Web science (undergraduate course)

Wednesday, 1 October, 2008 (All day)
University of the Aegean
University of the Aegean, Department of Cultural Technology & Communication

The Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI – www.webscience.org) announced in November 2006 is a joint effort of MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS), University of Southampton to bridge and formalize the social and technical aspects of collaborative applications running on large-scale networks like the Web.

According to WSRI “In order to understand what the Web is, engineer its future, ensure its social benefit, we need a framework for a new interdisciplinary field that we call Web Science”.

The announcement of the WSRI raises the question “what is Web Science?” Is it a new discipline or a new name for an old discipline? Is it a genuine academic discipline at all? What is a Web Science methodology? What is the core knowledge set that Web Science practitioners share? What does a Web Science paper look like?

The Web has been transformational (it's the largest human information construct). The challenge is understanding it, developing it, ensuring social benefit, and developing the Web's capacity to move forward. A lot of this is already being done in Computer Science and other disciplines. The next step is to build a systematic scientific methodology based on the synergies of technological and social approach.  This is what  motivates the development of a framework for a new interdisciplinary field; Web science.

Scientific questions

According to Tim Berners-Lee1 the major scientific question concerning the Web is considered to be “How should investigators and engineers approach the Web in order to understand it and its relation to wider society, and to innovate?”

The above enveloping question generates a series of questions about the Web construct. In Web topology an interesting question is if “is there some kind of upper limit to the scalability of the Web? If so, is that limit a principled one, or does it depend on the availability of feasible technology?”

Related to the notion of Web governance is the following set of questions. “Are there upper limits to the utility of the freedom that decentralisation has produced? As the number of users increases, will the chances that the choices that one makes impinge on the range of choices available to others increase, or is that an illegitimate extrapolation from the real world with fixed spatial parameters? In a decentralised and growing Web, where there are no “owners” as such, can we be sure that decisions that make sense for an individual do not damage the interests of users as a whole?”

Furthermore, if we want to analyze the Web by implementing mathematical tools and methods one of the questions arising is “How easy will it be to describe the Web in game theoretic/rational choice terms?”

In the course of the development of Mathematical Logic many different types of reasoning were developed, but, so far, only deductive linear reasoning and statistical models have been implemented in an automated way. In this context, “What alternative methods can the Web facilitate? Which are the logics that are appropriate for the Web, or the Semantic Web?”

In a general epistemological framework a major concern about the Web content should be “How can we make it more likely rather than less that good science and good epistemology ends up in the Web, and not superstition? Indeed, is that a good thing?” The Web is a socially embedded technology. The major social dimension of the Web could be reflected in the following question. “What do people and communities want from the Web, and what online behavior is required for the Web to work?” Furthermore, the subjective beliefs formed by the readers of a certain webpage could be described under a single word: trust. A sociological question about trust could be: “Do we trust the machines and automated processes that are put under way when we work or play on the Web?” The basic issue in governing the Web is “How should things be regulated to ensure the steady and fruitful development of the Web?” In addition, a group of serious political issues can be summarized in the question if the Web is a liberal construct.

According to its pioneers, the framework for the development of Web Science calls for an enveloping discipline which could address some of the most challenging and intriguing questions of the 21st century.


A Framework for Web Science By Tim-Berners Lee (MIT), Wendy Hall (University of Southampton), James A. Hendler (Rensselaer Polytechnic University), Kieron O'Hara (University of Southampton), Nigel Shadbolt (University of Southampton) and Daniel J. Weitzner (MIT).