Job Titles Are Meaningless in New Media

This article dates from June 1999, six months after I left my previous company to go it alone. Hence I had recently experienced first-hand the problems of trying to identify an appropriate title to describe accurately what I did. I became particularly aware of how little consensus there was in the industry about who did what, and what they should be called. This is still much the case today in 2005, and the concluding point of the article – that we should focus on the role and not the title – remains valid.

In 1995 when I was finishing my Master’s Degree in Design for Interactive Media, my fellow students and I were discussing that all important issue of job titles. What would we call ourselves? What would others call us?

The problem revolved around how accurately to describe exactly what it is that someone involved with ‘new media’ actually does. In most established – some might say traditional – media industries there are well-defined roles, titles and job descriptions. Not so in new media. Roles needed to be defined, carved out. The differences between conventional positions were blurred – and titles were there to be taken, or made up. And let’s face it, who wouldn’t try to choose a title that glamorised their job as much as possible? We saw the birth of interaction designers, interactive media producers, new media architects, site-builders, webmasters, digital content strategists, multimedia professionals and (cough) new media consultants.

But none of these (usually self-appointed) titles quite seemed to sum up what their bearers actually did. Even now, this still causes confusion and uncertainty. There is often a huge difference between a client or employer’s expectation of someone holding a particular title and the skills, experience and knowledge that person actually brings, or the role he expects to fulfil.

For example, I call myself a new media consultant. I think that’s a fair description because most of what I do involves discussing clients’ needs and advising them about new media. Yet there are many people out there who also call themselves consultants but whose work is designing or building web sites and CD-ROMs.

Personally, I would have thought ‘site-builder’ or something similar would have been more appropriate, but perhaps it is I who should change my title. I frequently receive calls from potential clients asking me to undertake design or production work; I occasionally accept, but if I had wanted to make this my primary business, I would not have called myself a consultant!

Titles such as producer, project manager, creative director, and production assistant all have fairly well defined, standardised meanings in most other industries. But this is not always so in new media, and it’s the ‘not always’ that is troublesome. Sometimes a given title will mean the same in new media as in another industry, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes, for a while, there might be a limited consensus within the new media industry, sometimes not. Depending on where you go and who you ask, and when, you’ll get different definitions.

The result is that clients and employers are inevitably going to be confused and may find the recruitment process unduly laborious. Even if they know the roles they need to fulfil, it is almost impossible to define accurate, universally understood job titles. Conversely, if they have job titles in mind, there is no guarantee that applicants will not believe the role to involve something quite different.

Take the title ‘webmaster’. This, as you might expect, is generally given to someone who is responsible for a web site. But is that person a technician, designer, writer, editor, marketing strategist or project manager, for example? One, several or even all of these roles could be required for a particular job as a webmaster, but there are such vast differences between them that applying just the single title does not seem appropriate. I suspect it would be rare to find someone who is capable of – and good at – filling all or most of these roles together and if such a person exists, they are almost certainly not being paid enough!

This whole situation is partly caused by the absence of any consistent, widely agreed guidelines by which new media professionals can describe themselves or be described by potential employers. It is also caused by employers and clients trying to apply their experience and understanding of other media sectors to new media and attempting to shoehorn people into traditional job categories. The problem is then exacerbated because many companies simply do not know what is involved in creating a piece of interactive media, nor what skills are required (and we probably shouldn’t expect them to). This is often combined with a tendency to assume that new media is not of significant importance to the business and so does not merit a large staff budget. The result seems to be an awful lot of over-optimistic advertisements seeking the most unlikely combinations of skills from a single person.

It is understandable that, when a new medium arrives, it takes time for people to get to grips with it, for the language to develop, for standards and definitions to be agreed. Perhaps because it is still a relatively young industry, many of those outside new media see those within as all being the same – when a new media project comes up, they look for a ‘new media person’ and assume that their skill requirements will be met. Meanwhile, we new media people have been quick to define categories and niches and then to refine and redefine them further. We know what it is that we do, but we don’t seem to be very good at explaining it to everyone else.

Unfortunately, there is probably no easy solution to the problem. Over time, the industry will evolve and grow up, the language will develop and, with any luck, a true consensus will emerge. Until then, because job titles tend to mean something different each time they’re used, they are effectively meaningless. To anyone looking to hire a new media person, my advice is this – define the role and forget the title.

About Jonathan Hirsch

I've been working in the interactive media industry since 1995. I'm a problem-solver with a multi-disciplinary skill set. I work on a freelance / contract basis. I help clients create great digital products.

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