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We've come a long way, baby

The Internet has become an infinitely more exciting place since The Webby Awards started back in 1997. It is now a place where short films can be used to spark global conversations.

Tiffany Shlain The Filmmaker
Tiffany Shlain is a filmmaker, speaker and founder of the Webby Awards. Four of her films premiered at Sundance, and her AOL original series, "The Future Starts Here," was nominated for an Emmy. She runs the Moxie Institute film studio and a nonprofit called Let it Ripple, which offers thousands of schools and organizations worldwide free films and resources.
Tiffany Shlain
7 min read

I don't remember the astronauts landing on the moon, but I'll never forget the moment I first encountered the World Wide Web...

Rewind (imagine wavy colors on the screen for my flashback moment) to the 1980s. I was in high school. Think crimped hair, acid wash jeans, the Walkman and floppy disks. I was obsessed with early Apple computers, their potential, and co-wrote a proposal called "Uniting Nations in Telecommunications & Software," which landed me in the Soviet Union as a student ambassador in 1988 talking about the possibilities of a world where everyone could communicate via personal computers.

Cut to 1992. After graduating from UC Berkeley as a filmmaker, I paid for my films by working in technology. I was working in Seattle on a CD-Rom (remember those?) on the musician Sting and someone called me over to his computer and said, "You have to see this thing called The Web! There is this thing called a 'website' where Sting fans from all over the world are connecting to talk about his music!" I remember thinking, "This is it! A network connecting people all over the world through personal computers is coming to life!" I wanted to use, stretch, create with and show everyone this amazing thing called the Web.

Soon, I was immersed in all things Web. It was 1996. I was working for The Web Magazine in San Francisco, and I was given the opportunity to create The Webby Awards from scratch. At the time, there were only 16 million people online, which was exciting in its "maverick-people-on-the-edges-creating-a-new-medium" way. I wanted to celebrate the early pioneers in the Web, while also rethinking the whole model of an award show. It was playful, ironic. It was a spoof of the Oscars with a red carpet, vintage paparazzi, and short films projected on circular screens, interactive art installations about how tech was changing our lives.

Musician Dave Grohl presents an award at the 19th annual Webby Awards in May.
Musician Dave Grohl presents an award at the 19th annual Webby Awards in May. Brian Ach / Getty Images for Webby Awards

We also established the five-word acceptance speech rule (long before our "140 character" limits). At that first Webby Awards in 1997, there were lines around the block, enthusiastic scrappy pioneers getting feted, and international press. The winners from the first Webbys were sites like Salon, Feed, Suck and Britannica Online (Wikipedia did not exist yet). While The Webbys thrived, The Web Magazine was ahead of its time and was closed. I knew the Webbys were just at the beginning of their potential and brought on a very keen mind I had worked with on an astronomy CD-Rom, Maya Draisin (now head of marketing for WIRED), to build a company and organization with me that could support it. In 1998, along with Spencer Ante from The Web Magazine and our small team, we co-founded The International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences (wanting to create a name as big as we imagined the Web would be). We brought together a diverse group of luminaries to judge, PricewaterhouseCoopers to officially audit the judging, and secured sponsors to allow the show to continue to grow. At one point New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown were fighting over which city should host The Webbys. San Francisco created a whole team to keep the Webbys happily there for nearly a decade before it finally moved to New York.

Being in San Francisco in the mid-nineties during the first Internet boom -- it felt like you were part of creating a brave new world. We had sold out 3,000 person shows at the San Francisco Opera House honoring everyone pushing the standards forward. The New York Times hailed it "The Oscars of the internet." Hosts of the show included Marc Maron and Alan Cumming, and I will never forget when Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page rollerbladed onto the Webby Award stage in capes in 2000. At the time, Google was a new startup that was getting better search results than Alta Vista.

Shortly afterward, the bubble burst and many websites went bust. The media couldn't wait to report that "the Web was just a fad," but I always thought that it was just very public R&D.

The period after that crash was a real soul-searching time for the tech industry. Then about a year after the Internet crash, the real crash to the soul of our country happened on September 11, 2001. It was a period of rebuilding for everyone. As a filmmaker and technologist, I also did a lot of soul searching post-crash. I wanted to take everything I learned from The Webbys and experiments online and combine them with the power of filmmaking in a way that would allow for a new way of sharing ideas. I will never forget the moment video was really available online for longer than 30 seconds with the founding of YouTube in 2005. I saw the power of the Web + film to spark change, and I knew immediately that I had to go back to making films full time. We sold The Webbys to a company who has continued to nurture and grow them and I started a film studio in San Francisco that would look at combining two powerful ways to share ideas -- video and the Web. So after nearly a decade with The Webbys, in 2006, The Moxie Institute Film Studio + Lab was born.

Fast-forward to today.

Google is not just a company, it is a verb.

The Webby Awards are thriving, and the 20th Webbys will be held in New York next year.

We've gone from 16 million people online to close to 3 billion. Over a third of the planet is online. It's infinitely more exciting with this scale and what you can do.

And it's infinitely more exciting to be a filmmaker. Films are no longer just released in theaters or television -- now they are also released online. We have Netflix, HBO GO, AOL, Amazon, Hulu, Vimeo and many other online platforms like YouTube where original content is born.

Screens have officially blurred: we're streaming Internet on big screens and watching films on tiny screens. And content can be any length as long as its good. When I was still doing The Webby Awards, I had my first short film at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. Back then short films were relegated to the step-sister of feature films. People would say there isn't really a business model for shorts. As a filmmaker and entrepreneur in 2015, I can happily share that is no longer the case. In 2013, AOL asked me to create a short film original series, which I called "The Future Starts Here." We've made two seasons of 16 five minute episodes.

I have also explored short films as a way to spark global conversations. We started a nonprofit, Let It Ripple: Mobile FIlms for Global Change, where we make films collaboratively with people all over the world through the Internet (we call them "Cloud Films"). We then host "Global Cloud Film Premieres," where we dedicate one day of the year for people who care about an issue to get together and watch a film online and have productive discussions about how to make positive change. On September 18, 2015, we will premiere two new short films in this way. The day is called "Character Day" and the films are about the non-academic skills -- the "life" skills -- needed to be successful in today's global society. There are already 4,000 schools, classrooms and organizations signed up to host screenings and events around character education that day. We will be joining all of these screenings together with one Google Hangout that will unify the conversation and provide participants with an opportunity to ask questions and interact with each other. It's free and everyone's invited. Last year we had participants from 120 countries and 3,000 cities. This global connection never would have been possible 20 years ago and certainly not 25 years ago when I first imagined "Uniting Nations in Telecommunications and Software."

I believe it will be less than five years before everyone on the planet who wants to be online will be. I cannot wait for that moment -- and I do think it will be as exciting as watching the first person walking on the moon. Now, while I sound only like an advocate of all things Web, I should also mention that I also make a lot of films that explore what we need to be thinking about with technology, like when it's good to disconnect. My husband and children and I are on our sixth year of unplugging from all screens for one day a week, which has been huge for our ability to find balance in this 24/7 world.

I want to end with one of my my favorite five word acceptance speeches from The Webbys. It was in 2006 with Prince receiving a Lifetime Achievement in New York at the 10th annual Webbys. Prince's 5 word acceptance speech was "Whatever you think, is true." I love these 5 words for a number of reasons. First, it helps me have more compassion for people who I don't always agree with, and I also think it's about willing things into existence through your mindset. Oh, the wisdom of Prince.

Photo by Marla Aufmuth