you guard against this?

We are always on guard for conflicts of interest. In fact, we spend a good majority of our time discussing ethical issues in regards to judges, sponsors, etc. We also have a policy of full disclosure with the public. We post on our website how sites are judged, who our judges are and our entire voting process. To further this goal, we are having our voting audited by an established auditing firm this year.

We all have detractors. What do you say to yours?

They would probably say that the web isn't developed enough to have an awards show. I would say anything that sets standards and raises the caliber of websites is what it takes to raise the bar.

Will the Webbies ever be as big as the Oscars and the Emmys?

Big as in four hours long? No. I don't think that we will ever be as big in that sense. Our acceptance speech rule is five words or less. People stick to it – and the audience loves it.
        The Webby Awards currently have as strong an impact and cache in the New Media Industry as The Oscars and the Emmys do in TV/Film. We hope to continue in this role – growing at the same rate of the web itself.

You've told me what first excited you about the web. What excites you now?

Open spaces in web design.

What has changed?

The design aesthetic has shifted to right. Postmodern warping back into modernism. Simple lines, simple information infrastructure. Designers are pushing away the code that was choking the flow of information. It is being stripped of the noise.

How do you feel about those changes?


You are also a filmmaker, and last I heard, you had a feature in post. Tell us about it.

Filmmaking is a dance that I choreographed, rehearsed, stumbled in, and finally learned to tango with in college. After graduating from UCBerkeley, I began work on my first long length film endeavor called Zoli's Brain. I have been working on this project intermittently for four years. It is about a sculptor who has a creative block. The film takes place inside of his mind, where the landscape is inspired and visualized from metaphors of the brain. For example, there is a biological clock shop, a restaurant where thoughts are entertained, a Memory Bank, brain cells – where forbidden thoughts are imprisoned and critical thought editing rooms. The film follows a muse on her quest to free his imprisoned thoughts by the censoring "Peace of Mind Patrol" who are attempting to numb his creativity. This film is in post production.

What do these two forms, movies and the web, have in common? How does your work in one influence your thinking in the other?

Creating an artistic experience manifests itself in many forms for me. The differences range from giving a safe space of a dark theater, a computer environment where the participant can control his or her path through a virtual world, and finally, a present space surrounding an unchanging sculpture. These are all are provocative realities that I hope to interweave into one undulating canvas.

Write your own epitaph.

Tiffany Shlain, 120, wife of Professor Ken Goldberg, mother of 2 Laughed, loved and scooped in life with both hands.

Breakfast at Tiffany's:

© 1995 — 2001 , 1999 Jeffrey Zeldman Presents        Credits