If babies need more sleep for their developing brains, as studies have confirmed, then our ever-increasing reliance on email and text messaging have some unforseen consequences for human evolution? Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain tackles these and other questions at the intersection of technology and humanity in “Connected,” a sort of investigative documentary and canted memoir which bowed at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and stands poised to release both in theaters and across various multimedia platforms. This isn’t a new topic of interest for Shlain, who years ago launched the honorific Webby Awards, casting a spotlight on some of the best creativity on the Internet. ShockYa had a chance to speak one-on-one to her recently, about her movie, her legacy with the Webby Awards, and more. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Take me back to the founding of the Webbys, which I imagine were regarded as bizarre at the time. Now, a mere 10 to 12 years later, you look like a genius.
Tiffany Shlain: In the early days of the Webby Awards, even trying to convince sponsors that this was going to be important (was tough). I felt like I was sharing this incredible thing with the world and I was so excited about it. At the beginning the Internet was this funky alternative medium that I really felt was going to change the whole world. I was given the opportunity to found the Webby Awards in 1996, which was a really exciting time. Today, when there are two billion people online, and with all the different things that can happen when that many people are using the network — channeling ideas and what not, it’s still very exciting too.
ShockYa: Are you still affiliated with the Webby Awards?
TS: I was a filmmaker before I founded the Webby Awards, and after 10 years I really wanted to get back to making films and combine it with the power of the web to make change. So now I make films full time, [but] the Webby Awards are my baby, so I absolutely care about its well-being. I love how it’s grown, and honoring people is such a wonderful thing to do for this world.
ShockYa: Your experience with the Webbys gives you a unique perspective on distribution not afforded many people. Do you look to the web as an alternative or a supplemental means of distribution?
TS: It is a very cool time to be making films. With “Connected,” we have traditional theatrical distribution and we’re combining it with part of the social media experiment. So to be able to access your audience directly is just fantastic. You know, Hitchcock used to say that you make films three times — when you write it, when you shoot it, and when you edit it, and today with all these huge forms of distribution I think there’s a fourth way — because you get to be just as creative with getting the film out into the world as you were with making it. So we have done a lot with such an active Facebook page (ConnectedTheFilm), where there’s a really interesting conversation going on right now. And we just released a couple weeks ago this crowd-sourced film that kind of picks up where “Connected” leaves off. We posted a one-minute script on the internet and let people read it from all over the world. YouTube featured it on their home page and it went viral — we’re having a blast. We’re rolling out a mobile phone app next week. I feel like we’re throwing spaghetti against this ever-receding wall of the web. And a lot of things stick. Some don’t, but those are just as interesting, and I feel like we’re all taking part in this human experiment, both online with the way we’re living. …I even see myself as more of a conversation maker than a filmmaker. The core idea of “Connected” is wanting people to explore what it means to be connected in the 21st century, personally and globally. I hope people explore that after seeing the film. You can experience it in a darkened theater; we’ve made a discussion kit that has a book and conversation cards and a curriculum; you can experience the ideas on our Facebook page or mobile phone app. So there’s that one idea, but we’re very open to letting people enter that idea from all different viewpoints. So again, I think the powerful thing is combining distribution with all these new forms of communication today.
ShockYa: A very different film about this same subject matter could be made if it weren’t quite as personalized. When did you come to the realization to incorporate yourself into the story?
TS: This is my eighth film, and I have never been in any of them. It’s not my filmmaking style, and in fact the film took four years to make and two years into it I was not in it at all. I was hoping to make a film that gave a historical contect of our connectedness and where we were going — technological, environmental, economic, all these different ways that we’re connected. It was very full of ideas. And I remember sitting down in the editing room and having this incredible sinking feeling as I watched a rough cut from beginning to end and realized that I wasn’t connecting to the material emotionally at all. As a filmmaker you need to make people feel, and so for me not to feel connected to the story [was a big problem]. Here I was going through this my father, a co-writer on the film, who was diagnosed with brain cancer and given nine months to live and the same week I found out I was pregnant, which is of course also nine months. So I was dealing with such heavy stuff about connectedness, and it was at that kind of horrified moment that I had a breakthrough, and [realized] I needed to understand my own connection in order to understand these bigger ideas in the world. But then it was a very difficult process. It took another two years with my writing and editing team to interweave it in.
Written by: Brent Simon