Book Review: The Accidental Webmaster
The World Wide Web has emerged as one of the key platforms for the development and communication of information.
From complex, high-tech organisations like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) , through to community sites such as Abington Trails , a Pennsylvanian community trails group, the Web has provided effective access to a global audience of billions.
Behind each site, lies a person responsible for its creation currency and operability - the Webmaster.
The Accidental Webmaster aims to support those volunteers who through 'choice or under duress' have been assigned this role. As a consequence, the book is predominantly concerned with smaller, less sophisticated sites such as Abington Trails, a site where the author herself is The Accidental Webmaster. The preface quickly confirms that the book is not concerned with the technical aspects of running a site. Instead, it is aimed at providing the reader with a series of guides to site planning and management.
Divided into two parts, each supported with a small bibliography The Accidental Webmaster begins by providing outline coverage to issues concerning the general maintenance of a Web site. Areas investigated include: setting policies, site hosting, design issues, site content, creating a community, fund-raising, legal concerns and personal Web skills development.
The chapter on site funding generated much initial interest. Obviously, in a cash-strapped age ideas for generating additional funding are going to jump out at the reader. However, while the chapter offers some interesting ideas in terms of acquiring corporate and government sponsorship, it also falls into the trap of ignoring the issue of the impact of sponsorship on perceived information credibility. A patient advocacy site providing information on different forms of depression may carry an implicit question mark over its information objectivity if the site receives sponsorship from a pharmaceutical company that specialises in anti-depressant drugs.
Chapter nine explores certain legal concerns associated in the development of a Web site. It should be observed that in the first paragraph of this chapter the two most important pieces of advice are presented:
'When in doubt, ask a lawyer. Better yet, when in doubt, don't post it'.
Knowing that not all accidental Webmasters have access to informed legal advice, this chapter concentrates on three key legal issues: copyright, privacy and disclaimers.
The author does a credible job in highlighting some potential causes for concern in dealing with the issue of privacy. Indeed in an age of manifest concern over child safety and the Internet, a thought provoking scenario is presented whereby the inclusion of a child's name and image on a site could inadvertently leave that child exposed to the ambitions of the more viciously manipulative elements of society.
The final part of the book provides advice on the establishment of a variety of different special interest sites, including: advocacy, political, religious, cultural, family, fan, professional organisation, child and small business Web sites.
While these chapters have been carefully considered and some key points raised, it could be argued that the adoption of a more structured information architecture/project management methodology would have raised the same concerns. A great deal of caution should be exercised in the practice of serving up templates for others to fill in the blanks. Each organisation, be it a religious group or a professional body will have its own nuances as compared to others in a similar field. To ignore this is to ignore the very passion that may lie behind a particular site, making it seem sterile to its users.
Still this book has indeed raised some sound points in relation to each type of site, but for aspiring Webmasters (and this includes the 'Accidental' type), the methodologies developed by the likes of Morville and Rosenfeld's: Information Architecture for the World Wide Web  and Jesse James Garrett's The Elements of User Experience  will certainly bring profit with regard to the finished site and the Webmaster's own professional development.
To conclude, the term 'accidental' in The Accidental Webmaster carries an implicit connotation that becoming a Webmaster involves some sort of mistake. This aura of negativity is further heightened when the role is regarded as not 'likely to be profitable'. Strong exception should be taken to such a premise. Profitability can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including personal improvement in terms of new skills acquired and resultant benefit to the parent organisation.
Criticism aside, there is a place for this book as an aide to hobbyists undertaking the development of a site to promote their interests. To this market, The Accidental Webmaster has much to offer as a first step into Web development. In terms of supporting the professional information management market this book does not provide the professional edge and valuable methodologies offered by the titles mentioned above.
- The NASA Web site http://www1.nasa.gov/home/
- The Abington Trails Web site http://www.abingtontrails.org
- Louis Rosenfeld, A., Peter Morville.,"Information Architecture for the World Wide Web", O'Reilly, 2002, paperback ISBN 0-59600-035-9
- Jesse James Garrett., "The Elements of User Experience", New Riders, 2002, paperback ISBN 0-73571-202-6