THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SHLAIN; IN TIMES OF TURMOIL, WEBBY AWARDS FOUNDER PREACHES THE WORD OF THE INTERNET

Describe the Webby Awards in five words or less.

Vanity Fair crowned the event that salutes the Internet with an It Award. Entertainment Weekly deemed it a “hot ticket.” The San Jose Mercury News opted for alliteration in its headline “Digerati’s Delight for Dot-Com Crowd.” Most recently, past Webby-winner and current nominee Salon.com which conducted a death count of last year’s honored sites surmised, “So, yes, the party continues.”

Why five? Why not five? Five is the word limit for Webby acceptance speeches. Five is the number of fingers on one hand. Five is the short-attention-span solution in a world of sound bites and megabytes. The low fives was how much money was raised to produce the first Webby Awards at Bimbo’s 365 Club, and five is the number of years the Webbys will be celebrating Wednesday in San Francisco no hard feelings, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but thanks for offering Radio City Music Hall.

Tiffany Shlain, the 30-year-old Wunderkind hired to design a Web site for the IDG magazine The Web and stayed for the Webby Awards after the magazine died, takes just a minute to ponder her five words. “Boldness,” she finally says. “Honor. Intelligence. Irony. Celebration.”

Bountiful words for an industry event that has become one of Northern California’s premiere social happenings. Apt words for an awards organization that attracts judges such as Scott Adams, Susan Sarandon, Bjrk, Tina Brown and Larry Ellison. Defiant words in a domino economy of falling Internet companies.

In business folklore, the telltale signs of a company’s downfall were the parties, once exuberant bashes that diminished into grim affairs haunted by ghosts of venture capitalists past. The Webby Awards didn’t postpone its spring ceremony to offer a solemn moment of silence to listen to the bubbles pop. Instead, it held out for even grander surroundings, moving its ceremony into San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. The 3,000-seat venue allows the public to have a chance at these formerly invitation-only seats.

The setting befits Shlain, who bears the title “digital diva” bestowed by S.F. Mayor Willie Brown, but not the prima donna attitude. Given this year’s mantra, “Do You Believe?” though, perhaps the Webbys could have stayed at Grace Cathedral, last year’s post-ceremony party headquarters. Its determinedly optimistic chorus is more gospel than aria, carried over to its dress-code theme, “gutsy.”

“It felt right this year,” Shlain says of the dress theme. “It just feels like stand up and be counted. We’re not dead.” Had the fates dictated so, she would have given out awards in a gymnasium; the Webbys, after all, are about “the spirit of the people.” It turned out that a ban on black-soled shoes wasn’t needed: Already two galas on each coast, sponsored by Emporio Armani, have been thrown for the nominees.

Believers might be forgiven their temptation to cast the director as a blue-eyed, blond-haired guardian angel looking over her Web brethren. Shlain has in the past called herself an evangelist, preaching the word of the Internet.

Half her long corn-silk hair wrapped in bands, a hairstyle “experiment” for award night, Shlain is sitting back in the narrow conference room overlooking the South Park neighborhood in the SOMA district (although views may soon change as “for rent” signs everywhere promise tantalizingly lower prices). She has just come from attending to one of a zillion exquisite details to throw the cyberspace party of the year. Up until midnight the previous night to edit a film, she has been up since 5 a.m. doing press interviews.

Despite the long day, she can still recall snippets of conversations six weeks old. Preparing for a four-day New York trip, she goes over quick details with her assistant and later hugs him goodbye, each time returning precisely to the last point made in the current conversation: Shlain does not have to ask “Where was I?”

Nor have the long hours dimmed her optimism, even after a barrage of doom-and-gloom, isn’t-Rome-burning questions. In five words, the Internet is not a fad.

“The Webby Awards honor not just dot-coms, but dot-orgs, dot-nets, dot-edus,” she says. “The sites are better than ever, more people are online than ever before. I’m so excited about the nominees; in a lot of ways, they’re the best I’ve ever seen.”

The previous years’ excesses by attending nominees such as staged accidents and elaborate, chimerical costumes are seen as an aberration. The core group here before the rush of silicon-gold seekers remains.

“It’s this one day when this virtual community is in one place at one time,” she says. “Just the fact that we’re having this show during this turbulent time, it just means a lot to our community and us.” Most of those people searching for their millions are gone now, “and it’s us again, looking forward to that moment.”

The moment includes Tony Award-winning actor Alan Cumming (currently in the film “The Anniversary Party”) reprising his master-of-ceremonies role. Some of the awards’ 27 categories will be given out the day before so as not to drag out the night. And for the first time, a lifetime achievement award will be given out: Its presenter is “father of the Internet” Vint Cerf.

Another first will be newsman Sam Donaldson hosting the live ABC News’ Webcast. “I’ve never been to a Webby and I’ve never seen it,” Donaldson admits, but he thinks it will evolve as the Internet medium does. After all, he remembers buying a banquet table in the ’50s for some little event called the Emmys. Optimism infects even the ABC News veteran, who says the evolution will not be a long time coming once streaming video is readily at hand. (He says, “In 56K, I jerk a lot.”)

“We are now in a valley,” he says, referring to the Psalm 23 line (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death “). “You can see the sun on the other side, but we’re slogging through it.”

This year’s contenders are creatures large and small. Travelocity, Yahoo, Motown and National Geographic compete alongside Peter Pan’s home page and Dancing Paul.

“We have the big corporations going neck-and-neck with the one-man shop who has the day job,” Shlain says. “Sometimes it’s the one that has the one-man shop that wins.”

This David-and-Goliath motif seems to thrill Shlain, who cheers for both sides as long as they truly carry out the mission of the Internet connecting the people.

Enamored with technology since she was a child, Shlain espoused that philosophy of connection on a trip to the Soviet Union. She went as a student ambassador the year before she started school at UC Berkeley.

In high school, Shlain a Russian Jew had an Iranian best friend; both were from “enemy countries.” Already deeply into computers, they dreamed of connecting students across the globe to go beyond political divisions and started a club called UNITAS (Uniting Nations in Telecommunications and Software).

“And then I went to the Soviet Union and they were using abacuses instead of calculators,” she says. “It was kind of an early idea.”

The trip had been prompted by more than electric dreams. She also visited Auschwitz and other places to get a sense of her ethnic identity not obvious given her blond hair and blue eyes. Also, she was raised in Mill Valley, the Marin County town that embraced New Age when it was still new. “Mill Valley was certainly a surreal upbringing in the ’70s. Mill Valley in the 1970s was, you know, geodesic domes,” Shlain says with a laugh. “It was pretty wild.”

In her travels, she came to recognize the “very gypsy-like spirit” of the Jews, a condition not always come to by choice. The daughter of thinkers her father is a surgeon and author, her mother a psychologist she pauses to consider a bond between her passion for virtual communities and her own heritage of wandering tribes scattered throughout the world.

“I guess that idea when I was in high school was to link up people (who) might not necessarily be in the same place,” she says. “Maybe this is a diaspora on some level. The Internet is bringing together a very large diaspora.”

For her, the issue is commonality, not differences. “What are the things that bring people together? That’s the extremely optimistic view I have.”

The Internet is certainly one answer, but Shlain is not content with that alone. With this year’s theme, “Technology of the Mind,” she probes even deeper connections, posing questions such as “What’s the connection between our genetic code and computer code?” and “If technology extends our minds, what does it amputate?”

“I really view technology as an evolutionary state of our minds,” Shlain says. “Why do people think it’s separate from us? A silicon chip is made from sand and sand is made from nature, so why is technology separate from us if it’s just our creation? Do people feel that way about their children?”

Whether Shlain loves finding the answers more than asking the questions is hard to tell. “There’s a lot I don’t know,” she says. “It’s the beauty of living.”

One answer does come quickly, though. If she were to stand at the platform Wednesday to accept a Webby Award for the Webbys, what would her five-word acceptance speech be?

“It’s an honor to honor.”

What: The fifth annual Webby Awards, www.webbyawards.com

WHERE: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday; abcnews.com Webcast

HOW MUCH: Limited tickets, $90-$175. E-mail eventinfo @webbyawards.com with information on who you are, where you work, and why you want to come.

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