Why web workers struggle to break the ice at parties

As the web has grown over the past 10 years it has come to provide employment for tens of thousands of people. But it has yet to come up with a professional identity for them to match that of workers in other fields.

While on holiday recently I found myself at a party full of musicians. The standard conversation starter was ‘So what do you play?’ – not a good one for me, because I can’t read music, sadly. But musicians are polite people and they listened tolerantly as I tried to explain what I do. Which is, roughly, helping organisations get their websites right, and writing about the web. Much glazing of eyes, and after a while I started to follow the route commonly taken by rectal surgeons: ‘Oh I’m a chartered accountant.’
Since my return I’ve started asking other people involved one way or another in the web what they call themselves. In every case this developed into an interesting conversation, which made me realise that we are a large group of people without a professional identity. It is time, I think, to invent one.

What’s in a name

Labels are enormously important, not to ourselves or our close colleagues (we and they generally know what we do), but to other people, because it enables them to put us immediately in a pigeon hole. Television = glamorous, sales = flash, IT= boring. Most of us, I would guess, would rather be thought of as glamorous than flash or boring, whatever the reality. But these professions have their images, which are not going to change. With the web, by contrast, we still have a chance to do some moulding.
It is not that the web lacks an image, it is that it has (or has had) several, and is still changing. In the beginning, in the mid-1990s, we did not talk about the web. We talked about the internet, and interesting it was too. Everyone had heard of it but, exotic creature that it was, not many people had actually seen it. Then we had the e-period (first commerce, then business), which was cutting edge stuff, especially as it evolved into dot- this, dot-that and dotcom. That was glamorous.

When ‘e’ lost its chic

Then came the crash and ‘e’ became the least favourite letter of the alphabet. It was then that I realised the importance of the words themselves, or rather of that single vowel. The point about ‘e’ was that it was a bridge between technologists and non-technologists. The internet, and most particularly the web, has always been a cross-disciplinary thing. It can’t work at all without IT people, but it can’t work well without people who understand the black arts of commercialdom. In fact a new genus of people who straddled the two had been emerging – commercial people who knew ‘enough’ about technology, or IT people who got their heads round business strategy. They were e-commerce people, e-business people, and that was how they could describe themselves at parties. Then ‘e’ fell out of fashion, and most retreated to become marketing or IT folk.
But they hadn’t changed what they did. They were still internet people or, increasingly, web people. The web is no longer part of ‘the internet’: it is a medium in its own right and one that employs, I would guess, hundreds of thousands of people around the world (with an increasing proportion in India). They range from pure technologists – HTML programmers – to pure marketing and sales folk, with the majority sitting in that fertile no-man’s land between the two. Then there are oddities like me. What do I call myself if I ever get asked to another upmarket party? I want to know.

‘What is it you do?’

A possible answer is to look at the other media, and see if we can have a bit of their glamour. You can say ‘I’m in television’, whether you are an assistant soundman, a producer or a presenter. Can you say ‘I’m in the web’? It sounds a bit odd, certainly, but I expect ‘I’m in television’ sounded a bit odd in 1950.
The alternative is to think of a new word, which is where I could do with some help. Webmaster is no good, because it is far too technical-sounding, as well as failing to be ‘gender-neutral’ (just showing I can keep up with the jargon in other areas). What about a contrived word like ‘webster’? It might make you cringe now, but it is amazing how fast new usage is accepted.
Or we could go up market and look for classical roots. There’s Arachne, who had a web-spinning competition with Athena to see who was Goddess of the Loom (she won, but got turned into a spider for her pains). Or reticulum, which means net but reminds me of reticulated pythons. Neither very promising, I’m afraid. Maybe there is a wonderful word in Finnish, Xhosa or Assyrian that would give us what we need? Or maybe in one of the languages of India. Bangalore, we need even more help from you now.

First published 08 September, 2004
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