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what is a webmaster?

The graduate with an Engineering degree asks, "How does it work?"
The graduate with an Accounting degree asks, "How much will it cost?"
The graduate with a Liberal Arts degree asks, "Do you want fries with that?"

- Anonymous Net Quip

Liberal Starts  
I have to say that becoming a technician has been one of the most exciting but unexpected adventures in my life. In fact, I'm kinda proud to be called a webmaster.

But I am jumping ahead of myself already.

. . .

It was only five years ago that I was finally released from academia. And like many of my ilk, I found myself in an interesting predicament. I had two degrees from a prestigious institution, 10 zillion written pages of social theory, and no job prospects whatsoever.

Fortunately, I found the web. Or perhaps the web found me.

I was working for the Electric Frontier Foundation (EFF) doing Cyberspace related public policy work when Mosaic (the web browser out of which Netscape was born) hit big. It was no time before I was tasked with the Herculean job of turning a massive gopher library into a web archive.

Initially, it was quite an uphill struggle.

Till then the computer had been to me a fantastic invention. Imagine . . . a typewriter and arcade game all in one. Talk about a waste of CPU! Even the slightest mention of "preferences" sent me running for help from our poor system administrator. Of course, I never thought the CD-ROM drive was a cup holder, but I was pretty bad.

Nevertheless, love for the revolution that was the web and an intense exhibitionist desire to put everything I knew in the public sphere led me into the depths of HTML, UNIX and Web Servers (a path which has finally taken me to CGI, Java and client-server programming. Who would have ever thought!)

The point? Ah yes, the point.

The point is that this story is not my story at all. In fact, this is the story of a majority of "webmasters" out there in cyberspace. Like me, these webmasters, quite possibly you, have come into the world of computers by the backdoor and by the seat of their pants.

Yet these untrained neophyte fumblers are exactly the ones who are most profoundly changing the face of computing, the computer industry, and in fact, humanity. It is they who are building the infrastructure, the communities, the very world we are quickly migrating into.

But, regardless of how important this group of nuevo- nerds is, we still have not heard many decent definitions of what exactly webmasters are?

What is a webmaster?

This is an excellent question and one that is too often missed by HR managers who are tasked with the job of hiring a web staff posthaste.

More importantly, it is a question that is too often knocked to the end of the queue by webmasters themselves who are trying to learn a lifetime worth of technology in the period of a six month review.

Yet it is exactly the question that must be answered first if you are to build anything of substance and permanence with your skills. Web mastering only begins with technology. Artistic and social activities take up the rest of the time.

Only those who can understand this will be able to create web communities with long term viability.

Building Websites  
The fact is that few people really understand what it takes to design, develop and manage a successful web site because the job has not been around for very long. Thus, hiring a "webmaster", or knowing how to become a good webmaster can be like playing the lottery. People have no good standards to judge what they need to know or how to make sense of qualifications.

Well, one good way to define something is to break that thing down into concrete understandable pieces. That's the approach we will use here. In the case of defining a webmaster, we must isolate the unique tasks and skills of the process of web mastering. Only then can we come to a reasonable and workable definition.

So, let me modify the question to, "What tasks must be accomplished in the design, development, and management of a successful web site?" I think by answering this larger question, the smaller question of the term "webmaster" will be clarified.

As I see it, there are five tasks that must be accomplished at any successful web site. These include the following:

 Content Creation
 Architectural Design
 Visual Design

Let's take a look at these tasks in detail....

Content Creation  
The fact is that on the web, content is king. Regardless of how schnazy your web site looks, how many bitchin cool java applets you can cram onto one page, or how macho your server is, no web surfer is going to spend more than 5 seconds at your site unless you offer her something of substance.

It cannot be stressed enough that the key to a successful web site is finding the right person to provide meaningful, useful, and "well written" content. That is to say, the information you present must be such that random web surfers will actually choose to return to your site because the information you've provided is helpful or particularly entertaining.

You can sell or promote anything you want on your web site, but that must be a side effect to the real reason a potential customer is browsing your pages. Web site content design balances on a fine line between public service and marketing.

So every web site should have a Web Content Developer.

This person will be a great writer first and foremost. That is to say, she will be able to say things in that special writer sort of way that keeps a reader's attention. She also must be an avid grammar and spelling enthusiast as well as being a good typists and editor.

As a side note, this person must be granted editorial privilege over all web content, even if she is tasked with simply displaying pre-written brochures. If the Web Content Developer says she needs to change pre-written content for the medium, she should have that right. Along these lines, a Web Content Developer should be able to write standards and templates so that the "feel" of the content remains stable even if the person is run over by a bus or simply hires a team of content developers to work with her.

This person must also be an investigative reporter.

The best web sites are summations. They are summations of companies or people or topics. Achieving such a grand view of anything requires a great deal of research.

A Web Content Developer must imbibe the spirit of the company, person, or topic she is writing about. And if you have ever tried to imbibe the "spirit" of a company of even 25 people, you will know that this is an art form in itself.

Architectural Design  
Once the content is in place, it is essential that time and energy is spent in thinking about how to present that content on the web. Like any medium, the web has its own quirks and intricacies that make content distribution different from other mediums such as print, radio, or television.

Even if you have written earth-shaking, well written information, if the surfer cannot find it or navigate through it, it is essentially more useless data out there in cyberspace.

So the second hole which must be filled is that of web architecture.

A Web Architect is responsible for designing the work flow of the site. Web architects will typically be good at meta-vision, flow charts, navigation templates and will be regular web surfers who seek out and analyze new navigation metaphors and strategies constantly.

How would frames affect navigation? When is a hierarchical data structure appropriate? When is an information cloud more efficient? How many pages must the average user navigate before she gets to the data she requires? These are the questions that must be addressed by the web architect.

Of course the web architect must have a good knowledge of site content, but she must also have an "intuition" about how the content is used and how it all fits together. This intuition is built by watching users navigate the site over time and is manifested in new ways of organizing the data to facilitate those users.

Once the content and architecture are defined, it is time to make it all web accessible. To do so, you need two things: a set of HTML pages and a web server to distribute those pages.

Typically this involves two positions: Web Technician and Web Site Administrator.

A Web Technician is the person responsible for changing content into HTML documents. Of course, at this point, HTML Development GUI tools such as Microsoft's Frontpage are simple and complete enough that even a junior high school student could do this job at its minimum level.

But don't let that fool you. You definitely, and I mean definitely, do not want to shirk on your budget when it comes to a technician.

Good code is the foundation of your web site and assures that long-term maintenance and modifications are smooth and cost efficient.

A good Web Technician will be able to develop, and clearly document, site-wide coding standards. She must also understand HTML and all related content distribution technologies like CGI, Java, Real Audio and Shockwave well enough to choose correctly between the many options for many different types of situations.

Further, a good technician will write code that is so standardized and easy to read that she could get run over by a bus and a newly hired technician could acclimatize in a week. No GUI tool will ever write well-designed and documented code. In fact, I recommend that for the next few years, all web technicians stick to simple text editors and learn how to write all their code by hand. This assures that when they do use GUI tools, they will be using those tools instead of being used by them.

Note: In retrospect, perhaps the above statement was wrong. It has been about a year since I wrote this piece and I am returning to it now because of an email sent to me from Ric Grosh. I would like to quote from his email...

"I have to disagree. I've built several large, well designed sites with no hand coding of HTML that work perfectly in the most popular browsers. I use MS FrontPage 98 for all the layout and Macromedia Dreamweaver for JavaScript coding. I also cut and paste other JavaScript that I need.

The point is, Desktop publishing has to be far more precise when you are dealing with print. You don't see any "hand coding" in Quark Express or PageMaker. The same thing goes for most of the CAD/CAM and 3D modeling programs. It is my hope that less and less stress will be put on hand coding in the future, and I personally believe that it will die away. Especially will the introduction of programs like FrontPage 2000 and Dreamweaver 2.0.

Some of the best and most innovative sites on the net are done with no hand coding, not to mention all the great Flash sites out there."

Now, that said, and another year later, David Rice added...

"I do not think that you should have recanted your statement by saying you were wrong. Maybe it is true that there are lots of good sites with no hand coding. Unfortunately if the webmaster/programmer does not know how to hand code or understand the code when looking at it then how will they ever trouble shoot their sites.

There have been many times where individuals have approached me about their websites. They can't understand why their HTML editor won't produce the results they want. They click a button and it gives them one look. They click the button next to it and it gives them another. They want a look some where in between but can't figure out how to go into the code and change the values manually.

Unfortunately many of the people we should be skeptical of when they say they are a webmaster are precisely those individuals who do not know how to code. It is impossible for anyone to know all of the different codes and languages that can be utilized in web programming, however, knowing the basics should still be a priority.

I loved your article with the exception of your recanting statement. I think it is great that you would revisit your article and make some concessions, a lesser person could/would not have done this. But totally backing off your stance was not necessary. I'm sure Ric has produced LARGE sites with FrontPage, but were they intranet sites where bandwidth was not as much of an issue?

I'm sure you are familiar with how heavy some of the pages become when using HTML editors (especially FrontPage) instead of hand coding them. As I was learning to develop web sites I did not have the advantage of spending money on fancy editors, so I had to learn it the hard way and use notepad.

As I have proven myself and moved into positions where they want to provide me with some software I have evaluated and used several. Although they can help in rapid development I still find that I do the bulk of my work and produce the better results when using notepad.

In addition to better results I think I get more true satisfaction from my results than those who use editors."

A good web site also requires a Web Site Administrator who is responsible for installing, maintaining, trouble shooting, and providing security for web server hardware and software. Typically this person will be trained in UNIX or NT server administration and have some experience with traditional services like Telnet, Email and FTP.

A Web Site Administrator should also be intimate with web security issues and low level technologies. Attention to detail and a firm grasp of the technologies is essential because it is a well-known fact that computers are constantly waiting to trip you up.

However, it is often more important for Web Site Administrator to have solid people skills then to have technical prowess. After all, the Web Site Administrator must be able to understand the needs of non-techies and be able to explain technical issues in plain English.

Visual Design  
Okay, I did say that content was king before, but really, that is only partially true. The web is a child of post-modernism, MTV, sampled jams, fast food, fast culture, hype, hype, hype.

If your site does not look good your excellent content may not even be given a chance. Web surfers might just surf on by unless their eyes are caught by the first few pages.

So any site needs a Visual Designer who is responsible for logos, icons, navigation buttons, site-wide color standards, site-wide type face standards, side bars, menus, etc....

A good Visual Designer will be fluent in such applications as Adobe Photoshop, DeBabelizer, or Corel Draw as well as all the filters and tools for each. They will also be trained in the quirks and specifics of web graphics design as opposed to print graphics design and, like the Web Architect, will be an avid web surfer who is always on the prowl for new presentation tricks.

Wow! Those are a lot of tasks, a lot of work, and typically a lot of people. As a result, most large sites create a position just for managing all the resources. A Web Site Manager will make sure that communication lines are quick, efficient, and open. She will also facilitate lines of communications outside the department. Typically, for example, she will work closely with the ad/marketing department of the company.

However, it is crucial that the Web Site Manager knows her place within the group. Web Site Managers are facilitators, they do not rule the web with an iron fist. For the most part, each member of the team will be far more trained in their area of expertise than the manager. What is crucial is that the Web Site Manger knows how to bring out the best of each member of the team and create the glue to bind each part to the whole.

Victor, one reader of this article added the following note:

"This is a very well done description. It lacks, however, the guy who makes the site visible on the search engines. I don't know what the title is, but it's a big part of what I do, and I do it well. Our sites are so visible that competitor sites are moving to our service just for the visibility. What is my title? Web Site search engine visibility technician?"

I think Victor is probably correct. In the three years since writing this article, website teams have also added a traditional marketing component as well.

What is a Webmaster?  
So there you have it. Web Sites are extremely complex and often require involvement of up to 6 people.

So what does "webmaster" mean in this context?

Well, in my opinion, a classic web master is a single person who performs every one of the tasks listed above. A webmaster is it. The master!

This is quite a chunk to take on by yourself of course. But even today, in a web much more advanced that it was 5 years ago, there are still people who maintain entire sites by themselves. They are jacks-of-all-trades and most often suffer from ulcers, lack of sleep, and receding hair lines.

Alternatively, many people refer to the Web Site Manager as a web master since she is responsible for all of the pieces

And then of course, most Technicians and Administrators refer to themselves as webmaster because...well...just because. It looks good on a resume and besides, they are usually the ones who receive mail for webmaster@somedomain.com.

I, of course, prefer the first definition and am very suspect of people who calls themselves webmasters in this day and age. Two years ago, it made sense because web teams were usually teams of one. But now, things are not so naive.

In the end though, whether or not you accept my definition, what matters is that you take some time out from learning all those cool technologies and sit down to really think about what you are doing, why you are doing it and how you might change your behavior to make it all run smoother. Welcome to life on the web.