What is Web Science?

The World Wide Web has changed the course of human history forever, the Web has empowered individuals, invigorated collaboration and unleashed social creativity. To understand what Web Science is, we need a retrospective glance at how Web Science came to be a recognised interdisciplinary field, covering one of the most important ongoing inventions of the last 25 years.

Back in 2006, a call to arms for a new discipline was offered in the form of an online 130-page monograph by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and collaborators. In this, Web Science is introduced and described as the science of decentralised information systems which needs to be studied, understood, and also need to be engineered. Berners-Lee called for a new approach of analysing the Web through the collaboration of researchers from fields such as mathematics, physics, biology and economics with engineers and computer scientists; with the hope of enriching our understanding of the web. This call for research had profound effects within academic circles across all disciplines.

The call for Web Science was described as provocative agenda which needed serious review by the wider research community particular by traditional computer scientists. As of 2008, the current computer science curriculum in universities across the world offered ‘Web design’ as a class, plus maybe a course in Web scripting languages but very little in Web architecture or protocols; it was as if, below the browser, the web simply didn’t exist.

In response to Berners-Lee, the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) was created and then in 2010 ultimately evolved into the Web Science Trust. This aimed to bring together researchers to discuss and establish interdisciplinary approaches to the study of the Web, with the aim of accelerating research and the training of future Web Scientists.

Eight years on from the original call to action, research is constantly expanding, doctoral training centres have been created and the development of a Web Science curriculum has started. A look back at ‘Framework for Web Science’ by Berners-Lee confirms that interdisciplinary approaches to studying the web can bring significant benefits for individuals, business, government and society. Esteemed sociologists Susan Halford and Catherine Pope of the University of Southampton stated in November 2012 that “Rather than analysing these issues from the ‘outside’, we should find ways to engage in the evolution of the Web”.

The challenges faced with creating an interdisciplinary field are far reaching. The collaboration of different disciplines brings together a multitude of research methods. Web Science needs to combine the use of qualitative and quantitative approaches to provide a far better understanding of this now recognised interdisciplinary field. Importance is placed on acquiring new skills and knowledge through interdisciplinary collaboration to produce new kinds of methods, data and theories.

Interdisciplinary study of the web was an absolute necessity. The web is not an application of the internet, nor a technological artefact but a phenomenon, an experiment which went beyond our wildest dreams. Nigel Shadbolt and Tim Berners Less argued that through Web Science we could reveal better ways to exploit information, prevent identity theft, revolutionise industry and help manage our online identities.

Web Science can provide us with knowledge, understanding and insights on how the web developed, how it has profoundly affected society and how it is affected by society. It’s also important to note that Web Science can not be allowed to be a sociology or a computer science of the Web. It must be a critical discipline to successfully challenge the theoretical thinking behind web and society and follow all the actors (individual, groups and technologies) involved in this ongoing creation to understand the effects of these complex networks.

Web Science was born out of the realisation that the web is constantly changing society and, in turn, society is changing the web. This new field of research transcends disciplines; it is the study of a socio-technical exception, an exception that has changed our lives, an exception that we inadvertently created through complex interactions.

Jim Hendler of the Rensselaer Institute asserted that “The Web is changing at a rate that may be greater than even the most knowledgeable researcher’s ability to observe it.” Each year more higher education institutions are embracing Web Science with more researchers from differing discipline backgrounds contributing and moulding the direction this exciting yet relatively new interdisciplinary field. 

 

Related Links:

Web Science Centre of Doctoral Training

Web Science Trust

Footnotes
  • Web Science Trust, http://www.webscience.org
  • Berners-Lee, T., Weitzner, D. J., Hall, W., O’hara, K., Shadbolt, N., & Hendler, J. A. (2006, 12). A Framework for Web Science. Foundations and Trends® in Web Science, 1(1), 1-130. doi: 10.1561/1800000001
  • Halford, S., Pope,, C. & Carr, L. (2010). A manifesto for Web Science. In, Proceedings of the WebSci10: Extending the Frontiers of Society On-Line, Raleigh, US, 26–27 Apr 2010, 1-6.
  • Halford, S., Pope, C., & Weal, M. J. (2013). Digital futures? Sociological challenges and opportunities in the emergent semantic web. Sociology, 47, (1), 173-189. (doi:10.1177/0038038512453798 ).
  • Hall, W., & Tiropanis, T. (2012, 12). Web evolution and Web Science. Computer Networks, 56(18), 3859-3865. doi: 10.1016/j.comnet.2012.10.004
  • Hendler, J., Shadbolt, N., Hall, W., Berners-Lee, T., & Weitzner, D. (2008, 12). Web science. Communications of the ACM, 51(7), 60. doi: 10.1145/1364782.1364798
  • Tinati, R., Halford, S., Carr, L. & Pope, C. (2012). Mixing Methods and Theory to Explore Web Activity. In, Third Annual Web Science Conference (WebSci2012), Evanston, US, 9pp.
  • O’Hara, K., Contractor, N. S., Hall, W., Hendler, J. A. & Shadbolt, N. (2013) Web Science: understanding the emergence of macro-level features on the World Wide Web. Foundations and Trends in Web Science, 4, (2-3), 103-267. (doi:10.1561/1800000017).
  • Shadbolt, N., & Berners-Lee, T. (2008, 12). Web Science Emerges. Scientific American, 299(4), 76-81. doi: 10.1038/scientificamerican1008-76
  • Shneiderman, B. (2007, 12). Web science. Communications of the ACM, 50(6), 25. doi: 10.1145/1247001.1247022
  • Tiropanis, T., Hall, W., Shadbolt, N., Roure, D. D., Contractor, N., & Hendler, J. (2013, 12). The Web Science Observatory. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 28(2), 100-104. doi: 10.1109/MIS.2013.50
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