Twenty years of the world wide web
What's the score?
Mar 12th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Science inspired the world wide web. Two decades on, the web has repaid the compliment by changing science
“INFORMATION Management: A Proposal”. That was the bland title of a document written in March 1989 by a then little-known computer scientist called Tim Berners-Lee who was working at CERN, Europe’s particle physics laboratory, near Geneva. Mr Berners-Lee (pictured) is now, of course, Sir Timothy, and his proposal, modestly dubbed the world wide web, has fulfilled the implications of its name beyond the wildest dreams of anyone involved at the time.
In fact, the web was invented to deal with a specific problem. In the late 1980s, CERN was planning one of the most ambitious scientific projects ever, the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. (This opened, and then shut down again because of a leak in its cooling system, in September last year.) As the first few lines of the original proposal put it, “Many of the discussions of the future at CERN and the LHC era end with the question—‘Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?’ This proposal provides an answer to such questions.”
Sir Timothy is now based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he runs the World Wide Web Consortium, which sets standards for web technology. But on March 13th, he will, if all has gone well, have joined his old colleagues at CERN to celebrate the web’s 20th birthday.
The web of life
The web, as everyone now knows, has found uses far beyond the original one of linking electronic documents about particle physics in laboratories around the world. But amid all the transformations it has wrought, from personal social networks to political campaigning to pornography, it has also transformed, as its inventor hoped it would, the business of doing science itself.
As well as bringing the predictable benefits of allowing journals to be published online and links to be made from one paper to another, it has also, for example, permitted professional scientists to recruit thousands of amateurs to give them a hand. One such project, called GalaxyZoo, used this unpaid labour to classify 1m images of galaxies into various types (spiral, elliptical and irregular). This enterprise, intended to help astronomers understand how galaxies evolve, was so successful that a successor has now been launched, to classify the brightest quarter of a million of them in finer detail. More modestly, those involved in Herbaria@home scrutinise and decipher scanned images of handwritten notes about old plant cuttings stored in British museums. This will allow the tracking of changes in the distribution of species in response to, for instance, climate change.
Another novel scientific application of the web is as an experimental laboratory in its own right. It is allowing social scientists, in particular, to do things that would previously have been impossible.
We recently reported two such projects. One used a peer-to-peer moneylending site to show that a person’s physiognomy is a reliable predictor of his creditworthiness (see article). The other, carried out at the behest of The Economist, confirmed anthropologists’ observations about the sizes of human social networks using data from Facebook (see article). A second investigation of the nature of such networks, which came to similar conclusions, has been produced by Bernardo Huberman of HP Labs, Hewlett-Packard’s research arm in Palo Alto, California. He and his colleagues looked at Twitter, a social networking website that allows people to post short messages to long lists of friends.
At first glance, the networks seemed enormous—the 300,000 Twitterers sampled had 80 friends each, on average (those on Facebook had 120), but some listed up to 1,000. Closer statistical inspection, however, revealed that many of the messages were directed at a few specific friends, revealing—as with Facebook—that an individual’s active social network is far smaller than his “clan”.
Dr Huberman has also helped uncover several laws of web surfing, including the number of times an average person will go from web page to web page on a given site before giving up, and the details of the “winner-takes-all” phenomenon whereby a few sites on a given subject grab most of the attention, and the rest get hardly any.
Scientists have therefore proved resourceful in using the web to further their research. They have, however, tended to lag when it comes to employing the latest web-based social-networking tools to open up scientific discourse and encourage more effective collaboration.
Journalists are now used to having their every article commented on by dozens of readers. Indeed, many bloggers develop and refine their essays on the basis of such input. Yet despite several attempts to encourage a similarly open system of peer review of scientific research published on the web, most researchers still limit such reviews to a few anonymous experts. When Nature, one of the world’s most respected scientific journals, experimented with open peer review in 2006, the results were disappointing. Only 5% of the authors it spoke to agreed to have their article posted for review on the web—and their instinct turned out to be right, as almost half of the papers that were then posted attracted no comments.
Michael Nielsen, an expert on quantum computers who belongs to a new wave of scientist bloggers who want to change this, thinks the reason for this reticence is neither shyness or fear of reprisal, but rather a fundamental lack of incentive.
The unsocial scientist
Scientists publish, in part, because their careers depend on it. They keenly keep track of how many papers they have had accepted, the reputations of the journals they appear in and how many times each article is cited by their peers, as measures of the impact of their research. These numbers can readily be put in a curriculum vitae to impress others.
By contrast, no one yet knows how to measure the impact of a blog post or the sharing of a good idea with another researcher in some collaborative web-based workspace. Dr Nielsen reckons that if similar measurements could be established for the impact of open commentary and open collaboration on the web, such commentary and collaboration would flourish, and science as a whole would benefit. Essentially, this would involve establishing a market for great ideas, just as a site such as eBay does for coveted objects.
How to do that is, at the moment, mysterious. Intellectual credit obeys different rules from the financial sort. But if some keen researcher out there has an idea about how to do it, “Information Management: A Proposal” might be an equally apposite title for his first draft. Who knows, there may even be a knighthood in it.