What exactly would you say, you know, you do here?
When I first found out that I had received the newly minted position of online community manager in SUNY Geneseo’s Alumni Relations office, I told my friends the good news. Being the snarky, brutally honest types that I tend to associate with; they immediately took to mocking and envying me in equal measure for getting paid to play on Facebook. I assured them that this was a serious job with serious things to do, dammit, and that I would only on occasion, perhaps every Tuesday, be doing anything they would be completely, irrevocably jealous about.
I began to dream big about what I was going to do as this new hybrid employee: half physical man, half virtual avatar. This was a new position at a new place in a new field in a new plane of existence; I could literally taste the newness. A vision of my future role came to me. There I was, swashbuckling atop a giant bust of Wil Wheaton against evil hordes of forum trolls and spam bots with my lightsaber … pretty typical expectations, really.
The truth is, I didn’t have a clue what to expect. I knew what the job description said to expect, but who has ever trusted those? And I didn’t personally know anyone else with the online community manager title. For that matter, I didn’t know any web pros in higher education that had the exact same title as anyone else, period. People go by many names and titles, be it web manager, specialist, strategist, master, maven, guru, overlord, or just web guy/girl. Titles are about as useful as job descriptions in predicting what exactly you will do, as it turns out.
Higher Ed web pros often don’t have much structure to work with when it comes to defining their jobs and what they do. In fact, the term ‘generalist’ is probably the most common self-definition people make. If I’m not alone in my ambiguity and find it hard to find anyone who feels more grounded than me, it must be more systemic. If we cannot be categorized and defined by the existing job roles, then why not create a new set?
You have so many very stylish hats
You may not play all of these roles or you may play many more, but in order to be a professional web person in higher education it is likely that you have been or will be the following:
Evangelist – You will almost never be preaching to the choir. There is no choir. Preach on nonetheless. Preach to anyone who will listen about web standards, web accessibility, and proper web writing. Make them disciples of the cult of usability. If you live what you preach and keep on spreading the good word, things will change for the better over the long run.
Diplomat – You are adept at getting what you want while convincing everyone else that they are also getting what they want. You offer better promotion, easier process, broader exposure and time savings. In return you ask for more leverage, autonomy, support, and compliance. You know how to work a room of technology buffs into seeing things from the user’s perspective and presenting technology to users in a non-threatening way they understand.
Architect – You build temples of information from scratch. From the architectural frame, the metadata plumbing, interior CSS decorator skills, tasteful curatorship of the artwork, right down to the signs pointing people to where they need to go; it’s all you. The best information architects are like the best physical ones: visually provoking and uplifting their audience while being firmly grounded in function and practicality.
Ur-Communicator – You can take a message for a particular audience and craft it a dozen ways from Sunday. Whether it ends up as a wall post, press release, 140 characters, or cross-media extravaganza – you get the word out.
Prophet – Let’s be honest, you don’t really know where any of this is headed…ever. Sure, you may know what the next few months or even year look like, but nobody knows what new technology will flip everything we do on its head overnight. We all like to think we’re ‘ahead of the curve’ but in reality most of us just hope the curve doesn’t move out from underneath us. Don’t tell that to the administration, though – as far as they know, you’re able to predict the future.
Rebel – If you follow all the rules you will never get anything truly progressive done. Ask for forgiveness instead of permission, and all that. Don’t be mutinous, just be daring enough to go out and take a small risk every day. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t. The beauty of the modern, open web is that the rewards almost always outweigh the risks.
Disruptor – People hate change, and you change how people work and think by introducing things they’ve never seen or done before. That does not mean they have to hate you. Own the disruption by admitting that it will take time to get used to the new. Better to gradually familiarize someone with something than to lose them forever by overwhelming and scaring them.
It is no wonder that our jobs are both exhausting and rewarding – we get to be such different people every day and every hour. So go ahead, give yourself a new title. Today you could be a disruptive cms evangelist, tomorrow a diplomatic microsite architect, and next Tuesday you could really make your friends jealous as the rebel social media prophet. I’m certain there are many more possibilities and I hope you will share them; this list is far from exhaustive.
Because we move so fluidly from one role to another, web professionals are ideally suited to move institutions forward in a world where ambiguity and uncertainty are the new normal. Institutions of higher education need people who are at home and comfortable living and thriving in this environment. They need new renaissance men and women who will take on whatever is thrown at them, adapt, and evolve. Luckily, we brought a stylish hat and title for just such an occasion.