A new field of science: the Science of the Web

Have you ever wondered how new scientific fields are formed? I always figured it was a slow, drawn-out process (for example, as James Howison noted in this helpful comment, the field of Information Science has a clear heritage from Library Science).

I never would have believed it, but it turns out that if you are famous enough you can even announce the start of a new field of science with a press release!

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southampton in England recently announced they would jointly start a new branch of science: the science of the Web. Key players: Tim Berners-Lee at M.I.T.;  Wendy Hall, who directs Southampton’s School of Electronics and Computer Science; Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence at Southampton; Daniel Weitzner, principal research scientist at M.I.T.’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. In case you missed their announcement (all emphasis mine):

According to Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Web and leads the consortium, it is now time to analyze the Web in a scientific way. By modeling its structure, articulating the architectural principles that have fueled its phenomenal growth, and discovering how social conventions drive online human interactions, Web science hopes to find mechanisms that will ensure the network continues to grow productively and in ways that support the basic social values of trustworthiness and privacy. As transformational as the Web has been, far more advancement could be realized with deeper scientific investigation of decentralized information systems.

The initiative hopes to tackle a number of key questions: What features of current Web protocols make the system work? How do Web users represent the meaning, or semantics, of Web content? Can developers exploit the statistical patterns and distribution of content to understand meaning and relevance? What properties of the Web result in social effects? How do users address online privacy protection, intellectual property rights and security? What trends could fragment the Web?

What to know more about Web Science? Unsurprisingly, they’ve got their own website: http://www.webscience.org. There I learned:

“Since its inception, the World Wide Web has changed the ways scientists communicate, collaborate, and educate. There is, however, a growing realization among many researchers that a clear research agenda aimed at understanding the current, evolving, and potential Web is needed. If we want to model the Web; if we want to understand the architectural principles that have provided for its growth; and if we want to be sure that it supports the basic social values of trustworthiness, privacy, and respect for social boundaries, then we must chart out a research agenda that targets the Web as a primary focus of attention.

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.”

This all sounds very interesting. It’ll be interesting to see in what ways their work complements what we do as Organizational Communications and Information Systems researchers.

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One Response

  1. Thank You

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