It’s not just computer science any more

Here’s a ZDNet article on the topic: Berners-Lee, universities launch ‘Web science’ initiative

Berners-Lee, of course, really is the guy who invented the World Wide Web.  😀

Here are quotes from the article – mainly the words of the researchers themselves:

“The Web is basically a web of people. It’s a way that social people interact,” Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the basic software of the Web and is director of the World Wide Web Consortium standards group, said. “Because it’s something we created, we have a duty to make it better.” 

The social aspect of the Web–and the Web’s huge impact on society–demands that a field separate from computer science be explored, organizers said. For example, eBay is interesting because it relies on the involvement of millions of people. Similarly, Google used a mathematical algorithm that examines how millions of individuals link to other pages to improve search results.

“We want to throw some light on forecasting what these new technologies might lead to in the human sense, in the community sense–and in the business,” said Wendy Hall, a professor of computer science at the University of Southampton.

Social scientists can help analyze online communities, and experts in life sciences can help Web scientists understand how complex systems like the human body–or the Web–operate, she said.

Researchers would like systems that can better reflect the social relationships between people, said Daniel Weitzner, principle research scientist at CSAIL.

For example, finding out basic information on meeting participants, such as phone numbers or professions, from an online calendar entry would entail a lot of manual work. But socially aware Web applications could make the task much easier

“The Web fails to capture the nature of social relationships. We want the Web to be more responsive to the existing relationships people actually have,” said Weitzner. 

“We want to see the Web as an object of scientific study from the perspective of various different disciplines,” said Weitzner. “What we are looking for is to direct scholarly attention and research attention to this particular new subject.”  

Seems like a great idea to me.  Our profession, especially the field of ‘computer science,’ us still certainly dominated by the technology and the technologists.  This is changing, and fields like design and usability have been and will get a lot more attention and respect than they have, as they continue to demonstrate their importance to successful products and successful applications of technology. 

Social aspects of computing, as this initiative addresses, are really as new as mainstream access to the World Wide Web – only a decade or so now.  If you think about the examples they mention, and the important successes of the Internet, they are all social uses of technology.  At the highest level – and this is a point I haven’t heard made much – the last 10 years of success of the Internet specifically and of technology generally (iPod anyone? cell phones anyone?) are specifically about mainstream (and thus social) adoption of the technology.  That’s where the big numbers are, not in counting the early adopters and the technologists.

So yes, seems like a great idea to bring multiple disciplines to bear in a collaborative way on these issues of society and technology around the World Wide Web.

Here is the abstract from their site, at www.webscience.org:

Web Science

The Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) is a joint endeavour between the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT and the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) at the University of Southampton. The goal of WSRI is to facilitate and produce the fundamental scientific advances necessary to inform the future design and use of the World Wide Web.

The initiative will have four founding directors: Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium, senior research scientist at MIT and professor at the University of Southampton; Wendy Hall, professor of computer science and head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton; Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton and director of the Advanced Knowledge Technologies Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration; and Daniel J. Weitzner, Technology and Society Domain leader of the World Wide Web Consortium and principal research scientist at MIT. Jim Hendler, Professor of computer science department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, will serve as Associate Director.

“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.”

Creating a Science of the Web
Tim Berners-Lee, Wendy Hall, James Hendler, Nigel Shadbolt, Daniel J. Weitzner
SCIENCE VOL 313 11 AUGUST 2006

For anyone wanting to read more, their publications page already offers some interesting articles:

http://www.webscience.org/publications/

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