Studying the web

At the end of this video from this year’s Davos (at 2:30), Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposes the need to create an academic discipline — cutting across technology, psychology, anthropology, and other fields — to study and understand the web:

Now Rensellaer Polytechnic announces that it is creating the first undergraduate degree in web science. (I found out about through an email to my son, who was accepted there and is now deciding among the University of Rochester, NYU, George Washington University, and Boston University, plus Case Western, Drexel, and Northwestern…. if any of you have any advice and experience, let me know). RPI says its students will “investigate issues on the Web related to security, trust, privacy, content value, and the development of the Web of the future.”

Sir Tim himself praised the RPI program in its press release. He has also helped start the Web Science Trust.

Of course, there are many good minds studying the web today, from danah boyd to Clay Shirky to Jay Rosen to Jonathan Zittrain. But I agree that it is time to pull together study and thinking and questions under a discipline that treats the web as the enormous social force it is. Says the Web Science site:

Nothing like the Web has ever happened in all of human history. The scale of its impact and the rate of its adoption are unparalleled. This is a great opportunity as well as an obligation. If we are to ensure the Web benefits the human race we must first do our best to understand it.

The Web is the largest human information construct in history. The Web is transforming society. In order to understand what the Web is, engineer its future and ensure its social benefit we need a new interdisciplinary field that we call Web Science.

  • Jim Hoover


    Great post as usual. I have to call bullsh*t on the idea of creating an academic discipline out of this. Pundits are really no better than amateurs at posting opinions on web by way of their education. They are better because they have good takes. Whereas an academic degree in Chemistry differentiates you from a hobbyist chemist, an academic degree in “Web Science” has very little potential to differentiate you from someone who does weekend reading. There’s nothing a professor can teach you that you can’t learn yourself. It does young people a huge disservice to legitimize this sort of fabricated academic discipline, for when they get out of college, they’ll quickly realize they have wasted four prime educational years of their lives. I don’t want to sound too harsh, but I have seen academics try to become gatekeepers too many times when nobody is calling for or asking for them to do so. There is simply no need for, nor qualifications for academic leadership in this made-up discipline. It’s a terrible idea.

    • Completely agree Jim! And as we’ve discovered with the global warming debate, academics are easily co-opted by politicians desperate for scary sound-bites. The more libertarian the web remains, the better.

  • The study of the web belongs to so many different disciplines. Sociology, anthropology, archeology, engineering, communication, politics, economics, really … everything.

    Not that we shouldn’t try it, but proposing an academic field just for the web is a bit like proposing a field for the printing press or television – far too nebulous to be effective.

  • I agree with Jim. Unless that Web Science degree does something extreme to help make it a needed degree, it will be a waste of time and money. And going a step further when he said “There’s nothing a professor can teach you that you can’t learn yourself,” at what point does education become too repetitive that it is no longer needed? I ask because right now I am looking to major in journalism. I am currently taking an editing class that focuses only on grammar. I had this stuff drilled into my head in high school, so much so that this whole class has felt like a big waste of time. I have learned nothing new in this class.

    Also, a comment on colleges. My friend is a junior and getting a dual degree in computer science from NYU and she loves it. She used to live in Michigan so the distance was hard for her at first, but she said she wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  • Can you imagine graduating with a degree in this back in 1999? Any money spent on it would be wasted.

    Computer science has a hard enough time keeping up with trends. A class like this would be hopelessly out of date and the degree would be obsolete by the time you graduate.

    I can’t see how spending money to get a piece of paper in this subject would get you any more than just staying abreast of what is happening in the blogosphere. I’d guess that is where most of the assigned reading would come from anyhow.

  • I’m shocked at this comment. “There’s nothing a professor can teach you that you can’t learn yourself.” I think it’s ignorant in the extreme. I would simply say that the job of a good teacher is to save the student time.

    • Jim Hoover

      Let me clarify- I don’t mean in general, I mean in “web science,” there’s nothing a professor can teach you that you can’t learn yourself. In Chemistry, you need a professor. I mean that the nature of the discipline is not empirical or complicated or confusing. It’s all fairly obvious stuff. It may be efficient for a professor to tell you about it, but there’s no real potential for genuine expertise here. Anyone can become an expert in “web science” with or without a degree or a professor.

      • I think you are deeply ignorant of what professors (good ones) actually do, and you are confusing two different things: whether there is a subject here to teach, and whether there are gates around that subject that a university must unlock for you. More succinctly, you are mistaking education for certification. It’s true that you could educate yourself about free software, the open source movement, crowd-sourcing, peer-to-peer behavior on the Web and what Yochai Benkler calls “commons-based peer production.”

        But if you think that taking a course with Benkler would not be an education for beyond what you could get from reading up on commons-based peer production, then you don’t understand who Benkler is, what he does, why he does it, and how the modern university works. Your contempt in that case is for education itself, for academic learning as an enterprise.

        Now on the matter of whether this subject is a “science,” there I am closer to the skeptics. I can see good reasons for not calling it a science. And since I don’t suffer from “physics envy” I don’t think anything is lost by removing the term science and any pretensions that might be added to the enterprise that way.

      • Jim Hoover wrote: “It’s all fairly obvious stuff…”
        Errr… No, it isn’t all “obvious stuff.” But, it sounds like you’d have to take the course to understand why. Pity…

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    • Ben Gold

      I really don’t think the concept of a Web Science degree is as ridiculous as some have suggested. From what I’ve read, it seems that RPI plans to make Web Science part of their Information Technology degree program. Many of the arguments you can make against a Web Science degree could be made against the existence of a Computer Science degree.

      With technology and science degree programs the idea is to get you started on a path, hopefully to set up with a career. Sure, what you learned is going to get outdated, but you’re not going to stop learning just because you’re out of school. You’re going to use those fundamentals to keep yourself up to date with the changes. Law and History gets updated all the time, but you still go to school for those.

      As for colleges: I’m probably going to be attending RPI in the fall. It wasn’t my first choice, but I’ve found many things to like about it. If he wants to study Computer Science, NYU seems to be the highest ranked school, with RPI being second (I think Case Western has a pretty good program too). NYU is a larger school than RPI, but RPI is in upstate New York near albany, so you have to really consider what type of school you want to go to.

      BU is really overrated, so is George Washington. Northwestern is the highest ranked school on that list, but they’re really known for journalism and some specific engineering areas.

      • Except that someone with an IT/CS degree can probably *do* something.

  • Agreed with others above. This “Web Science” sounds less like a hard science, and more of a mushy “Social Science”. It’ll be a field of study that will only be good for people wishing to have a career in teaching “Web Science”. It’ll be like selling Amway distributorships.

    • I may be a bit harsh. But this sounds less like being creative, but studying the after effects of others’ being creative. It’s a backward looking endeavor. I wouldn’t mind it as a course or two, just not as a whole degree program.

  • Web Science?
    Firstly, understand it. Secondly, manage it. For human being

  • Foobarista

    At least they didn’t call it “web studies”…

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  • In terms of college, I think getting exposure to lots of different students studying lots of different things is a key value. Which I think requires
    * big enough school to have many critical masses (4k undergrad not enough)
    * sizable schools in varying areas (e.g. lib arts, engineers, architects, etc.)
    * isolated enough so that students spend time with each other in large/varied groups, rather than nightly urban dispersion.

  • Jill Wason

    I know several people who have attended RPI, including my brother. Most of them, as far as I know, have had a great experience. RPI is very student oriented, as far as I can tell. The professors are very accessible. Undergraduates have opportunities to do research, even as freshmen. One of the downsides is that the male/female ratio is rather skewed. Also, the surrounding town of Troy is pretty impoverished, and there isn’t a lot to do off-campus.

  • Are ‘Web science’ courses going to be taught only online? Will somebody actually write a textbook about ‘web science’? What will a used web science textbook be worth?