Who Killed the Webmaster?

Back in the frontier days of the web–when flaming skulls, scrolling marquees, and rainbow divider lines dominated the landscape–”Webmaster” was a vaunted, almost mythical, title. The Webmaster was a techno-shaman versed the black arts needed to make words and images appear on this new-fangled Information Superhighway. With the rise of the Webmaster coinciding with the explosive growth of the web, everyone predicted the birth of a new, well paying, and in-demand profession. Yet in 2007, this person has somehow vanished; even the term is scarcely mentioned. What happened? A decade later I’m left wondering “Who killed the Webmaster?”

Suspect #1: The march of technology

By 2000, I think every person in the developed world had a brother-in-law who created websites on the side. Armed with Frontpage and a pirated copy of Photoshop, he’d charge a reasonable fee per page (though posting more than three images cost extra.)

Eventually the web hit equilibrium and just having a website didn’t make a company hip and cutting-edge. Now management demanded that their website look better than the site immediately ranked above in search results. And as expensive as the sites were, ought they not “do something” too? Companies increasingly wanted an exceptional website requiring a sophisticated combination of talent to pull off. HTML and FTP skills, as useful as they had been, were no longer a sharp enough tool in the Webmaster’s toolbox. Technologies such as CSS and multi-tier web application development rapidly made WYSIWYG editors useless for all but ordinary websites. And with the explosion of competition and possibilities on the Internet few businesses were willing to pay for “ordinary”.

In 1995, the “professional web design firm” was single, talented person working from home. Today it’s a diverse team of back-end developers, front-end developers, graphic artists, UI designers, database and systems administrators, search engine marketing experts, analytics specialists, copywriters, editors, and project managers. The industry has simply grown so specialized, so quickly, for one person to hardly be a master of anything more than a single strand in the web.

Suspect #2: Is it the economy, stupid?

Then again, perhaps the disappearance of the Webmaster can better be explained by an underwhelming economy rather than overwhelming technology. Riding high on the bull market of the late 90’s, companies were increasingly willing to assume more risk to reach potential customers. This was especially true of small businesses, which traditionally have miniscule advertising and marketing budgets. Everyone wanted a piece of the Internet pie and each turned to the Webmaster to deliver. More than just a few Webmasters made a respectable living by cranking out a couple $500 websites every week.

Once the bubble burst in early 2000, the dot-com hangover left many small businesses clutching their heads and checking their wallets. As companies braced to solely maintain what they already had, the first cut inevitably was to marketing and advertising. In-house Webmasters were summarily let go, their duties hastily transferred to an already overworked office manager. Freelance Webmasters were hit even harder as business owners struggled to first take care of their own. The gold rush had crumbled to fools’ gold even faster than it had started.

While a few Webmaster were able to weather the storm—mostly those with either extraordinary skills or a gainfully employed spouse—the majority were forced to abandon their budding profession and return to the world of the mundane.

Suspect #3: The rise of Web 2.0

Another strong possibility is that the Internet has simply evolved beyond the Webmaster. “Web 2.0? is the naked emperor of technological neologisms; we all nod our head at the term but then stammer when pressed for a definition. As far as I can tell, Web 2.0 is mostly about rounded corners, low-contrast pastel colors, and domain names with missing vowels. But it also seems to be about an emphasis on social collaboration. This may seem like a no-brainer given the connectedness of the Internet itself; however, thinking back to Web 1.0 there was a distinct lack of this philosophy. Web 1.0 was more an arms race to build “mindshare” and “eyeballs” in order to make it to the top of the hill with the most venture capital. Even the Web 1.0 term of “portal” conjures up an image of Lewis Carroll’s Alice tumbling down a hole and into an experience wholly managed by the resident experts–the Webmasters. Despite the power and promises to be so much more, the web wasn’t much different than network television or print. Even the most interesting and successful business models of the Web 1.0 era could have been accomplished years prior with an automated telephone system.

It wasn’t until after the failure of the initial experiment did people begin to rethink the entire concept of the Internet. Was the Webmaster as gatekeeper really necessary? If we all have a story to share, why can’t everyone contribute to the collective experience? Perhaps it was the overabundance of Herman Miller chairs, but Web 1.0 was inarguably about style over substance. Yet, as anyone who’s ever visited MySpace can attest, today content is king. With all of us simultaneously contributing and consuming on blogs, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, and SecondLife, who needs a Webmaster anymore?