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 …