Web Science: What I think it is and why we might not be doing it.

Web Science is not doing science on the web, it’s not about the web, and it isn’t science. My view on what Web Science is and why sometimes I think we don’t actually do it.

Reader beware: The post below is an awful mishmash of half-formed ideas and potentially contentious thinkings. That said, I’d love to hear what you think, so have a read and leave a comment!

The question “what is Web Science” is one that comes up again and again, to the point of becoming a running joke. “Web Science is whatever you want it to be” is one of the more liberal caricatures that I often hear. What’s clear, though, is that up until this point most of the definitions have been given by people that I (respectfully) refer to as “Web Science Immigrants” – So, what is Web Science to a “Web Science Native”, someone who now has “MSc Web Science” affixed to their CV for the rest of eternity (or long enough at least for the distinction to be irrelevant) and (supposedly) should have a feel for what the whole thing is all about?

What seems to be quite clear, certainly to me and to some of the other people I speak to, is that some of what’s labeled “web science” isn’t really Web Science at all. Some of it’s Web Technology, and some is “science about the Web” and neither of these is the same as Web Science, although there is evidently some overlap. There is no shame in that, and there is undoubtedly some fantastic “web science” research going on, but Web Science should be more than a catch-all term for things that combine science and the web. As Wendy Hall sometimes says: “There are two problems with the name ‘Web Science’: ‘Web’, and ‘Science'”

The problem with ‘Web’

The first problem with the word ‘Web’ is that everybody seems to have a different idea of what ‘Web’ is. Here are just some of the definitions that I’ve come across:

  1. An abstract information concept, the idea of having interlinked resources with unique identifiers (hypertext)
  2. A set of technologies
  3. The set of interlinked HTML (etc.) documents that exist now
  4. A series of social phenomena arising from 1 or 2
  5. A subset of the interlinked documents that we have. This suggests that our “personal web” is just one web in a potentially infinite webiverse. (If an HTML document is generated but nobody bothers to read it, does it really exist?)
  6. All of the above

The second problem with the word ‘Web’ is that web science isn’t just about the Web. Even allowing a broad definition that encompasses all the previous definitions (and allowing for the cardinal sin of conflating “web” and “internet”) there are, in my opinion, genuinely Web Science questions that don’t involve the Web. In fact, I see the word web as shorthand for “technology and people”, although I would be prepared to strengthen that definition slightly to “information technology”, since I don’t see Web Science legitimately encompassing the impact of trains on society.

So, this leads me to rule number 1: Web Science research should consider both the technology and the people that are involved in a system. Yes, this definition excludes just studying the web graph and making statements about density or the average shortest path between two web pages. We needn’t exclude graph theory or network analysis from Web Science, though, (quite the contrary, it’s clearly massively relevant). Web Science requires that, having done the maths, we can go on to say something about the people. Or, conversely, having studied some human behaviour, you can say something about the technology. It’s all about the co-constitution, after all.

The problem with ‘Science’

The problem with the word ‘Science’ is that it excludes disciplines that don’t see themselves as sciences and invites the “hard” sciences to deploy all manner of inter-disciplinary name calling and stereotypes in order to “defend” “real science” from “wooly” “rigourless” “qualitative” “social science”.

Try and explain how the web and people influence one another without mentioning law or the humanities. You can’t do it. The law defines aspects of the web graph as much (if not more so) than the technology itself. A court order could ban links, or prevent access, to a website that offers illegal material; A court order can alter the web graph.

So, here’s rule number 2: Web Science research involves knowledge, methods or epistemologies from both human-centric and technology-centric disciplines and it needs to do more than just pay them lip service. In fact, to properly stick to rule 1 and comment on the relationship between the people AND the technology, it’s highly likely that there will need to be a mix of research methods.

We study the Web itself

Even if we adhere to the two rules above, there is huge scope for variation with Web Science and clearly some research will be more about the social aspects and some more about the technical. But social/technical distinctions aside (and I think a discussion about whether that’s even a distinction worth making would be genuinely useful) there are different ways to combine disciplines. We have to choose not just which disciplines to use, but whether we want to make use of knowledge, research methods or entire methodologies. We can combine disciplines, analyse the web and still not be doing Web Science. Allow me to illustrate this point:

In November of last year, a group of us visited Tsinghua University Graduate School is Shenzhen, China, to undertake a collaborative project looking at how young people in China and the UK view other countries. We used data from fora and bulletin boards, used natural language processing techniques to generate statistics and then visualised those numbers.

We learnt something about attitudes (people) by using technology and even something of the state of the technology itself, but I don’t feel like we said anything about how the technology and the people interact, or how the technology and people shape one another. No, this felt to me like using web technology to answer a sociology or politics question. To me, this was not quite web science. It was science ON the web, it was not science ABOUT the Web.

“How do young people view other countries” is a sociology question, and we tackled it using data from the web and methods from computer science. It was interdisciplinary in the sense that we attempted to answer a question from one discipline with methods from another, but it still didn’t feel like we were ‘living the Web Science dream’. I think that true Web Science would instead ask “How does the web influence young people’s views of other countries?” or “How does the web expose people to other cultures?”

So, here is rule number 3: Web Science should say something about the relationship between the people and the technology. We should question how technology facilitates and alters behaviour or beliefs, how it impacts upon the economy or how laws evolve to counter new problems, how people create new technology and how social pressures impact upon its adoption and potentially translate into obstacles or social problems such as exclusion or deviant behaviour.


I don’t believe that a lot of “web science” is actually Web Science. Web Science is not necessarily about the web, nor is it necessarily science; it is the study of how technology and humanity work together, shaping one another. Maybe we should really be calling it “Information technology-and-people studies“. We may need to use any or all of the models, knowledge and methodologies that humanity has found in order to study itself and all of the models, knowledge and methodologies that humanity has found to study and create technology.

I believe that, in order to be considered Web Science, research should satisfy at least the following three conditions:

  1. Web Science research should consider both the technology and the people that are involved in a system,
  2. Web Science research involves knowledge, methods or epistemologies from both human-centric and technology-centric disciplines,
  3. Web Science should say something about the relationship between the people and the technology.

Want to add something, think I’m wrong or have your own view on what Web Science is? Leave a comment and let’s work it out together!

7 thoughts on “Web Science: What I think it is and why we might not be doing it.”

  1. I agree with most of the above. You articulated very well my qualms with some research passed off as Web Science which is really just research that could have been carried out under the “web section” in an already existing academic department.

    However, sometimes the line isn’t always clear cut (which is probably where the issue arises in the first place.) It can sometimes be tricky distinguishing, for example, Web Science adopting, along with other disciplines, a sociology point of view, and Sociology on the Web. It gets even more tricky, as I’ve found in a recent assignment, to distinguish between other interdisciplinary subjects such as criminology or some political sciences.

    But at the same time as being it’s own unique discipline, if there’s one thing Web Science has taught me so far, it’s that disciplines and subjects should be envisaged more as Venn diagrams as opposed to mutually exclusive grids. It’s near impossible to objectively define where one subject becomes another. Web Science, I suppose – like many other discplines, is really more of an intersect of existing subjects.

    Pffft, I dunno. I think I’ve just contradicted myself on more than one occasion in this comment already.

  2. Hi Richard, I agree with your position. I often wonder these issues also – a reasonably tech-savvy sociologist or psychologist can easily infiltrate the Web Science community. Sonia Livingstone for example is a key note at the Web Science conference. I think the only way its definition can be stabilised is by stating explicitly Web Science’s methods. I lost marks on MSc research because, by using focus groups, I didn’t employ “an innovative research strategy”. I’ve learnt since this was code for mixed methods i.e. recruiting methodologies from computer science and sociology to develop a fresh approach. So, for example, if we need to understand soci-technical constructs such as astroturfing we need to prove it’s happening with network analysis; meme tracking, visualisations etc. and explain why it happens with sociology, economics, politics, psychology etc. Web Science to me is, therefore, a synonym for a hybrid methodology that reaches the parts other disciplines can’t.

  3. Richard, you just got into the debate that has been going on since websci10 @Raleigh. It was my first WS “time” and I’ll never forget what Berners-Lee said about WS and what Cathy Pope answered. Here, in Beirut, we’re a bunch of “human scientists” (Diplomacy, sociology, political science): we’ve been trying to produce relevant research about the information society in the Arab world since 2001. And in 2007, we turned to web science, because it was the first time we were proposed a new approach on researching the impact of the Web on society. You know, humanities are not so good with numbers and data sets and stats. But worse: we didn’t know what we were talking about and web science was a great opportunity to actually produce some thinking on co-constitution phenomenoms. And the famous paper presented at Raleigh “a manifesto for Web Science” was enlighting for us. For the first time, we could talk technology and people. Woah! But still, we’re all a long way to what Web Science should be in my opinion: Web Science is not a science, it’s a new science. Interdisciplinary, open, tolerant: we won in Koblenz the best poster for our paper on cyberwarfare during the 2006 war in Lebanon. This kind of paper would never make it to a diplomacy conference or even media studies. On the other hand, we tried to submit a paper for websci12 on the arab spring and the evolution of the web… and I got both terrible reviews and excellent reviews. This is where we are, but the door must stay open.

  4. Strange, according to this neither the mathematics underlying the Web nor the engineering of web systems would really count as web science?? Seems awfully different from what I thought Web Science is … I have put a lot of time into writing up my opinions on what I think it is — I’d suggest that the articles in both Scientific American and CACM were pretty good arguments as to what we had in mind
    Oh, and if you’d like a decent place for a starting definition of the Web is, I’d suggest the Architecture of the World Wide Web document, which comes from the W3C – it does leave out the people to some degree, but t

  5. (oops)
    Was going to say
    But then, the Web is indeed a human construct, and there are definitions – so I tend to think both the technical and the social must be part of web science or we lose both

    1. Hi Jim, thanks for taking the time to post 🙂 I’m glad that this has generated some discussion – It’s not a uncommon conversation within the WS DTC cohorts at Southampton how our definition isn’t completely aligned with the rest of the Web Science world, and we do seem to have more of a focus on social aspects than (from what we’ve seen through WSTNet webinars and exchanges) other Web Science labs do.

      I’m familiar with the articles you mention, in fact I was revisiting the CACM one today for my 9-month PhD progress report.

      I don’t think that the engineering of web systems is, in itself, necessarily Web Science; computer science has that covered, surely? I do think, though, that engineering has a place in Web Science when it is informed by theory or methods from outside of computer science. Similarly for the mathematics that describe the Web, I think that we sell such maths short when we fail to consider its implications for the social side of the web. The web was built by people, so surely mathematics that describes its growth or structure says something about the behaviour of those people, too?

      I suppose that I see Web Science as defined not just by the topic of study. If pure maths that describes the Web is Web Science, then Mathematicians are already Web Scientists and what would “natural” Web Scientists be for?

      I wholeheartedly support your statement that “both the technical and the social must be part of web science or we lose both” and I think any disagreement is probably around the extent to which the two things should be considered simultaneously.

      Thanks again for joining our discussion 🙂

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