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Viewpoint Ben Shneiderman

Web Science: A Provocative

Invitation to Computer Science
Here’s how it can awaken computer science to the
interdisciplinary possibilities of the Web’s socially embedded
computing technology.
uch more than a But Web science advocates make clear that under-

M provocative term, “Web

science” signals a new
way of thinking about computer
standing Google’s technology and business success
requires more than a discussion of Web crawling
and distributed search algorithms. They insist some-
science. Computer science thing bigger and bolder is becoming important and
researchers and professionals will take an open mind for the traditional computer
are familiar with the turbu- science community to absorb.
lence of technology innova-
tion; Web science promoters challenge them to SOCIALLY EMBEDDED
expand the scope of computer science. Indeed, Although the research topics they describe have
declining enrollment and industry shifts have origins in computer science, “the Web as a technol-
shaken computer science, so Web science promises ogy,” they say, “is socially embedded.” The impli-
to be an invigorating direction. cations of this expanded view are profound,
Writing in Science magazine last August, Sir Tim leading them to broaden their research agenda to
Berners-Lee and collaborators called for a new disci- address such social issues as trust, reputation, pri-
pline [3] and detailed their case in an online 130- vacy, governance, copyright, and network commu-
page monograph [2]. These esteemed revolutionaries nications standards. Since they recognize the
offered a visionary manifesto that says that after 40 essential social nature of Web technologies, they
years of focusing on computer science, it is time for also embrace the idea that Web science must
computer scientists to shift to Web science [9]. address user needs and requirements analysis
Their starting definition of the new discipline is through questions like: What do people and com-
the “science of decentralized information systems”; munities want from the Web?
they followed with a rich research agenda of emerg- The social perspective pushes Web science
ing technologies, including the Semantic Web, researchers toward a deep understanding of the infor-
ontologies, Web services, and Web-scale computing mation and services users want. The disruptive shift
(see the table here). This proposed shift to Web sci- involves moving away from studying the technology
ence raises the importance of such traditional com- toward studying what users can do with the technology
puter science topics as graph theoretic models, [7]. While computer scientists have found Moore’s Law

network structure analyses, and search algorithms to be a helpful measure of progress, Web scientists are
that are likely to be familiar to computer scientists. more interested in counting page views and unique vis-

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itors. In short, the shift is from chips to clicks. break laws, spread hate, or promote terrorism. These
The social computing projects described in the are troubling aspects of the Internet, so a responsible
Web science framework deal with massive multi- research agenda must include their study.
player online role-playing games, online discussion
groups, and photo-sharing Web sites that attract RICHLY INTERDISCIPLINARY
audiences in the tens of millions worldwide. I urge a richly interdisciplinary path for Web sci-
However, I wish the authors of the Web science ence that also addresses the emerging applications
framework would go even further to address such for scientific collaboration, e-commerce, entertain-
challenges as developing descriptive theories to ment, social creativity, and social networking [6].
explain the wide variations in adoption of social Explanatory theories are needed to understand why,
computing projects and say, eBay remains a huge
Computer Science Web Science
prescriptive models to success with few serious
guide implementers. For Metrics Page views
competitors. Predictive
Moore’s Law
example, they should be Order (n) algorithm analysis Unique visitors/month models are needed to
trying to understand Gigabytes Number of songs or videos understand why the
whether moderated Topics video-sharing site
Computer networks Social networks
Packet switching Voice over IP, music sharing
online communities YouTube and the photo-
generate greater partici- Information Relationships sharing site Flickr are so
Programming languages Wikis, blogs, tagging
Databases, operating systems, E-commerce, e-learning, e-government,
pation when discussions successful and why social
are kept on topic and compilers medical informatics, financial analysis networking sites like
3D graphics, rendering algorithms, com- Creating and sharing video, animation,
when harsh language is putational geometry, object modeling music, photos, maps MySpace, FaceBook, and
prohibited. They should Focus Friendster have hundreds
Technology Applications
ask: Does moderation of millions of users. Mul-
inhibit spirited debate, Computers Users tiple scientific studies of
Supercomputers Mobile devices
thereby undermining Proficient programmers Universal usability Wikipedia would provide
interest? And how can valuable understanding
Computer science vs.
successful discussion Web science.
and guidance needed by implementers of public
groups grow by, say, a health information Web sites, community-response
factor of a hundred yet Schneiderman grids tablefor emergency preparedness [8], and policy-
preserve the intense participation of their originators? oriented discussion groups. Most computer scien-
Web use is much more than access to decentral- tists are likely to dismiss these concerns as outside
ized information and discussion groups. The Web their territory, but Web scientists would eagerly
empowers individuals, invigorates collaboration, and take on these research challenges.
unleashes social creativity. Innovative metrics are Another potentially strong distinction about Web
needed to capture the effect of children writing science is its commitment to universal usability.
empathic email messages in foreign languages, blog While the framework document is brief on issues
entries that catalyze lively discussion, and scientific concerning the digital divide, Berners-Lee says, “The
insight made possible by Web-based databases and most important thing about the World Wide Web is
visualization tools. that it is universal” [1]. The dimensions of that uni-
The social analysis of Web science must also deal versality are more than the technologies of fast/slow
with the negative aspects of Web-based social inter- networks or large/small displays. A universal usability
action (such as security breaches, identity theft, pri- research agenda must also address users who speak
vacy violations, and the social disruptions of multiple languages, as well as users from diverse cul-
globalization). The Web produces such dangers tures, novices/experts, young/old, low-literacy users,
because it provides opportunities for those who and users with disabilities. Web science could take

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on these research tasks, which promise profound informatics, and digital libraries. These programs
payoffs in terms of increased participation in democ- also cover applications in e-learning, public health
ratic processes and enhanced collective efficacy of information, and digital government, as well as
communities. I hope Web science advocates will also social, ethical, policy, and economic issues.
dedicate themselves to addressing the economics of Industry pressure also brings such healthy new
providing equitable access, the challenges of working cross-disciplinary ideas as IBM’s promotion of “ser-
in developing nations, and the strategies needed to vices science” as a new discipline aligned with
train users with low literacy. requirements analysis and customer relationship
As part of their focus on universality, Web science management [4]. Services science also covers a wide
advocates [2] assert that “Mobile access to the Web range of Web-based transactions that are central to
may become the dominant mode in many nations, business-to-business relationships, workflow analysis,
particularly developing ones.” The commitment to and business process modeling.
pervasive or ubiquitous access for users as they travel
reflects more than just technological challenges; it gen- CONCLUSION
erates opportunities for novel services with temporal The Web science framework is a provocative
and geospatial requirements. Cell phones, for example, research agenda that deserves serious review but
are more than information-access devices, restructuring that already needs expansion to adequately address
social expectations and offering life-altering opportuni- such important issues as social computing, univer-
ties, as well as life-saving resources. I hope these con- sal usability, and interdisciplinary strategies. Vision-
cerns will be a more substantial part of Web science. aries say it is time for a change, but will the
traditional computer science community accept the
REFORM MOVEMENTS invitation? I hope it will. c
Calls for research and education in Web science are
in harmony with many other reform movements References
that seek to redefine and reinvigorate computer sci- 1. Berners-Lee, T. Japan Prize Commemorative Lecture. Available from the
World Wide Web Consortium, Cambridge, MA, 2002;
ence. Some are from within the traditional field of
computer science (such as Georgia Tech’s New Face 2. Berners-Lee, T., Hall, W., Hendler, J., O’Hara, K., Shadbolt, N., and
Weitzner, D. A framework for Web science. Foundations and Trends in
of Computing initiative, Web Science 1, 1 (2006), 1–130;
posium/), which offers a curriculum based on inter- 3. Berners-Lee, T., Hall, W., Hendler, J., Shadbolt, N., and Weitzner, D.
disciplinary threads. Nascent efforts from Creating a science of the Web. Science 313, 11 (Aug. 2006), 769–771.
4. Chesbrough, H. and Spohrer, J. A research manifesto for services sci-
forward-looking computer science faculty deal with ence. Commun. ACM 49, 7 (July 2006), 35–43.
expanding the discipline to include new media, 5. Denning, P. The social life of innovation. Commun. ACM 47, 4 (Apr.
2004), 15–19.
games, usability engineering, design, and the teach- 6. Klawe, M. and Shneiderman, B. Crisis and opportunity in computer
ing of innovation [5]. Another approach to reviving science. Commun. ACM 48, 11 (Nov. 2005), 27–28.
computer science is to seek inspiration from such 7. Shneiderman, B. Leonardo’s Laptop: Human Needs and the New Com-
puting Technologies. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, Oct. 2002.
application areas as e-commerce, medical informat- 8. Shneiderman, B. and Preece, J. Science 315, 5814 (Feb. 16,
ics, and computational biology. 2007), 944.
9. Web Science Research Initiative;
Related developments include vigorous growth of
alternative programs from the i-schools (information
schools and colleges of information studies, Ben Shneiderman ( is a professor in the These new curricula, which Department of Computer Science ( at the
already generate high enrollment in the Universities University of Maryland at College Park and a member of the Advisory
of Maryland, Michigan, and North Carolina, focus Board for the Web Science Research Initiative.
on the use of information, exploratory search, text-
analysis tools, human-computer interaction, social © 2007 ACM 0001-0782/07/0600 $5.00

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