For 18 years now, The Webby Awards have been the glib showpiece of the much more nobly named International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, which has a membership spanning the cultural spectrum from David Bowie to Arianna Huffington. As the executive director of both the awards and the academy since 2005, David-Michel Davies and his team have the broad and probably impossible task of summarizing each year online into one 90-minute Webby Awards show, recognizing excellence on the Internet in all its forms.
And for 2014, the task of The Webby Awards — to be held next month — is even more grandiose, celebrating the 25th birthday of the world wide web.
It is hard to believe that the history of such a pervasive, runaway force can be viewed within the discrete context of a quarter of a century. Twenty-five years ago, on March 12, 1989, CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal for a distributed information system in his laboratory. His ideas marked the start of the world wide web. Within a year he’d refined the ideas for the URL, http and html.
By 1994 — five years later — 10 million people were online. The information processed each second was equivalent to the complete works of William Shakespeare. The history of the web since has been a series of explosion points. Shortly after Berners-Lee was knighted by the Queen of England for his efforts in 2005, the web hit one billion users. Within six years, another billion people were online. In 2005 there were 74 million websites. Some people figure that number crossed one billion last year.
The collected Webby Awards victors now form a museum piece to run alongside this breakneck pace of change. Today, the oldest Webby Awards are not impressive in the slightest. “Visually, they look preposterous most of the time,” Davies says. The early pioneering sites, like IMDB.com, ESPN, Salon.com or the Mayo Clinic all focused on putting information front and center, with little regard for aesthetics.
“The designs look very bad. Very cluttered. But that’s typical of design in general. If you go back and look at logo design from the 1970s, you see the same thing. So that’s not specific to the web,” Davies says.
Looking at The Webby Awards gallery from the 1990s to now, it is a time capsule that shows how web design has become more streamlined. More designers started to play with space ten years ago and have slowly become more artistic and visually driven over the ensuing decade.
Davies says The Webby Awards began when the world wide web was still niche. Most major sites were community driven or for people interested in specific things. The Netscape IPO in 1995 drew increasing fascination and business interest. Davies points to doomed late 90s enterprises like Webvan, a grocery delivery business, as early experiments. It wasn’t until Amazon and eBay cemented their place in the online commercial landscape, he says, that people began to make bigger bets online. As the web became more professional, the quality of pages took off dramatically.
From there, key inflection points – the advent of blogs from 2001, social media a few years later, the iPhone in 2007 – combined with exploding technological capabilities to drastically alter how we used the web and what could be done. As we’ve come to always be online, there is no niche too small or need too specific for the Internet today, and The Webby Awards honorees have come to reflect that, Davies says.
For everything that has happened in the last quarter of a century with the Internet, Davies says that the fundamentals of it are the same. Berners-Lee’s idea from 1989 hasn’t been altered drastically. “Computers are connected, computers have IP addresses. All this stuff hasn’t changed,” he says.
“But all of a sudden the types of global cultural expression that have become possible, on both the silly front and the not so silly is astonishing.”
Davies points to the ‘hotdog legs’ viral tornado of last year as evidence of something that was completely bizarre and kind of amazing. “It is the magic of the Internet, that you have essentially thousands and thousands of people taking photos of their legs as hotdogs,” he says.
The speed and the constancy of it all is overawing now and makes fitting a year of Internet highlights into one show impossible. The digital geography of what The Webby Awards has to celebrate has become vast beyond recognition. As I put it to Davies, the hotdog legs craze happened last August. In Internet years, that seems like another lifetime.
“You’re never going to get it all. A lot of it is the feeling. Bringing back some of that feeling,” Davies says.
It might be a futile task. But as the world wide web turns 25, the Webby Awards have collected a once-each-year snapshot into the Internet, that taken together is an effective reminder of just how far this information revolution has come. And just how insane it has all been.
[image via wikipedia]