June 9, 2009
Web Science: Because “We no longer fully understand the web.”
The Web is God? When Tim Berners-Lee first created what would be the foundations for the Web (not the Net, WEB. Let’s get our usage right.), he could not have predicted the explosive growth seen in the 1990s through today. In fact, the Web is now so ingrained into our cultures that humanity is practically fused to it. This fusion is causing its own problems.
That is giving Berners-Lee some cause for alarm. To study the effects that the Web is now having on humanity, he has founded the Web Science Research Initiative and came up with the term Web Science to describe what the WSRI is studying:
When we discuss an agenda for a science of the Web, we use the term “science” in two ways. Physical and biological science analyzes the natural world, and tries to find microscopic laws that, extrapolated to the macroscopic realm, would generate the behavior observed. Computer science, by contrast, though partly analytic, is principally synthetic: It is concerned with the construction of new languages and algorithms in order to produce novel desired computer behaviors. Web science is a combination of these two features. The Web is an engineered space created through formally specified languages and protocols. However, because humans are the creators of Web pages and links between them, their interactions form emergent patterns in the Web at a macroscopic scale. These human interactions are, in turn, governed by social conventions and laws. Web science, therefore, must be inherently interdisciplinary; its goal is to both understand the growth of the Web and to create approaches that allow new powerful and more beneficial patterns to occur.
Weird Science, or necessary discipline?
(From NewScientist) How does understanding these emergent systems affect society?
Because if you get it right, you can create a new social phenomenon that changes how people operate. Take designing an online market for second-hand goods: if you get the website’s balance of social and technical wrong, or mess up its trust and reputation model, it won’t work. But if you get it right, you create a market for used goods internationally that can affect the price of products around the world because it provides the price of the second-hand alternative. It is a web phenomenon that changed the way society works, and we need a science to understand it.
Web Science sounds like something that people who work with the Web need to know, not just for designing sites, but for security and privacy as well. But is it something worth getting a PhD for? The biggest test will be when… or if… they are able to but the science into actual use for everyday people. Remember: In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.