Online debates about social issues can make you think that there is growing divisiveness among the people of the United States, but Tiffany Shlain believes that our country — and even the world at large — is more connected than we realize. If her name doesn’t ring a bell, you may be wondering if Shlain is a resolute optimist, or just an incredibly fortunate individual who has never been exposed to the daft comments littered all over the Internet. Fact is she’s neither.
Shlain, who founded The Webby Awards in 1996, has recently experienced plenty of her own online "flinching." But, she still sees the Internet as a lot more than just a platform (read: landmine) for social debate and adorable cat videos. In fact, as one might expect from the founder of an awards show that honors "excellence on the Internet," Shlain believes our increasing connectedness online can help everyone address social issues and create impactful change.
Today, as an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, Shlain collaborates with people across the world via the Internet to create short movies called “cloud films.” One of these is Brain Power (2012), in which she likens the rapid growth of the Internet, as well as its ability to connect people, to a developing brain with neurons that are quickly forming more and more connections. This metaphor makes perfect sense, considering it’s coming from the daughter of famed surgeon, author, and psychology-enthusiast, Leonard Shlain.
In fact, when Shlain first started college, she intended to become a doctor herself, but, because she was always drawn to film (her family religiously went to the movies on Sundays) Shlain whimsically signed up for a film theory class that ended up changing the direction of her life. “I was inspired by an amazing professor who was so excited about how film reflected culture, and could even change it,” Shlain stated to ARTpublika Magazine. “I realized this could actually be a viable career.”
Shlain ended up majoring in film theory and then doing some coursework in film production; she developed her own distinctive style using video clips and basic animation. “It was exciting to have so many resources, all in one place,” recalled Shlain. Technological advancements, meanwhile, provided her with additional benefits. As she pointed out, the vast majority of people around the world now had access to cell phones — and they were eager to connect.
After selling The Webby Awards, Shlain set out to create something that combined her love of movies with her passion for leveraging emerging technologies. That’s when cloud films were born. “I prefer the word ‘cloud’ because it’s limitless and emotive,” she explained. The sentiment sums up her attitude about the Internet: an invaluable platform that gives people from different cultures and locations across the globe an opportunity to work together toward a common goal.
When Shlain and her team develop a script, the rest of the short film is essentially crowdsourced. Fittingly, for her first project, A Declaration of Interdependence (2011), she rewrote The Declaration of Independence to call for connection. She then posted the script online and asked people to record themselves reading the lines in their native language; she also requested artwork from artists. The response was more enthusiastic than Shlain and her team had anticipated.
Screening the film across the world on the day it premiered, Shlain dubbed it Character Day, as the film has come to be known. Since then, screenings of Shlain’s subsequent films have become international events, complete with in-person appearances and online Q/A sessions; over 93,000 Character Day events were held across 125 countries in 2016 alone. Her most recent film about equality aptly titled, 50/50 premiered on October 27th, 2016 — though 50/50 Day will be officially marked on May 10th from here on out.
Each of Shlain’s films ingeniously come with printed posters and “discussion kits” — a deck of cards featuring questions relevant to the movie's theme — that are used to spark conversations about social issues, similar to the kind that took place at old-world, European-style Justice Salons. In-fact, Shlain’s ability to bring people together to talk about important topics may very well be her greatest talent, which is why her films are regularly screened at embassies world-wide.
So, if you’re inspired by Shlain’s example and want to partake in the cloud filmmaking phenomenon, there are a number of ways to get involved. You can, for example, use one of Shlain’s many films to host a screening and discussion event in your area. Alternatively, you can subscribe to Shlain’s newsletter to get the latest information about her upcoming projects, and submit your own content when her team puts out the next call for submissions.
If you’re multilingual, consider helping translate the films. And, if you work with a non-profit that’s interested in screening one of her movies with its logo, contact Shlain’s team to help make it happen. Finally, if you’re a budding filmmaker interested in creating your own cloud film about an issue that’s dear to your heart, check out Shlain’s website for guidance on how to start.
Shlain, who may as well be pictured in the dictionary next to the definition of overachiever, is a well-known advocate of “Technology Shabbats,” a set period of 24 hours (usually over the weekend) during which she and her family completely unplug from technology. “I would definitely recommend it to everyone,” she said. “There’s definitely a case for dreaming in terms of generating new inspiration.” But Shlain may have expressed it best in her film, Connected (2011), where she stated, “With connection comes responsibility.”
Note* In 2017, Character Day will be screened on September 13th.