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Web Science: Studying the Internet to Protect Our Future

Studying the Web will reveal better ways to exploit information, prevent identity theft, revolutionize industry, and manage our ever-growing online lives
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Cary Wolinsky; Matthew Hurst (Microsoft Live Labs)

Since the World Wide Web blossomed in the mid-1990s, it has exploded to more than 15 billion pages that touch almost all aspects of modern life. Today more and more people’s jobs depend on the Web. Media, banking and health care are being revolutionized by it. And governments are even considering how to run their countries with it. Little appreciated, however, is the fact that the Web is more than the sum of its pages. Vast emergent properties have arisen that are transforming society. E-mail led to instant messaging, which has led to social networks such as Facebook. The transfer of documents led to file-sharing sites such as Napster, which have led to user-generated portals such as YouTube. And tagging content with labels is creating online communities that share everything from concert news to parenting tips.

But few investigators are studying how such emergent properties have actally happened, how we might harness them, what new phenomena may be coming or what any of this might mean for humankind. A new branch of science—Web science—aims to address such issues. The timing fits history: computers were built first, and computer science followed, which subsequently improved computing significantly. Web science was launched as a formal discipline in November 2006, when the two of us and our colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southampton in England announced the beginning of a Web Science Research Initiative. Leading researchers from 16 of the world’s top universities have since expanded on that effort.

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