Webby Awards Founder on Internet "Oscars," Web's Future Stefan Lovgren for National Geographic News May 4, 2005 The winners of the annual Webby Awards, hailed as the "Internet industry's Oscars," were announced yesterday. Nationalgeographic.com's Forces of Nature site grabbed the People's Voice award in the science category, and National Geographic News was recognized as Webby Worthy. Other winning Web sites ranged from powerhouses like Yahoo! to lesser-known sites such as the blog Boing Boing. When the Webbys were established in 1996, few people took notice. Still in its infancy, the Internet was seen by some as the exclusive domain of tech nerds. Since then the Internet has reached into the homes of millions of people around the world, transforming the way many of us get our information, communicate, and shop. The Webbys, not surprisingly, have also mushroomed into a prestigious award show. Their more than 60 categories range from employment and finance to science and movies. National Geographic News spoke with Tiffany Shlain, the San Francisco-based founder of the Webbys, about what it takes to win a Webby. Who are your judges? The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences comprises 550 judges from all disciplines. We have experts in activism, music, film, politics, business. It's growing every year, and it's a real "mind trust" for the Internet. Any famous names? We have musicians like Beck and David Bowie; [Virgin Atlantic Airlines founder] Richard Branson; Rob Glaser [the CEO] of Real Networks; Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons; and many others. We let people do an all-academy vote, so they get to choose the category they want to vote in. How did the Webbys come about? I started it almost a decade ago. As soon as I was shown the Web, I thought it was going to change the world. This was before the Internet boom, and a lot of people didn't know what the Web was. Of course, it grew enormously with the boom, and then the crash happened. The dot-com bubble burst. How did that affect you? People were skeptical that the Internet was just a fad. Then something happened. After 9/11 people were using all these tools that had been set up during the boom, like online donations. People were getting news from sources that had been funded by the boom. And suddenly people stopped talking about the hype and started to acknowledge that the Web was a part of everyone's life. For those of us talking about the power of the Web in the early days, well, we're now seeing it happening. What kind of changes have you seen in the quality of Internet sites in these nine years? The Internet is such a young medium, and I just get astonished at how much better the nominees get every year. They are developmentally better, because more people are on the Internet, more people know how to use it. There's something called the network effect—when more people are on the network, the stronger the network becomes. Things are happening now that could never have happened when there were only a few thousand people on the Internet. It's a very exciting time. What makes a great Web site? Is there some sort of magic formula that applies to all? I think the best part of the Web is that you're able to link to so many other places. My favorite sites are thinking of the links that I'd be interested in, based on that subject, and they aren't afraid I'm not going to come back to their site. The best sites all involve interactivity, lots of links, and fresh information. And what evaluation criteria do you use for the Webbys? Content, design, functionality, navigation, and interactivity. It's interesting that over the nine years we haven't changed that criteria. Is the content relevant and engaging? What's the overall experience? OK, so what are some of your favorites among this year's winners? There are so many good ones. I love the World Citizens Guide (www.worldcitizenguide.com), which gives you this big perspective on the world. There's Relief Web (www.reliefweb.int), which allows you to get a picture of the state of the world and the crises we face. There are blogs, like Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things (www.boingboing.net). As a parent, I go to goCityKids (www.gocitykids.com), which has lots of fun things to do with your kids if you live in a city. One of your categories is news. Do you think online news has finally attained the respectability that it perhaps didn't have a few years ago? Absolutely. People are tuning in now to these alternative news sources, which are perceived as not being as controlled as traditional media. I think people feel like it's more authentic, less driven by corporate concerns. I think online media fit much more to our lives. During our parents' generation, people would come up and watch the news at a certain time. Today we can tap in and get the most up-to-date news whenever it's right for us, instead of having to schedule our lives around getting together in front of a TV. What do you look for in a good news Web site? I still look for those things that let me know it's credible. I like to see that it's linking to different sites so that I have a sense that it's being transparent with me. I want to feel that it's current and up-to-date. Do you think we'll see the same kind of merging of entertainment and news that we've seen in television? I hope not. I think people that are going for news online are clearly interested in news, whereas [with] television it's more ambiguous. If you're on the Web, you're specifically going to a news site, and that makes a difference. Just to toot our own horn a bit, Nationalgeographic.com has been recognized many times. What makes it Webby worthy? You guys have been consistently excellent. It's educational, interactive, it's got great navigation. For a site to be recognized for a Webby award, it needs to be constantly in development. You can't have any sloppiness. Do you think the Internet has come close to reaching its potential? Not at all. When you have a population of over six billion people and only a small percentage of those people on computers—just imagine what will happen when more people get on the computer. The potential is just enormous.
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