thoughts on web science

While still in many ways an elusive topic, the study and definitions of web science became more tangible during our SDP discussions. Before attending OII, I thought web science simply meant the study of how people use the Web. This definition in many ways reflected my disciplinary bias by focusing on the who of the Web, rather than what it is or how it works. In his presentation to our group, Tim Berners-Lee described web science as taking fundamental things and looking at how the Web changes them. Hendler, Shadbolt, Hall, Berners-Lee, and Weitzner (2008) extend this definition to broadly include the study of systems, their development, efficiency, scalability, flexibility and the people who use them, their uses, interactions, interpretations, appropriations, and the communities that form in response to or as a result of, this use.

In addition to addressing the what and who of web science, our discussions addressed an additional how, the methods by which we will study it. The medium of the Web challenges us as researchers to both re-think traditional methods of data collection and analysis and develop new, more flexible methods to measure and record interactions that are in a sense, spatially invisible. Communication online can be both asynchronous and in real-time, remote and co-located. While older communication technologies certainly allowed remote or asynchronous interaction, the Web’s flexibility presents this challenge on an unprecedented scale.

As Hendler, et al. (2008) state, “…web scientists need to develop new methodologies for gathering evidence and finding ways to anticipate how human behavior will impact on the development of a system which is constantly evolving at such an amazing rate.” In a sense, the dynamic, flexible nature of the Web forces interdisciplinary study because a single discipline cannot possibly account for its multiple layers, even when the research has a narrow, specialized focus. In our discussions at OII, Li Zhang used the metaphor about three blind people attempting to describe an elephant based on the parts they see. This discussion summarized the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to web science: without each of us communicating the parts of the Web we see, whether it be its architecture or use, we run the risk of seeing the Web as solely its tail, or foot, and never understanding the dynamic, flexible phenomenon we study.

Hendler, J., Shadbolt, N., Hall, N., Berners-Lee, T., & Weitzner, D. (2008). Web Science: An interdisciplinary approach to understanding the World Wide Web. Communications of the ACM, 51, 60-69.

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