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From the Valley of the Geeks Comes the Digital Diva

July 07, 2000|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Decked out in an Issey Miyake metallic top, leather skirt, red snakeskin boots and matching red Nokia phone, Tiffany Shlain charged into San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art recently for an interview like she owned the joint.

Dubbed "the Digital Diva" by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, the 30-year-old Shlain has brought glitz and glamour to the Valley of the Geeks by creating the only awards show for Internet sites that matters--the Webbys. To be sure, there were others before (and still are), but nothing has caught on like the Webbys. And none was ever quite so entertaining: Webbys acceptance speeches are limited to five words. (The rule was violated last year when Salon.com founder David Talbot proclaimed "I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Shlain.")

In the four years since she founded the Webbys, Shlain has packaged herself as an authority on the convergence of high-tech and pop culture. She has been written about in newspapers and magazines, is often asked to comment about Web culture on television and lectures to groups in the U.S. and internationally.

Broadcast only on the Web, they may not be a household name like the Oscars, but they've certainly arrived by some measures of popular culture: Not only have the Webbys been the subject of an Absolut vodka ad ("Absolut Webby"), they've also been an answer on the ABC quiz show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."

"Tiffany has a vision in her head about making the Webbys something with cultural significance and placing the Internet in the fabric of our culture," said Shlain's husband, Ken Goldberg, 38, an engineering professor at UC Berkeley who has gained some renown as a digital artist.

Shlain started her career as an aspiring filmmaker but was turned off by Hollywood's rough and tumble style: "They just build people up to tear them down," she said. "It's like no other place in the world, except maybe London with its tabloids."

It's possible, though, that Shlain has figured out that an easier way to conquer Hollywood is to make herself so appealing that the town won't be able to resist her. Just last month, she was in L.A. meeting with TV executives interested in airing the Webbys.

Getting the Webbys on TV also resonates with her democratic instincts about how the Internet will change the world: "Hollywood has been America's royalty for so long," Shlain said. "In the distribution mechanisms, it was a select group of people who decided what was playing on your radio, what was showing on your movie theater and which people are made into celebrities. The world deserves a redistribution of attention, and I'm happy to help."

But she was savvy enough to know the Webbys needed big names to make news, so she persuaded more than 200 of them to join the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, the entity she created as the Webby voting body.

"We didn't just pick flash-in-the-pans," Shlain said. "They are heroes in our culture in each of their fields."

BCBG fashion designer Max Azria joined the academy because of the Webbys' "new and modern approach." Talk magazine's Tina Brown found Shlain persuasive because she has "tremendous flair." Her awards show nominating judges include director Francis Ford Coppola, pop singers David Bowie and Courtney Love, ACLU President Nadine Strossen and "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening.

That she was able to secure such luminaries attests to her confidence, which she is not afraid to flaunt. When asked how she persuaded them to sign on, she replied that "in typical Tiffany Shlain style, I just called them up and asked."

Shlain is smart, pretty and poised for success. . . . Naturally, she has her detractors.

She's come in for mild criticism from some who say that the Webbys, which she writes, directs and produces, are "too much Tiffany." (They point to a bit in last year's show where she wheeled her 95-year-old grandmother, Frances Shlain, on stage to sing a ditty about the Internet.)

"The show is my vision," she responded. "That is what a director does."

This year's Webbys were the biggest ever, with 135 Web sites competing in 27 categories. The show was covered by nearly every major TV network, newspaper and news magazine in the U.S. and a few international media outlets, too. And now that the awards have grown, Shlain knows the stakes are higher for her as well. Will she be able to stay true to the funky roots of the show if it ends up on national TV?

"That's the creative challenge with anything that becomes popular," she said.

Shuns Silicon Valley for Trendier SoMa

Shlain works not in Silicon Valley, but in a neighborhood called South Park in San Francisco's south of Market Street district, or SoMa. She is right at home in the area, which has a college-campus feel, with sidewalk cafes, boutiques and shiny new VW Beetles. A nerve center for creative Internet types, it is where Wired magazine, streaming music and video site WiredPlanet.com and online college bookstore BigWords.com make their homes.

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