Preface

Our course introduces Web science. It has no prerequisites and has been used by non-technical undergraduates at Boston University since 2006. Our curriculum is guided by the following passage adapted from "Web Science: An Interdisciplinary Approach to understanding the Web," by James Hendler, Nigel Shadbolt, Wendy Hall, and Tim Berners-Lee:

Web science, an emerging interdisciplinary field, takes the Web as its primary object of study. This study incorporates both the social interactions enabled by the Web's design and the applications that support them.

The Web is often studied at the micro scale, as an infrastructure of protocols, programming languages, and applications. However, it is the interaction of human beings creating, linking, and consuming information that generates the Web's behavior as emergent properties at the macro scale. These properties often generate surprising properties that require new analytic methods to be understood.

For example, when Mosaic, the first popular Web browser, was released publicly in 1992, the number of users quickly grew by several orders of magnitude, with more than a million downloads in the first year. The wide deployment of Mosaic led to a need for a way to find relevant material on the growing Web, and thus search became an important application, and later an industry, in its own right. The enormous success of search engines has inevitably yielded techniques to game the algorithms (an unexpected result) to improve search rank, leading, in turn, to the development of better search technologies to defeat the gaming. More recent macro-scale examples include photo-sharing on Flickr, video-uploading on YouTube, and social-networking sites like mySpace and Facebook.

The essence of Web science is to understand how to design systems to produce the effects we want. The best we can do today is design and build in the micro, hoping for the best; but how do we know if we've built in the right functionality to ensure the desired macro-scale effects? How do we predict other side effects and the emergent properties of the macro? Further, as the success or failure of a particular Web technology may involve aspects of social interaction among users, understanding the Web requires more than a simple analysis of technological issues but also of the social dynamic of perhaps millions of users.

Given the breadth of the Web and its inherently multi-user (social) nature, its science is necessarily interdisciplinary, involving at least mathematics, computer science, sociology, psychology, and economics.

 
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