This morning I participated in a conference call by MIT and the University of Southampton in Britain, announcing an initiative called Web Science. Tim Berners-Lee is leading the program, which is essentially about formalizing a new kind of scientific discipline called Web Science. The goal is to understand the deeper structure of the social Web and how people are using it. But as well as studying the Web, they also hope to shape the future of the Web.

Web science will have both social and engineering dimensions. As the NY Times reported, it will include the emerging research in social networks and the social sciences that is being used to study how people behave on the Web. For example trust and privacy are two specific areas that can be studied more. Also Web Science will look at more technical areas, such as how huge decentralized Web systems work. In the conference call, it was made clear that researching the economic consequences of the Web (and "web 2" was mentioned) is part of the agenda too.

As Berners-Lee summarized it in a pre-conference interview with the BBC:

"What we're saying is that it's becoming so important that things like Wikipedia are being created, new business models are emerging and that it's changing our lives so much that we have to have a science to understand this."

In terms of how Web Science will shape the future Web, Sir Tim told the BBC that the Web is a creative medium - and so the Web has to develop new features that "express the social properties of information which specify what it is, where its from and how trustworthy it is."

Highlights from conference call

In the conference call Tim Berners-Lee started off by mentioning the 100 million Web sites milestone recently reached by the Web. He went on to say that Web Science is about understanding the macroscopic network-driven effects of the Web, which have evolved from the microscopic aspects of the Web which he created. Ultimately though, Sir Tim said that "the goal is social" and the Web is about helping humanity.

Berners-Lee spoke about how even in the field of economics, it's not just about studying the money part of the dot com era, but how things like Page Rank have influenced the system - "the way effectively the currency now flows across the links as kudos, as reputation of web sites". So with this initiative they want to bring together lots of different disciplines (computing, biology, economics, etc), as well as focusing on understanding and engineering the Web as one big system.

According to Tim, Web Science is about "building a new Web, a better Web, building things on top of the Web infrastructure" - making the Web infrastructure a space where things can happen and making that space more powerful. He spoke about how the Web started off with simple rules - e.g. http. But you can't tell the macroscopic effects of that by looking at the rules of http - "the macroscopic system is very complicated". He also mentioned building "a fractal society", which he's spoken about a lot before and I've written about in the past too.

In the Web Science initiative, Tim said they'll be "developing new ways of analyzing things and we'll be building systems which have completely new properties". But he made a point of saying that because the Web is about people, social aspects will be a very important part of it. Also the creativity aspect of the Web - Tim said at one point that "the really important thing about the Web is that it's a universal space".

Summary

I for one am very pleased that studying Web systems is now an official discipline - and who better to lead it than Tim Berners-Lee and MIT. In many ways, some of us tech bloggers have been unofficially studying the Web for quite some time, but of course you also need hard data and complex analysis as well - which is where Web Science will hopefully shine. As Tim Berners-Lee said, the Web system is huge and complicated. There's a lot we're still learning about the Web and its effects on society and business.