Who'd Be a Web Scientist?
- 29 September 2010
- From the section Technology
Bill Thompson thinks you can treat the web as an object of scientific study.
I've spent two days this week at the Royal Society in London sitting in the front row of their Web Science conference as one of the nominated 'Twitter chairs'.
It may not sound much, but along with Jamillah Knowles from Radio 5 Live's Outriders and Les Carr from the University of Southampton, I had the interesting task of attempting to manage the conversation about the conference taking place on the Twitter social network.
All the while, speakers as distinguished as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Dame Wendy Hall and professors Nigel Shadbolt, Jonathan Zittrain and Manuel Castells speak on stage.
In theory my task involved tweeting the occasional pithy 140 character summary of what the speaker has just said - tagged with #RSWebSci - so people could find it amidst the stream of online conversation.
The idea was to complement the live web-streaming and deal with questions about the quality of said web streaming, offering useful links to speaker profiles and background reading.
In practice it meant having to stay awake, alert and intelligent while some of the brightest people in the world think out loud on a podium just in front of you, turning complex mathematics into tweetable snippets and encouraging people to ask interesting questions about topics that are serious and abstruse.
We had to deal with the connections between graph theory and our understanding of how the web grows, the nature of the generative processes that underpin scale-free networks and whether Arrow's theorem is a suitable basis for a game-theoretic model of online reputation.
It was a lot of fun and inordinately stimulating, but far from relaxing. And it also forced me to engage with the central question that is driving the conference: what exactly is 'web science'?
This was the first question that Science Minister David Willetts asked me when he arrived at the Royal Society to meet the speakers, and I'm not sure that my off-the-cuff answer that "it's just a branch of graph theory" really impressed him.
Although it sounds glib, the idea that our understanding of how the web grows and links form, how we build and manage affiliations through services like Facebook and Twitter, and how knowledge is created from the interlinked data available through online services should all be explainable using the same mathematics that describes how animal populations grow and collapse, diseases spread and die out or banking systems fail catastrophically is not that outrageous.
I studied philosophy at Cambridge University, where Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead wrote Principia Mathematica, in which they tried and failed to prove that all mathematics could be rigorously derived from formal logic.
I am quite comfortable with hearing the charismatic Jennifer Chayes from Microsoft Research explore the ways that modern mathematics can underpin our analysis of the internet and the web.
I can even follow the maths she was presenting, since she managed to explain her logic so clearly.
And as the conference progressed we moved from mathematical analyses to engineering, the social web and an exploration of the future of web technologies.
However this was a Royal Society event where the goal was to debate and enhance understanding, and it was designed for the sort of argument and disagreement that leads to a clearer view of what is going on and helps develop models that actually have predictive value.
I first heard about web science three or four years ago, when I bumped into Professor Nigel Shadbolt of Southampton University and he pulled me to one side to tell me about his plans to model the growth of the web and how he believed it would help us begin to see the web as a complex ecosystem of humans and machines, worthy of study in its own right.
At the time I was sceptical, but I'm becoming more convinced that it is worth pulling together people from the many disciplines assembled at this conference and helping them to see how they all hold different pieces of the puzzle, and that the Web Science Trust is doing an important job at this critical time in the emergence of the networked world.
It's hard not to contrast the intellectually challenging and well-grounded work taking place at the Royal Society with the fuss about the release of The Social Network, Hollywood's take on the early days of Facebook.
Directed by David Fincher, notable for Fight Club and Se7en, this entertaining romp was written by Aaron Sorkin, creator of the astonishingly successful The West Wing; a man who admits in interviews - such as the one we broadcast on Digital Planet this week - that he doesn't use Facebook and knows nothing about how it works
The Social Network admits it is fiction, but knows that people will believe it is factually based, and over time the story it tells will become what millions of people see as the true story of Facebook's foundation.
The comments made by the writer and director will be forgotten, and the film will define its own reality while what really happened at Harvard a few years ago will simply be overwritten.
I rarely feel sorry for multi-billionaires, but whatever Mark Zuckerberg has done, he is poorly served by this film.
We just have to hope that our understanding of the way the web generates knowledge and understanding improves to the point where anyone searching for or watching The Social Network online is pointed to more authoritative resources at the same time, so that their understanding is guided towards a version of the events that is slightly more grounded in reality.
Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet. He is currently working with the BBC on its archive project.