Web Science

So this is a blog about Web Science so we should start with some sort of definition – certainly very few of the people who ask me about my PhD research have ever heard of Web Science so here goes ..

In Science we don’t invent the rules – we observe how the world works (what happens when you drop a weight or heat a liquid) whereas in, say, traditional computing we don’t observe, we define the desired outcomes (this program will add two numbers and display the result).

So far so good ..

On the Web what has happened is this: when offered a particular set of features and data, the users don’t only use it in the manner for which it was designed but we get unexpected so-called emergent behaviours. People don’t always do as they are told (surprise!).

e.g. The Web was not designed for pornography or cyber-crime but these are extremely common features of the Web today.

So whats going on?

Well it appears that people not only use technology in the ways they want BUT ALSO that technology causes people to behave in certain ways: BOTH effects seem to be happening in a parallel / circular model. System-affects-people-affects-system-etc

You may hear these referred to as socio-technical effects but sufficed to say that people’s conscious use of technology is bound up with the technology itself and vice versa.

Fair enough, so what’s Web Science?

I could cheat and say that it’s the study of socio-technical effects but to be more helpful I would also have to ask why study web science?.

There are so many aspects of human culture and interaction now being expressed by the Web (Business, Government, Law, Education, Health, Entertainment, Social interaction .. the list goes on and on) that it becomes increasingly important to understand how to express these on the Web without coming to a sticky end.

Can you give me an example?

OK. You are in Paris and I am London and you sell me a book on eBay. Where did the deal take place? (a) France (b) UK (c) Belgium (eBay servers are in Belgium) (d) nowhere

– which country’s law applies to the deal?

– who collects tax if any is due?

– who is responsible if the book is faulty or stolen or never arrives?

– the list of uncomfortable questions goes on …

eBay actually do a wonderful job of “waving their arms very expansively” and simply assure you that they will take care of you. For the most part they do and simply choose not to address many of these rather inconvenient legal questions. This is, however, just one small example of how societies (rather than individuals) are not really “up to speed” on how it all works on the Web quite yet.


Enter Web Science: we bring together legal, medical, psychology, business, sociology, computing, humanities, educators and many other experts to look at how these aspects of culture are reflected in the Web, what the opportunities and challenges may be and ultimately how to ensure that this staggeringly useful resource which is the World Wide Web is not broken, corrupted, sold off or otherwise torpedo’d by individuals employing short-term thinking but rather is preserved for coming generations as an open, unbiased platform for everyone on the planet.

Small ambitions then ..

Well we have to start somewhere so we can make progress at all 🙂