A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to join the Web Science movement in Athens, Greece, and celebrate the first “f2f” of this new research group or community, a decentralized group really, with several fields of interest (from graph theory to online democratic practices), with a focus for the three days of this first conference on Society on-line.
Web Science, one of the Web Foundation’s pillars, is all about understanding, designing and developing the “things” that made/make up the World Wide Web and our life. After twenty years of existence (see recent CERNWeb@20 event), we are all persuaded of one thing: the Web only exists because of the participation of people and organizations from all horizons (world wideness), so this focus on world wide societal communication was welcome.
The conviviality of the center with its large hall and the scarcity of electrical plugs made for a very rich communication between humans, which was welcome as well. The variety and quality of paper presented and the poster hall were all inline with this goal of a world wide society at work. Just to mention a couple of my favorites: the presentation of the oreChem project by Carl Lagoze from Cornell on Integrating Chemistry Scholarship with the Semantic Web and the case studies for Web science and social behavior when Introducing new features to Wikipedia, done in collaboration by hundred of thousands of technical contributors. Such a complex socio-technical process has to be studied and fortunately, we have the Wikipedia archives as a first large scale experiment pool of data (thanks to their spirit of openness and transparency).
We do live at a time in human history where technical progress is accelerating at a pace that challenges our adaptation and the balance of some of our key principles in terms of communication with others. If we consider the specific domain of trust on the Web, a recurent topic in the field, and the privacy issues posed by the combined growth of the online social networks and the use of program-oriented Web pages, we see a clear need for a deeper understanding of the various usages and benefits brought to those billions of end-users.
Did I hear billions? How can we understand billions of users? It has never been done, we’re close to having data for millions (eg, Wikipedia) the scaling effect is a topic of research in itself: measuring the Web using the Web, a bit of an Heisenberg dilemma!
The first Web Science conference, organised by the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) and the Foundation of the Hellenic World (FHW) marked the start of the community gathering about this young Science, and it was a well organized, well attended and very rewarding event at all levels. Work is needed now to study the various output of the conference (on shared curricula for instance) and to plan the way forward.