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State of the Web: Glass half full

Looking past the dot-com debacle, Webby Awards impresario Tiffany Shlain says more people are using the Web than ever--to the point where things are really starting to get interesting.

Editor's note: As the United States marks the 10th anniversary of its first Web page, CNET is publishing a series of interviews examining the changes wrought by this breakthrough invention's past--and its future.

When Tiffany Shlain was 17 years old, she became a student ambassador to the Soviet Union with the goal of connecting Soviet and American students through computers and modems. On arriving in the U.S.S.R., however, Shlain found that her Soviet counterpart "had abacuses instead of calculators," and her hope of getting students to communicate by computer was forestalled.

Nine years later, in 1996, Shlain was working as the design director for The Web Magazine when she created what was, at the time, one of a half-dozen awards organizations bestowing honors on Web sites. Years after the demise of The Web Magazine--along with a number of Webby-honored sites--the Webby Awards has become the premier international schmooze-fest and awards show for the Web, bringing together entrants from 27 countries around the world at last count.

Held first in 1997 in a San Francisco nightclub, the awards ceremony has since grown to fill San Francisco's cavernous War Memorial Opera House. Celebrated for its five-word limit on acceptance speeches and its democratic, Web-based "People's Choice Awards," the ceremonies rely on the work of more than 300 judges.

Shortly after issuing the Webby Awards' call for entries, Shlain spoke to CNET about the state of the Web with particular reference to the dot-com bust and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Q: The Web was in its own state of crisis when the country faced Sept. 11. What role has the Web played in helping us cope with the attacks and the war?
A: Over the last several months, the Web has shone as a critical medium for community, communication and information. All times of war have a medium that defines them and allows civilians to experience them from the safety of their homes. The Civil War had photography, World War II the radio, Vietnam network news, the Gulf War CNN and cable news. The "War on Terrorism" has the Web. It really has played and is continuing to play a crucial role.

How, exactly?
The Web has made our information more global, providing Americans access to foreign perspectives, alternative perspectives from different countries, and religious points of view. Now that the hype is gone, the focus returns to the Internet and the Web's core 
strengths--as communications tools and information sources. It has facilitated communication, grieving and aid. People turned to Web forums to share thoughts. Servicemen and -women are e-mailing and using Web sites to communicate in real time with family and friends at home, allowing them to stay more connected on a daily basis. Online donation infrastructure set up before Sept. 11 allowed for donations of millions of dollars in the weeks following the attacks. In addition, online memorials created a common place for people to come together who may not be in the same geographic location to reminisce and share sentiments about a loved one's life.

What about the Web's own crisis--the dot-com flameout?
We have definitely seen the Web return to its roots this past year. So much has been written about the Web boom's focus on moneymaking--and its failure. Yet commerce represents only a minor capability in comparison to the Web's power to connect people. Now that the hype is gone, the focus returns to the Internet and the Web's core strengths--as communications tools and information sources. Last year's nominees and winners demonstrated a real focus on these core strengths that we're certain will continue.

So that's the bright side of the crash.
If there is a silver lining to all the hype of the last two years, it is that the buzz brought 500 million people online and they haven't left. They're using the Web more than ever today and have integrated it into their daily lives. This is when things really get interesting. It is when people think of a technology as a natural part of their lives that it has arrived.

The first American Web page launched 10 years ago, and the Webby Awards started up five years later. What kinds of trends have you noticed since then?
We just announced our call for entries, and we are seeing seven times the number of entrants as last year. We're blown away. These sites still represent diversity, demonstrating that you don't need millions and millions of dollars to make good sites and that there is still a lot going on in Web development.

When we started the Webby Awards in 1996, the Web was very much a fringe medium. Now that 500 million people are online, completely new things are happening on the Web that could only have occurred with the scale of people participating. The more people, the more chances you have to build communities and viewpoints of shared interests and perspectives.

You're describing a network effect.
It's an exponential network effect. The more people online, the more interesting it gets. The number of people with shared interests increases. So the elegance of the Web's bringing people together with shared interests only increases with the number of people online.

What's the dark side of this equation?
It's what we saw with the destruction of the World Trade Center. Terrorists used the positive power of the network for a negative end. After years of lecturing about how the very nature of the network could be used for both positive and negative outcomes, the negative version had showed its face in the al-Qaida network. The very power that in a positive form lets us accomplish all these creative and wonderful things also lets you open up a network for a dark purpose.

How much was the Web itself a tool of the terrorists?
It's well known that terrorists used our own technology to communicate and plan, but to me, more interesting is the structure of the network as applied to their organization and how that allowed them to share and distribute responsibility. So you, in essence, have more power by spreading out what people contribute and have to do.

What about from a more concrete angle--what threats do you see the Web posing in this time of crisis?
Now that 500 million people are online, completely new things are happening on the Web that could only have occurred with the scale of people participating. The whole notion...of people being able to not be who they say they are. Which on the one hand allows people to say things they might not have the courage to say otherwise. On the other hand, accountability has been removed.

The first part reminds me of the argument that the Web has let a lot of gay and lesbian people come out online where they might not be able to do that in their own communities.
That's the positive side--people who are able to speak and become a part of a community that otherwise would have had too much stigma. This newfound freedom online can give people courage to translate this empowerment offline. But on the flip side of this anonymity, people say derogatory or racial comments without any accountability.

Another aspect that the Web and e-mail have changed is our notion of physical space. You have a better understanding of the interconnectedness of the world. This will perhaps give people a more cogent understanding of cause and effect of events in any part of the world.

The Web is also changing the way we learn. So much of learning used to be focused on memorization of information. Now with the Web's influence, it is more important to know how to find information and put it into context. For example, when you find a piece of information and/or a photograph on a news Web site, you may ask, Is this piece of information I have found valid? Who wrote it? What is the historical perspective? The Web has really changed the way we view information, and how you convert information into knowledge.

That sounds like it could have profound and negative effects on the way we learn, and the way our minds develop as young people, if we're not required to memorize anymore.
I wouldn't characterize it as a bad thing. My favorite story about Einstein has to do with this subject. A reporter once asked him, after an interview, "Can I have your telephone number for any follow-up questions?" So Einstein goes to the phone book and looks through for it. And the reporter says, "You're Albert Einstein, you're maybe the smartest person on the planet, and you have to look up your own phone number?" And Einstein's response is, "It's in the book. Why should I fill my mind with information I don't need to remember?"

Perhaps if we put more emphasis on linking that information to context, rather than just knowing information, we'd be better off. So ultimately, it is perhaps a good evolution of our thought process.

What about American values and character rubbed off on the way the Web developed?
Being a capitalist country, one only has to look at the boom, and the focus of this communication tool became about making tons of money on the Web. And I think that that was an unfortunate focus, because the expectation was so high on the wrong thing. The ironic part is that the Web and e-mail certainly have changed the way people do business.

Underneath all the hype, it changed the way companies interact with their customers and systems. But nothing could live up to those expectations that were being promised during the boom. Most companies do all their R&D in private, only coming out to the public when their product is perfected. With the Web, a lot of research and development were done in public for the whole world to watch.

Our goal when we created The Webby Awards and the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences was not to make money but to make a community and honor and push the medium forward. Perhaps the fact that we weren't motivated by money is why we are still here.

Beyond the capitalist influence, what kinds of marks has America made on this thing that was born in Europe to European parents? The preponderance of English on the Web is one thing that comes immediately to mind, and the prevalence of American culture.
It's a great point. I'm seeing a lot more Web sites that have the ability to translate to other languages. It's just a virtual space, but it's very similar to what America has been doing in physical spaces. Put in a very capitalist structure, and give it our language and customs. America is a great country, but I think the scale and focus got a little too heavy on the money side of it all. Money is certainly not a bad thing--and it certainly is a necessary thing to make things happen. However, it shouldn't grow so disproportionate to the other aspects of a medium.

What's in your crystal ball for the Web?
This one vision I have of the future is the Web becoming a social network that won't be tied to you sitting at your computer. It will really be mobile and a second skin to one's body. For example, let's say that the screen that you sought information on your computer was reduced down to a contact lens that you wore on your eyes.

Let's now combine this lens with biometric abilities that scan the retina of other people in hopes of recognizing them. Perhaps you would blink instead of click. So basically, the contact lens in your eyes that helps you view information will also read the retina of someone you meet, and suddenly you will learn of all the social links you have with that person. It can tell you when you were at the same event in the past, shared interests and friends...basically placing the two of you into some social context, to let you see commonalities.