So what is Web Science anyway …

Reproduced from a Quora question …

I am currently working on a Web Science PhD and I work for the Web Science Trust which comprises many groups who research in this area. This does not make my opinion or definitions any more true/valid than anyone else’s who may comment here but I think it is fair to say I am close to the subject.

Whilst exact definitions are always risky I will see if a few observations are helpful…

It is all about browsers ….?

Web Science was defined (in the original paper and red book) refer to the study of “decentralised information systems” (which does not mean exclusively WWW though this is the most obvious example right now) and also (I hope) makes it clear that if you are looking at data moving between apps on phones or data between networked physical objects rather than pages in traditional HTML browsers that this may still be Web Science.

What are we trying to discover …?

Web Science is seeking to understand how WWW works both structurally, and socially and the way in which these two elements interact and create emergent properties and behaviours at Web scale. As such, it is a study of socio-technical systems or social machines. How we change and evolve the Web is fairly apparent to most people but how the Web changes us may be less obvious and just as important.

“On the Web” or “About the Web”..?

There is a question about whether Web Science studies data ON the Web (ie *any* kind of data that is available on the Web) or if it should focus only on data ABOUT the Web (ie metadata and technical/networking data).

My own view on this is that “it depends”. Web Science attracts researchers from many disciplines and I personally work with researchers with backgrounds in Law, Maths, Education, Politics, Astronomy, Philosophy, Sociology, Medicine, Marketing as well as Computing and others. Hence their specific interests and perspectives are highly diverse. The lawyers may (for example) be less interested in the network structures and mathematical properties of a data set than the behaviours they represent ..

Whats the difference between Web Science and ….?

Web Science potentially overlaps with elements of several other disciplines such as Internet Science, Data Science, Computational Social Science, Network Science and others – simply because almost ALL disciplines are affected/mediated by the Web in some way and have received attention from researchers over recent years.

My hope (and largely my observation) is that Web Scientists are not trying to claim this area as their own but recognise that, say, Psychologists studying the Web may overlap with Web Scientists looking at psychological effects – and it is perhaps less important to decide who is doing “Web Science” or “Web Psychology” etc and more important that such groups should collaborate, share data and enrich each others understanding of best practice.

It’s all about the data …

Given the sheer scale of the Web, datasets may end up being “big” (by which I mean difficult to process with the systems/technologies at hand) but if they aren’t this doesn’t exclude them from Web Science. You may interview a dozen people about their experience of bullying on-line and, whilst not a big data set, may be valid and central to an interesting line of Web Science research on how the nature of the Web affects social behaviour.

A colleague at the Web Science Trust, Jim Hendler, wrote a very interesting paper about “Broad Data” which I recommend.

Ultimately the data may be about a range of things, user behaviour, the shape/structure of graph data, information cascades etc so I would have to say that almost any type of data (open/closed, UGC/machine-generated, big/broad etc) may be used in Web Science.

I hope as least parts of this are helpful …

Thinking about DNA AND NDA …

The really interesting insight I got from a DNA view of the social machines is that whilst DNA was initially meant to be evocative of the idea of building blocks and diversity from simpler atomic elements it now occurs to me that DNA (in it’s presentation suggests an order D->N->A which we might read as the defined technology driving the choice/selection of methods/processing affecting the behavioural Archetypes in a technologically deterministic way ..

Whereas AND (A->N->D) might be more representative of a socially constructed paradigm in which Archetypes and their drives/ambitions lead to a choice of methods/expressions which shapes the functionality of technological systems.

NDA is even possible (N->D->A) suggesting a scenario is which processes/expressiveness may be presented (particularly in the form of legislation) such that archetypal ambitions are shaped by the systems which are defined in legislation.

The Web is something like a piano ..

You can understand everything about a piano’s construction (the materials, the engineering, the scale lengths and tunings) and indeed those things are relevant at some level. All this information, however, tells you almost NOTHING about the essence of music nor the great works of jazz,  gospel and soul.

The Web offers a similar problem – the components and engineering describe clearly what the technical vocabulary/grammar is and can allow us to look for meaningful patterns in the oceans of data – but tells almost nothing about all the things, both great and terrible, that the Web may produce.

WO to W3O


A Web Observatory performs a series of tasks in terms of capturing, analysing and presenting data to support research decisions


Standalone Web Observatories (WO) are only the first step to creating creating a World-Wide Web of Observatories W3O.


and so discovery, provenance and process orchestration are key to solving the problem.

Another baby at my age? Please don’t LIKE this post…

Using Facebook is like having a room full of new babies: a constant stream of different reactions making you laugh, cry, getting you anxious, cross or confused .. all within a few minutes.

But make no mistake – is it DEMANDING .. a constant draw on your attention and your time (with a sense of guilt if you don’t pay enough attention). There are many friends, relations, colleagues that I don’t get a chance to spend time with in person and that I really enjoy hearing from but the aggregated “volume” (in both senses of the word) of the Facebook stream seems overwhelming sometimes.

Nicholas Carr wrote about human beings changing and losing the ability to concentrate and read deeply (as with books) as a result of so much time spent jumping around between pages on the Web and I wonder if we are also losing the skill of deep/individual conversations to be replaced with a kind of booming internet “telepathy” where we hear brief snatches of what people are thinking but where the next thought quickly demands our attention calling us to move on before we spend any time to reflect and hear our friends individually.

Even as I am writing this post there has been a stream of new comments clamouring for my attention and yet I’ve already read about so much pride, loss, love and anger in the last hour on Facebook that it would take me all week to follow-up with those people who posted to find out more.

The Facebook solution to the pressure of handing all these thoughts is to respond by simply “liking” a post (or not) – a simple acknowledgement and move on and yet I wonder if that is really enough .. “liking” a picture of a kitten seems harmless enough but what does it mean to “like” a post about the death of a friend..? This perhaps a lazy-like where we don’t know what to write or we feel pressure to move on quickly to the next thought.

Perhaps its true that you can only handle so many connections/friends and I should simply delete some of you but I’d be interested to hear what you think (in person ideally or through a comment) but please don’t “like” this post: either decide you don’t feel strongly enough to respond (thats OK) or tell me what you are thinking..

Late new years resolution – no more lazy likes …

Yes but is it Web Science…?

One of the many ongoing debates in this space is the question often asked (by my PhD supervisor amongst others) about the nature of studying data ABOUT the Web (studying the structures and movements of Web Traffic and Users) vs studying ON the Web (say open data sets about bus times or how much councils spend on lunch).

Some argue that the latter is NOT Web Science since the data being studies is not “webby” .. however in Web Science we propose to study socio-technical effects in which the behaviour of users in society and the technologies they use interact.  Surely then, even though the bus times are themselves not “webby” if their availability on the Web causes some change in behaviour, tracking, funding or management of the service this may be a valid subject of studying the effect of the data on  different social groups.

One might argue that we have simply started at a different part of the socio-technical cycle…

I leave this to the reader to think over and argue for themselves…

Glass is dead – long live Glass

Google announced the retirement of Google Glass in its current form recently to the howling and cheering of fans and haters everywhere.

Even if this product does bite the dust in its current form it seems clear that Google has done something important here. Now what that something is depends on which side of the witch-burning mob you find yourself:

– this is important because Google has taken the heat and shown the way for other manufacturers to introduce VR and head mounted appliances (Occulus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens)
– this is important because it has brought to head how invasive such technologies are and this have galvanised the public to ban these devices from all kinds of locations and activities.

Make up your own mind but I feel the debate on this on eis only just heating up. Google Glass was all that functional (in my view) and so it was much easier to prioritise the privacy issues over what we were giving up. Now imagine the next guy comes along with a 2nd or 3rd gen product that really rocks? I’m keen to see how much less of a problem users will find these follow-ons if they actually add real value and are usable …