Web Science: The next academic hot spot

Will your computer science degree be replaced by a Web sciences one? It might as academics are increasingly dabbling with the study of the Web, but first a workable definition is needed.

Will your computer science degree be replaced by a Web sciences one? It might as academics are increasingly dabbling with the study of the Web, but first a workable definition is needed.

In a treatise in Scientific American's October issue, Nigel Shadbolt and Tim Berners-Lee make the case for Web Sciences as an academic practice. The challenge here is one of definition. What exactly is Web science? Turns out it's a multidiscipline area that includes a little computer science, some physics

Berners-Lee and Shadbolt make the case:

Today more and more people’s jobs depend on the Web. Media, banking and health care are being revolutionized by it. And governments are even considering how to run their countries with it. Little appreciated, however, is the fact that the Web is more than the sum of its pages. Vast emergent properties have arisen that are transforming society. E-mail led to instant messaging, which has led to social networks such as Facebook. The transfer of documents led to file-sharing sites such as Napster, which have led to user-generated portals such as YouTube. And tagging content with labels is creating online communities that share everything from concert news to parenting tips.

But few investigators are studying how such emergent properties have actually happened, how we might harness them, what new phenomena may be coming or what any of this might mean for humankind. A new branch of science—Web science—aims to address such issues. The timing fits history: computers were built first, and computer science followed, which subsequently improved computing significantly. Web science was launched as a formal discipline in November 2006, when the two of us and our colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southampton in England announced the beginning of a Web Science Research Initiative.

This new academic discipline will combine a little of everything, but it's unclear what exactly Web Science will be. The examples cited as Web science are well known: Google's algorithms, semantic Web and the network effects of the blogosphere. But Web science is being cooked up as it goes along.

Berners-Lee and Shadbolt note:

It seems sensible to say that Web science can help us engineer a better Web. Of course, we do not fully know what Web science is, so part of the new discipline should be to find the most powerful concepts that will help the science itself grow. Perhaps insights will come from the work’s interdisciplinary nature. For example, biological concepts such as plasticity might prove useful. The brain and nervous system grow and adapt over our lifetimes by forming and deleting connections between neurons—the brain cells that act as nodes in our neural network. Changes in the connections occur in response to activity in the network, including learning, disuse and aging. Similarly, Web connections decay and grow. Web science could also explore the possibility of protocols that disconnect Web nodes if there is no inbound or outbound activity. Would such a network function more effectively?

Those are big questions, but I reckon they will get answered at some point. Web Science could be the major of the future. Thoughts?

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