Web Science: Combining study of the algorithmic and the social

03Oct08

Quick note on an interesting article in the July/Aug Communications of the ACM (yeah, I’m a bit late on this).

Web Science: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding the Web,” (430kb pdf link) calls for an approach studying and engineering the Web that is equally cognizant of its engineering mechanisms and protocols as it is of the social and interpersonal aspect of its everyday use by millions. This is an interesting approach from the usual hardcore tech approach of computer science.

Key qote:

It is also our contention that today’s interactive applications are
just very early social machines, and that they are limited by the
fact that they function largely isolated one from another. We
hypothesize that (a) there are forms of social machine that will be
significantly more effective than those we have today, (b) that
different social processes interlink in society and therefore must
be interlinked on the Web, and (c) that these are unlikely to be
developed in single deliberate effort in a single project or site –
rather, the technology must be developed that allows user
communities to construct, share and adapt social machines so that
successful models can evolve through trial, use and refinement.

In essence, the authors are concerned that development of the Web is too important to be left to ad-hoc development by tech-heads, on the one hand, and social scientists, on the other, without the thoughtful intervention of an interdisciplinary approach. Hence their paper, and the formation of their Web Science Institute.

Looking at this article with my enterprise-thinking-cap on, it’s interesting to think about how that kind of socially based, trial-and-error process will flourish (or be choked off) in the risk-averse environment of big companies.

The authors even point out that “Traditional cryptographic security research and well known access control policy frameworks have failed to” …give users the “ability to represent and reason over attributes such as trustworthiness, reliability, and tacit expectations about the use of information.” Sure, but: access control, security, and governance are baked into enterprise IT as a matter of government policy and litigated necessity as much as corporate CYA.

It would be interesting to also see their interdisciplinary approach include business thinking around organizational development, governance compliance, and the like. Perhaps they’re doing that as well. Anyway, I think the development of the computer-mediated social reality in which humans will increasingly spend their time would hopefully be as thoughtful in the work-realm as in the personal-realm.

Check out the article, it’s a good read.

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