A very long time ago (in Internet time, that is), websites were designed and maintained by people known as “webmasters”. These were the people who had the skills that organizations needed if they wanted a presence on the world wide web. They learned arcane languages like HTML and created literally millions of web pages.
For a time, it was thought that they would be replaced by software. Many software companies thought that if they created a user-friendly program that could write web pages as easily as one writes a word processed document, there would be no need for webmasters. Those of us who knew something about this scoffed at the idea. No software could ever be as creative as a human being. And we were right.
Nevertheless, webmasters are an endangered species. And the danger is coming not from new software tools but from something that trade unions already know a lot about: teamwork.
Some of the most exciting things happening today on the Internet are being done by teams — often very large teams — working together and using sophisticated tools to build massive websites which have become quite popular. These developments are significant for trade unions because they point the way forward for our own use of the net.
Let me give an example of what I mean. Some time ago, a group of people decided it would be nice to have a comprehensive directory of what’s on the web (like Yahoo), but is put together by volunteer experts, each one working in his or her field of knowledge (rather than by Yahoo’s paid employees).
They created something called the Open Directory Project which you can find today on the web at http://www.dmoz.org. There are nearly 30,000 volunteer editors working on this project today, and collectively they have created an index of over 2,000,000 websites in over 300,000 categories. The directory has doubled in size in the last year; it is now the largest human-edited directory of the net. Their site is becoming enormously popular and the Project itself has been hailed as the largest open source software project ever, even larger than the much-typed Linux open source operating system.
Those 30,000 people are each adding from their own knowledge directly to the website, building it up into a fantastic resource, and they are doing so for free.
Another extraordinary example is Slashdot. (The site is at http://www.slashdot.org.) This site was launched some three years ago and has become one of the great success stories on the web, serving up some 30,000,000 pages a month. It gets so many visitors daily that when a site gets mentioned on its front page, the amount of traffic that then hits the named site will usually bring the web server down. This has become known as being “slashdotted”.
And Slashdot too is entirely the creation of thousands of readers who discuss a wide range of technical issues most of which would be unintelligible to normal folk. They post new articles, read the articles posted, comment on them, and rate them. But they do not determine which articles appear on the front page of the site. That is now done a staff of reporters that sift through submissions and write their own content. Editorial control is still in the hands of the people that set it up. Unions would obviously also want to exert control over the content of their sites, even content created by their own members, in a similar way.
Slashdot and the Open Directory Project are both enormously successful examples of teamwork. And this is something that the trade union movement has always been rather good at too. Working together is the very basis of a union — so why shouldn’t our websites reflect our ethos of teamwork, sharing, and cooperation?
Which brings me back to that dying species, the webmaster. The one place in cyberspace where you still find the classical webmaster is on trade union websites. I know of unions with hundreds of thousands of members and whose website is entirely in the hands of a single individual. That individual may be the hardest working person on earth (and they often are) but why not make use of the union’s greatest resource — its membership.
I look forward to the day when trade union websites will be as vibrant and alive as Slashdot and the Open Directory Project — when the information that needs to be shared among members of a union is shared using the same tools that have so energized the Internet itself.
The tools used to construct an online community like Slashdot are publicly available. Any union that wanted to could build a website using some of the same technology.
Of course that would mean giving members a more direct control over what the union says, what it stands for, and what it does than ever before.
This article appeared in the May 2001 issue of the magazine of the Education International, a world-wide trade union organisation of education personnel, whose 24 million members represent all sectors of education from pre-school to university 304 national trade unions and associations in 155 countries and territories.