Are Webmasters An Endangered Species? (Part 1 of 2)

'Webmaster' doesn't mean what it used to mean.

Back before the 1990s, you would have been justified if you thought the term "webmaster" referred to a certain friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. The World Wide Web was in its infancy prior to 1990, a hypertext-centric collection of webpages primarily created and accessed by people in academic and scientific communities.


The public internet began to gain traction during the 1990s. E-mail was the killer application at the start of the Web 1.0 era, as people and businesses embraced the ability to send and receive written messages in relative real time. As the number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) began to grow, more home computer owners became interested in experiencing the nascent World Wide Web.


The Web 1.0 era birthed an early example of the webmaster role, from a type of amateur website known as a BBS. These sites took their name from the Bulletin Board System software used to create and manage them.


A typical BBS was run from a single PC connected to the public internet via a dial-up modem. A registered member of a BBS used their PC's modem to directly dial up and connect to the BBS host machine—resulting in the anachronistic beeping and static sounds forever associated with 1990s dial-up internet access.


(Side Note: Usually only one user could be logged on to a BBS at any given time. Imagine today if you tried to stream a Netflix show, and received a message saying, "Another member is using the service at the moment, please try again later.")


To be a webmaster of a BBS, you needed to know how to install and configure the host software and keep it properly updated. You had to manage the add-on applications your BBS members used to play games, submit posts in online forums, and exchange software with other users ... historically, the slowest form of software piracy ever known.


And you needed to know enough about PC hardware and operating systems to be able to troubleshoot and fix connection issues between your BBS host machine and the users who were dialing in.


The BBS webmaster experience was interesting and educational, but it was quite primitive compared to what future ecommerce giants like Amazon and eBay would require. Big business would have great influence over the evolution of the webmaster role, as the internet entered a new millennium and a new phase: Web 2.0.


Web 2.0: Meet the New Web


Early websites were mostly static entities composed of individual webpage files coded in HTML. These files were arranged in a hierarchical folder structure that ideally matched up with the structure of the site's content. Images were separate files gathered into their own separate directory, where they were called by < image > HTML tags to appear on individual pages.


In 2004, a new movement called Web 2.0 aimed to change the static nature of the web. Evolving web technologies made it possible to create more dynamic websites, where the content was served up using databases rather than inert file trees. Rich content like streaming video and audio became more popular as high-speed broadband internet service expanded across the world.


'Webmaster' doesn't mean what it used to mean.

Web 2.0 also introduced a more collaborative internet experience for users. Instead of just clicking on links and passively consuming content, web surfers would discover new interactive experiences like social networking sites, weblogs (blogs), and massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs).


Most significantly, however, it was the growth of e-commerce that created and defined the role of the professional webmaster as we think of it today.


Even after the dot-com bubble of the early 2000s, businesses were still eager to embrace the potential marketing and sales power of the internet. Marketing departments, largely made up of copywriters and designers, didn't have the people with the technical know-how to create and manage e-commerce sites. To "get on the web", these businesses needed webmasters.


The power of web technologies continued to increase over time, enabling a new wave of online products and services. To this end, modern webmasters were required to expand their knowledge and skills into new areas of website creation and management. Scripting languages, relational databases, SQL queries, security and encryption, server hardware and software, and other disciplines were added to the professional webmaster role.


Webmasters in 2018


Today, the job role of webmaster is more diversified than ever before. Webmasters are now typically called upon to work on front-end web development (the presentation side of a website) as well as back-end web development (the plumbing behind the scenes that makes everything work).


Webmasters are also responsible for site maintenance and security, which often involves collaborating with in-house IT security employees and off-site datacenter staff. A webmaster must be familiar with a company's business continuity and disaster recovery plans in order to get one or more sites back on their feet in the case of a catastrophic event.


One new responsibility that has become the top priority for many webmasters is optimizing websites to place them at the top of the relevant search engine results. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the internet's new religion, and its practitioners are constantly looking for new technical nuts and bolts that webmasters can employ to make a website more attractive to the almighty algorithms of Google's search engine.


SEO site content is also very important, and webmasters are being called upon to create and/or manage content management systems for marketing writers and designers.


And, of course, today's webmasters have had to become skilled at creating sites optimized for browsing on a mobile phone. Over the last few years, the total amount of global web browsing has become dominated by mobile devices over desktop and laptop computers. Webmasters are using new technologies like Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) to give mobile sites faster loading times while maintaining an expected level of rich functionality.


Today's larger businesses are more likely to divvy up the webmaster's responsibilities to a team of people, rather than heaping the load onto one employee's back — although the latter option is still often the case in small business environments. Alternatively, some companies choose to outsource their web properties to specialized firms or contractors rather than hiring their own in-house webmasters.


In Part Two of this look at the webmaster job role, we'll dig into what skills and training you should look at if you want to pursue a career as a webmaster.


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Aaron Axline is a freelance technology writer based in Canada.

Aaron Axline is a technology journalist and copywriter based in Edmonton, Canada. He can be found on LinkedIn, and anywhere fine coffee is served.