Rory Cellan-Jones

What is web science?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 11 Mar 08, 17:40 GMT

In the august surroundings of the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences, in a lecture theatre decorated with 18th Century paintings, a crowd gathered on Tuesday morning to celebrate the birth of a new science.

It’s called Web Science, and is an attempt to start understanding and exploring the ever growing phenomenon of the world wide web. Who better, then, to be the main speaker at today’s event than Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web?

Sir Tim began with a vivid picture of the way his baby has grown: “There are more pages out there on the web than there are neurons in your brain.” He went on to explain that he hadn’t been sure about using the word “science” in this new discipline because web science needed to reach out and include sociologists, philosophers and artists as well as the technical community.

“When we build the web,” he explained, “we choose a lot of the answers to philosophical questions. We are constructing a whole new world and we are writing down the rules. And a huge amount of the design involves the psychology of the user.” As an example he described how e-mail had taken off because users trusted each other to send only valuable material – but was now under threat because of spam: “The social assumptions have changed – people no longer assume that messages they are getting are messages they need.”

Sir Tim Berners-LeeSir Tim is working with the Southampton University computing science department, which along with Boston’s MIT, is leading the Web Science Research Initiative.

Professor Wendy Hall from Southampton (you can see an interview with her above) explained. “The web is the elephant in the room – it has transformed our lives, but we never see it. We feel the time has come to study it – to see its benefits and understand its possible dis-benefits.”

Her colleague Professor Nigel Shadbolt sketched out some early projects to illustrate the areas the new science might investigate. He showed a map of the blogosphere - "it's a butterfly shape" - which illustrated the way communities coalesce around certain blogs. He showed why research into Wikipedia needed a sociological angle – what drives the users to write entries? – As well as technical analysis of the patterns of its growth.

Professor Shadbolt also gave some insights into the semantic web – a project which Tim Berners-Lee and the Southampton University academics have been pursuing for some time, to a degree of scepticism from other parts of the web community. He described plans to give every fact on the internet its own web address, with the aim of building a “data web” where every connection was more clear and more searchable. “So you could ask questions like show me all the tennis players in Moscow,” he explained.

Of course, scientists have been examining the web for some time. Now, though, they are trying to work out how they can guide its future growth. Tim Berners-Lee puts it like this: “The web is basically a web of people. Because it’s something we created, we have a duty to make it better.”

But the web has grown and prospered without any real guiding hand, despite the attempts of governments and businesses to bend it to their will. So can the web scientists really do anything to shape its future?


Of course Web Scientists can shape the future of the Web... but not through rules and regulations, its done by studying what we have already and creating new standards and methods in the right areas.

Plus the "data web" is already being published today. Just look at the cloud of data we have already, we have information from wikipedia and musicbrainz already in this data web format. This is not just the work of Web Scientists, but its also the work of professionals and other academics in the Linked Data and Semantic Web communities. Even friends at the BBC are working on Semantic Web technology.

I think the Web Science Research Initiative is a really good idea as it bring academics together from quite a broad range to study the evolution of the web and its future.

  • 2.
  • At 09:47 PM on 12 Mar 2008,
  • Gandara wrote:

Great story!

Personally I am completely disgusted with the way the web has grown.

I began using computers before the web went public. I can clearly recall logging into colleges and playing text games like Adventure island and Zork.
(and...Yes I am fairly old)

In the early days the web was stunnigly wonderful, almost all down loadable software was free with no license required.
The anonymity of the web was like a breath of fresh air until all the Age/sex/location punks and junkies came aboard and ruined it.
Now the web bites at our purses and wallets constantly and it has become nothing more than a huge ecommerce store and dating tool.

The web could have been so much more with the computing power it has in total strength.

Such a great invention has pretty much now gone to waste. : (

  • 3.
  • At 03:41 AM on 13 Mar 2008,
  • Maamoun wrote:

I believe web science should be like an institution contains the following departments (Sorted according to their priority):
Security Department
web style / look department
low level programming department

If we could imagine this scenario, web science should be a set of standards to govern the vast growth in web development, most are valunarable, the rest are either bad looking or bad functional web sites.

what a great idea, web science. It too believe its time for such an initiative.
Good going Tim.

  • 5.
  • At 10:24 AM on 13 Mar 2008,
  • Mark Howe wrote:

Enjoying the blog entries, and some of the videos, but can't the BBC stretch to buying you a tripod? After watching the last video I feel like I've just crossed the Irish Sea in an open boat...

  • 6.
  • At 11:46 AM on 13 Mar 2008,
  • Stephen Goodfellow wrote:

It feels as if work like this has more value to the commercial sectors then it does the public. What advantage do we gain from having the net studied and categorized in this manner? What purpose is there in trying to create established understanding of something that’s forever changing?

Live the net, don’t label it.

  • 7.
  • At 11:56 AM on 13 Mar 2008,
  • Craig wrote:

Interesting idea Web Science, though too late now I feel.

I agree with Gandara to an extent, though feel he has overlooked a lot of the good points of the www, and there are many.

I'm a support techie, and I feel the problem now is that the internet learning curve is too high for beginners to operate the web without running into constant frustration. By internet learning curve I don't just mean the knowledge to operate it, but to be cautiously aware of it.
The WWW is an enigma, beautiful and magnificant, but with a venomous bite. For those with the low down in cyber space, the WWW is a wonderful playground for work and play. For the newbies, initial disappointment and frustration ensues.

The laws of physics and common sense do not apply in cyberworld.

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