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Friday, September 17, 2010

Choosing our Science: Hypertext and Web Science

This blog post is an abridged version of a guest editorial I co-wrote for the New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, Special Issue on Web Science. The full editorial can be found in EPrints.

Hypertext and the Web

What is Hypertext? It is well known in our community that the word Hypertext was coined by Nelson in 1965 to describe his vision of an intertwingled world of transcluded electronic texts, but we also know that the ideas and principles of Hypertext predate electronic computers. Writers and scholars have always experimented with interlinked texts, from the Talmud and the Synoptic Gospels to Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths. Well’s World Brain, Otlet’s Mundaneum and Bush’s memex set out grand visions for global stores of human knowledge based on index cards and microfiche.
The Hypertext Pioneers (Bush, Engelbart and Nelson)

Despite these broad origins Hypertext has come to be seen almost exclusively from a digital viewpoint, perhaps because of its many synergies with key concepts from informatics and computer science, such as networks, communication theory, and knowledge modeling. But Hypertext is more than digital. It predates computers and predates computer science. Any broad approach to hypertext must therefore be interdisciplinary, even if keeping one foot in the digital domain.

The Web is the closest that we have come to the grand visions of the hypertext pioneers. From unpromising beginnings as a basic read-only distributed hypertext, the Web has evolved over the last twenty years into the premier distributed application platform. As a platform it supports a whole ecology of hypertext tools and forms: versioned collaborative hypertexts (Wikis), bookmarks and trails (Delicious or Digg), citizen journalism (blogs and sharing sites) and social conversation and chatter (Facebook or Twitter). As a hypertext it disappointed and confounded us, but as a platform it has excited and renewed hypertext research.

A Science of the Web

Web Science is a new discipline that is concerned with the study of the Web and our behavior on it. Web Science draws on a wide range of traditional disciplines (such as sociology, economics and law) to understand, model and predict the Web’s impact on our lives and societies. Through Web Science the hope is that we can better understand the affects of different technology, and the changing attitudes and social norms that emerge from its use. The aim is to better guide new developments in both technology and policy.

Web Science was first proposed by Tim Berners-Lee et al in an article for Science (in 2006), this then led to the establishment of the Web Science Research Initiative (now the Web Science Trust ) an agreement between MIT in the US, and the University of Southampton in the UK, to explore and promote the study of the Web; in particular by developing curricula for Web Science and through establishing the Web Science conference (held for the second time this year in Raleigh, North Carolina).

As the Web has become an essential service in our society, so hypertext has become an essential tool of communication and interaction. If we accept that the Web is an ecology of hypertexts and that Web Science is the interdisciplinary study of the Web then we should expect that Web Science and Hypertext are natural bedfellows. It was this thought that led us to ask what is or should be the relationship between Hypertext research and Web Science.

In 2008 we ran a workshop at ACM Hypertext 2008 on ‘Web Science: Collaboration and Collective Intelligence’. In part we were interested in what aspects of its Hypertext work that the community also considered as Web Science. The workshop was the largest at the conference, and ten position papers were presented on the day on topics ranging from trust and media bias to narrative structure.

There was a great deal of interest from participants about the idea of Web Science, but there was also uncertainty. Computer Science is itself a hybrid discipline – engineering, mathematics, logic, human factors, semiotics and semantics, etc. Where were the boundaries of this new discipline of Web Science, were new tools based on interdisciplinary theories part of it, and at what point was it appropriate to call ourselves Web Scientists?

Are We Web Scientists?

The papers in the Special Issue concerned with Web Science in-the-small, the personal relationships that we have with information and knowledge, are on topics that are historically familiar to Hypertext research: meta-data, knowledge interfaces and narrative. Hypertext researchers should feel very comfortable exploring these issues and perhaps the emergence of Web Science is partly a reflection of our willingness to explore new interdisciplinary areas that draw on a wider range of the humanities in order to understand the relationships between users and hypertext systems.

The huge success of the Web has meant that it is possible to do Web Science in-the-large, and we also present a number of papers that study the impact of Web systems on professional and personal communities, and analyze the social structures that result. These are new areas of possibility for Hypertext researchers and represent an opportunity for new longitudinal studies and the use of statistical research methodologies.

Hypertext research is naturally growing and evolving to reflect the pervasiveness of the Web and to take advantage of a changing interdisciplinary scientific culture. These changes take it closer to Web Science, and there are many overlapping areas where Hypertext is a valuable lens with which to examine the impact of the Web. However, Hypertext remains its own subject, with its own long intellectual and scholarly history.

In the end it is our choice as researchers as to whether we choose to name what we do as a Science of the Web, or ultimately brand ourselves as Web Scientists. In making that choice we should remember that Web Science is more than rebadging existing work. Interdisciplinary research can be difficult to communicate, and by using a strong term like Web Science we create a clear space for interdisciplinary research approaches, one that encourages us to explore in new ways and to think more holistically about our subject.

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