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A science for the Web

Stéphane B. Bazan By Stéphane B. Bazan Published on December 5, 2015

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We all know the Web, because we all use it everyday. And when I say we, I mean approximately 2 billion users. We live with the Web, we wake up with the Web, we make friends with the Web, we find love with the Web and, well, so many other things we do with the Web.

Even if we think we do, we don't really understand the Web. We might know how to use it, but we never saw pass that, may you be a housewife, a geek, a marketer or even a computer engineer.

So, what is really going on? What is this application really doing to our world?

In 1999, in his book “Weaving the Web”, Tim Berners-Lee, this great British scientist who brought us the Web used the term social machine to describe his invention. A social machine is a set of complex socio-technical mechanisms. The Web impacts society, a lot, and in return, society transforms the Web, a lot.

My dear friend Cathy Pope from Southampton University calls this phenomenon co-constitution. She was, among other social scientists, one of the first to understand that the Web is so transformative it deserves a science for itself: an interdisciplinary science that would combine qualitative and quantitative methods, analytical and synthetic approaches. We need to better understand the tool that the web has become.

For example, tools like Wordpress, Facebook or Ushahidi have gathered millions of users worldwide via global adoption and synchronizing social actions. These tools improve regularly by the data that we store and mine. And when you scale that level of interaction to billions of human beings, new phenomena emerge, on the macro level. Let’s take a well-known example, the Ushahidi platform. This software was built to gather eyewitness reports of violence during the 2007 elections in Kenya. It’s just a piece of programming created for a special use in a special context. But it also bootstraps the power of crowdsourcing and geo-mapping for social activism and public accountability. Now Ushahidi, thanks to these special properties, has become more than just a tool. It’s a concept, a global approach to solving large scale problems, like identifying missing people in natural disasters, reporting oil spills, supervising elections, helping organizing demonstrations or fighting corruption.

Powerful things emerge from large-scale adoption of a simple piece of web software: Positive things, like, social networks, the blogosphere, crowdfunding, Open Data, however, that power is not free from negative usage.

Other things we wouldn’t like to see, like cybercrime, the dark web, surveillance and violations of personal privacy possess an unprecedented power of their own.

And usually, when important issues emerge, web developers go back to their workshop and create new solutions.

Now, the question is: How do we understand how these transformations work? How do we influence design on a micro level to guarantee the emergence of positively powerful properties on the macro level? With the enormous amounts of data and the development of large-scale tools, mathematics and graph theory appear like the obvious choice to produce observation and build models.

But this is not enough. Parallel disciplines, like social science or digital humanities bring new vantage points to observe the emergence of macro-level properties. The combination of models, graphs and social properties is key to understand how web applications work, why people adopt them and how they can be improved to avoid unwanted effects. Mining Facebook or Twitter datasets can help detect outbreaks of Malaria in Brazil or drive the strategy of a food website in Germany. My colleagues Claudia Wagner and Markus Strohmaier from the Leibniz Institute for social science of Köln in Germany built a very interesting mathematic model to identify food preferences in large data sets produced by a food web platform: The main findings of this work are: (i) Recipe preferences are partly driven by ingredients, (ii) Recipe preference distributions exhibit more regional differences than ingredient preference distributions. But they also found out, that observations could in part be linked to real-world events, such as the asparagus season and that people eat more meat at weekends than at other days of the week. Interesting indeed, but their research does not answer the “why” question. The Why is to be found somewhere else, in these millions of little stories, personal stories that hide behind the decision to eat asparagus in winter.

The interesting part of studying the web is way beyond models and graphs. You need to involve other sciences. You need to go interdisciplinary and mix methods. You need to go Web Science.

The call for Web Science comes from Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues from Southampton. In a little pub on their campus, they decided to launch a scientific initiative with other academic institutions, like MIT.

As far as I'm concerned, I joined the call in 2010 – I was studying the information society in the Arab world and available methodologies to understand the on-going transformations were disappointing. It was too slow, too blind, too late. The Web revolution was advancing in the Arab world and research was 10 years late.

My first conference was in Raleigh in 2010 and I started to get interested in how the Web was used in conflicts. The Middle East is riddled with conflicts and the Web has become a main tool for the riddlers. Website defacement attacks, DDos, propaganda, deceptive content: web platforms are weapons of choice to try to win strategic advantage on the psychological level.

In 2011 my research team at the Centre for research on the Modern Middle East won the best poster prize in Koblenz, in Germany, for a study on the information warfare in the 2006 war in Lebanon.

How did we do that? Like all Web Science researchers, our methodology is interdisciplinary and simple: we gather datasets from platforms and we do the maths and the graphs. We look at the big picture, and then we dive qualitatively into the micro level to understand what is going on. We looked at the actors on the ground, the asymmetric players, like Hamas, Daesh or Hezbollah, we looked at the tools they use, fake websites, videos, deceptive social media accounts and we tried to understand the strategy: opinion manipulation, communication on a successful operation, mythology development, support building. It's like connecting the dots.

And here’s what we found: The Web is a battlefield where symmetric and asymmetric information war takes place permanently. When we started observing IW on the Web, we had just a few players, hackers, activists and geeks supporters defacing websites and uploading deceptive videos. Then, regional states started to develop official strategies, like Israel during the Gaza War. In the Middle East, the Web became the main vector of strategic propaganda, alongside TV and printed media. In 2011, the Syrian regime launched the first large scale repressive operation online against activists on social media by organizing “honeypots”, deceptive places online where opponents would regroup and get trapped. In 2013, the emergence of the Daesh Group, with tremendous resources, took IW to another level: Hollywood style movies, recruiting videos broadcasted all over the Web, blogs in 20 different languages: a completely integrated communication strategy divided in 3 main objectives: Building audience and support, framing politico-military operations and marketing the caliphate.

In the particular case of Information warfare, Web Science creates the link between the technical aspects of cyber warfare and the actual political and military intentions behind it. By mining the number of defacement attacks, the number of propaganda video posted, by tagging and linking the content, we understand the larger objectives behind each piece of content, behind each attack mechanisms and our results can be used to limit impact or even prevent availability and protect people from unwanted content.

Web Science is about building genuine knowledge to understand, develop but also “fix” the Web. The Web can be a dangerous place. And we think that if the Web deserves a science, it also should be a subject of study for everyone. Users need to understand these mechanisms to make an informed use of the Web. If ignorance is the most violent thing in society, then today, the level of ignorance about the Web is absolutely deadly.

Most of the people I know or meet in my conferences in schools or universities have a very short-sighted view on what the Web is and does to them and to the society they live in.

I heard many things in these classrooms, stories of fear, of violence, but I also hear a call for help. Kids don't want their parents to interface between the Web and them. They just want help: They need to be educated to the Web to make an efficient use of it.

With other web scientists from around the world, we created the Web science education community and started implement courses and academic programs to teach the Web with Web Science. Our goal is to raise awareness, among all disciplines, that the Web needs to enter all kinds of curricula.

Last year, I had the chance to preface the first book about Health Web Science: medical and health professionals from around the world compiled research on how the Web transforms medicine and the relation between patients and medical information.

Medicine, law, economics, political science, all these disciplines are greatly transformed by the web and existing research should already be included in academic courses.

Web Science is young and is still working for international scientific recognition. Yet, in 2010, the Royal Society of London declared Web science as one of the 10 most important fields of study for the 21st century. The Web will change, evolve, transform and transform more. It's still time we build the right tools to follow and understand this evolution.

And make the web a better place.

Web Science Researcher and Web Literacy Evangelist

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