The webmaster is dead, long live the webmaster!

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Robin Good provides a long follow-up in the form of an obituary to my short scratch of his original article on the death of the webmaster.

May be saying that my company is still paying me as corporate webmaster despite rather difficult times is not enough to prove that the role remains useful.

It's time to unearth an old article I wrote in late 2000 and was published in March 2001, Know thy webmaster. You see, about three years ago, I was already trying to hint that the old-fashioned know-it-all Internet king was an endangered species:

The truth is that your webmaster should now be at the edge of another revolution: giving away the power to you, the users. It hurts a little, especially since there is still no one else who understands the technology behind the funky graphics and slick features. Now that almost all parts of the company have a shared interest in its web presence, it is time to rethink the roles and responsibilities. With involvement, come new responsibilities, for both the webmaster and the other actors of a web site.

However, my point was that webmasters, provided they embrace change, would still be valuable to a company:

The increase of clients and diversity of uses of web sites – content sources, e-business sites, market-places, B2B, B2C, B2E, etc. – should mean that your webmaster acts more and more as the keeper of the flame – the person with the “big picture, the central guardian of the consistency of the company brand online. With only one home page and many different purposes, the web site needs a real manager, not only to take care of the unity of the look and feel (interfacing with the marketing team) and the smooth rollout of new content and services (managing the technology), but also to ensure that the site is always valuable for its visitors. Yes, you do still really have to understand how all of this works, both inside and outside your company, to be effective in this role.

The main trouble here is the definition: what is a webmaster? Believe me or not, there is no universal answer to this question. All I can say, and I hope this will help clarify some of the disagreement here, I do not consider that the technical person who knows Dreamweaver by heart is a webmaster (that is an HTML integrator). To me -- and this definition is relative to my corporate environment with rather complex sites -- the webmaster is the one who has the big picture on the whole site and the final say on the home page. The fact that I (and several of my colleagues) happen to know the whole shebang -- from content management, information architecture, branding, down to the servers and pipes via XHTML, CSS and consorts -- may be a peculiarity (I was, after all, an old-fashioned webmaster) but is a real added value to the group of content managers we serve on a daily basis. It is also worth notice that I work directly within the marketing and communication community, with a total autonomy from the IT department. Unless you have an exceptionally enlighten CIO, no webmaster can seriously do a good job among the IT folks, that's not their place.

Another trouble I encounter on a regular basis, is the frustration of non-technical persons when confronted to anything that smells, even remotely, technical. One of their problems, I suspect, is their difficulty to make the difference between technology and technique. Publishing on the web, with today's tools, does not require technical skills anymore. It does, however, require technique. Technology is knowing how to code a hyperlink by hand. Technique is knowing that your link text should not read "click here"! Technique is not something a technology will solve for you -- that is what I call the American Technology Syndrome, believing that technology can solve any problem. Technique is know-how and the web remains a media which still requires a significant amount of technique.

I agree that one can find really great publishing tools today, and delegate pretty much everything but content management to specialists. But each company is different and, believe this or not again, has its own definition of what a webmaster is. Likewise, even so the weblogs tools are bringing amazing innovation to content management (see CMS and weblogs systems, Enterprise-class weblogs) you cannot compare a one-(wo)man show weblog and a corporate site.

So, you have got your wonderful open source CMS or weblog software up and running. You know that rock& won't do it as a domain name. You have a plume for the web. You know everything about how to write for search engine recognition and micro-content. You know how to promote news on your home page. Each time you add a new page or a section, you know how to name it and where to place it within your site so your visitors will find it easily. You know about ALT tags in your images and that tables for layout is stupid. You know the difference between a hit and a page view. You know what privacy protection and opt-in/opt-out mean. You know that you ought to check the copyright on that image before publishing it. You know so many things that you wonder why you had to go through that HTML guy before. Congratulations, you have acquired enough sensitivity and skills in content creation, management, architecture, usability and key techniques to operate a website like no one. You match my definition of the modern webmaster.

The webmaster is dead, long live the webmaster!