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Next stage of Internet spawns variety of new jobs

You may have heard of Second Life, the virtual online world that draws millions of aficionados every day. Now imagine a Second Life specifically for business, a world where workers can gather, share files, and communicate securely in a fully animated 3D office environment in cyberspace.

Creating exactly that is what Justin Rounds does for a living. Rounds, 35, is a contractor for Sun Micro Systems in Burlington. He is one of the digital animators behind the MPK20 Project, Sun's yet-to-be unveiled virtual workplace.

Only a few years ago, a job in new media simply meant Web design. No more. The advent of Web 2.0, the next stage in the Internet's evolution, has spawned a wide variety of previously nonexistent digital media jobs.

"Technology keeps changing," said Rounds. "There's always going to be the next big thing, there's always going to be a demand for people who are technical minded."

While small-scale Web 2.0 shops are sprouting up all over, major corporations, nonprofit groups and educational institutions have been scooping up people like Justin Rounds. They end up with exotic sounding job titles such as "director of interactive experience" or "online engagement manager."

Equally exotic sounding are the technical skills needed for Web 2.0 novices. Software packages like Ajax and Ruby on Rails for website development, or Maya and Blender for 3D animation are all the rage. Many did not exist until only a few years ago. Now they are essential tools.

Still, it takes more than geek credentials to make it in the world of the Web 2.0. Since the work is highly collaborative and only a minority of jobs are posted through traditional channels, social networking skills are just as important.

"There's just a whole new landscape of jobs," said Kiki Mills, executive director at the Massachusetts Information and Technology Exchange (MITX), a Cambridge-based digital media trade association. "Now more than ever, you're able to share information. Obviously, careers are forming around all of this."

Although purely technical knowledge remains important, a much wider array of skills and attitudes is required for ambitious Web 2.0 novices. The current crop of new media jobs can involve any combination of creating multimedia content, building real-time online communities, and maintaining a presence in the ever-expanding Web search universe.

"Essentially you're going in as a problem solver for the organization you work for, and you've got a variety of tools to work with," said Bob Daniels, executive director of Boston University's Center for Digital Imaging Arts in Waltham.

As companies go to great lengths to make sure their names pop up on top of vital Google or Yahoo search result pages, another area that has seen explosive growth, is search engine management.

"You can't find enough people in search engine marketing," said Kiki Mills. "A lot of small shops have been forming there, as well as divisions within agencies that have been created specifically for search."

Within those divisions, search marketers make sure their company's website appears on top of the paid advertising column, while search engine optimizers specialize in unraveling Google's secret search algorithm to put their companies on top of the nonpaid, so-called "organic" search column.

The skills are so new and esoteric that they can best be learned on the job, although a working knowledge of the basic Internet toolbox is expected of applicants.

Meanwhile, away from the spotlights, all sorts of business-to-business interactions have been quietly revolutionized by the advent of Web 2.0.

"People are having online discussions, they're writing about experiences, they're uploading files, they're doing podcasts or videocasts," said Aaron Strout, VP of New Media at Shared Insights, a Woburn-based builder of online communities and social networks for corporate clients. "They're sharing information in a very collaborative way that we only really did at face-to-face events in the past."

There is no strictly defined set of technical skills for online community managers, although a working knowledge of Internet mainstays such as HTML and embedded video helps. With blogs and other social platforms humming along, Web 2.0 workers must be social facilitators as much as computer programmers.

"It's very much a nurturing role," said Aaron Strout. "The people that we look for in the community manager role tend to have a pretty good understanding of marketing, but it's definitely not hardcore marketing. They know how to have a good dialogue and facilitate conversations."

Pay rates for new media graduates vary greatly. The old picture of the struggling freelancer is still very much alive. But at the same time, some graduates do go on to land $100,000 jobs as Web designers for major corporations.

Typically, entry level salaries hover in the $35,000 to $55,000 range, said MITX founder Larry Weber. "But if this continues to take off the way it has and you're good at what you do, I don't think it'll be the proverbial annual increase - you'll be able to increase your pay package far more quickly."

"We see two things going on right now," said Mills. "Number one is we're seeing an explosion of small one- to two person shops in the Web development area. Secondly, I do think that some of the larger companies are very dedicated to having a strong Web presence. There are a lot of opportunities there as well."

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