Wednesday, 27 April 2011

A Manifesto for Web Science

Halford, S., Pope, C. and Carr, L. (2010) A Manifesto for Web Science. In: WebSci10: Extending the Frontiers of Society On-Line, April 26-27th, 2010, Raleigh, NC: US

A clarion call for a new research agenda has been sounded, notably by Berners-Lee et al (2006a 2006b) and Hendler et al (2008) for a ‘science of decentralised information systems’ to ‘discover’ generative mechanisms, and synthesise knowledge and technology to push both forwards. Computer Science alone - focussing as it does on the engineering/technology of the web - could not deliver the ambitions of this new agenda. Equally, other disciplines implicated in Web Science might use the web to support their research, or be interested in virtual life, but they lacked a coherent or unifying mandate for engaging with the web.

By calling for Web Science these pioneers opened up a new space. But this is uncharted terrain. As a technology the web is still new. While it has grown rapidly and unexpectedly we are only just beginning to think about the web as a phenomena to be studied. The proponents of Web Science had the vision to see that this new approach had to include disciplines beyond their own; it had to be greater than the sum of the parts of individual disciplines. This is a radical call to leave disciplinary silos and work collaboratively to produce something bigger and better. Moreover, it takes in the founding principles of the web and a desire for a web that is pro-human: this is a call for a science that is capable of insight and intervention to create a better world.

Our paper aims to take up this challenge and suggests how we might map the Web Science terrain. We come at this from a slightly different direction to the web science pioneers and want to demonstrate how social science can, and indeed must, contribute to developing Web Science.

This paper will explore the contribution of social theory and sociological concepts that shape how we engage with the web. We focus on four key aspects which seem to be central to this understanding. Firstly co-constitution, the fact that the web both shapes and is shaped by humans/society. Secondly the importance of heterogeneous networks of multiple and diverse actors (including technologies themselves) that make the web as we know it. Thirdly the significance of performativity, that the web is an unfolding, enacted practice, as people interact with http to build ‘the web’ moment by moment. Finally, drawing these ideas together we see the web we have now as an immutable mobile or temporarily stabilised network.

We use these ideas to map what web science could be and to suggest how we might use sociology to understand the web. Our aim is to provoke and stimulate debate and to move beyond superficial popular psychology and sociology (which envisages engineering human behaviour) and to challenge some of the ways in which social science has engaged with technology and technical actors. To facilitate this, and taking our lead from Donna Harroway, the paper sets out a radical manifesto for web science.

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