|By Jamie Beckett, November 2007
There was a time when Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Web nearly two decades ago, had a list of every site. There were 26.
Today, with some 150 million sites and an explosion of new applications – along with new questions about everything from information privacy to the sociology of the Web -- Berners-Lee is leading the charge to create a multi-disciplinary science of the Web.
"The Web needs to be investigated, taken care of and maybe reengineered over time," he says. "We need to evolve the design of the Web so that it meets the changing needs of society."
Berners-Lee, who spoke to researchers and Silicon Valley executives at HP Labs, is a founding director of the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI), the first multidisciplinary research effort designed to produce the scientific advances to guide the Web's future.
Designing a better Web
The Web is as complex as the brain, says Berners-Lee. "The brain we study as a complex system. So why not the Web?"
Established by MIT and the University of Southampton, WSRI aims to understand the scientific, technical and social aspects that drive the growth of the Web, provide a global forum for academia, government and industry collaboration, and devise curricula to train future generations of researchers.
"Because the Web is changing so fast, you can't set up an experiment and look at it the way you do in traditional science," says Wendy Hall, a WSRI founding director and professor of computer science at the University of Southampton.
The emergence of a discipline where researchers study the Web as a whole system could help scientists better predict how it may change in the future – and design a better Web in the process, she says.
Advancing the Semantic Web
One priority for the research group is the development of the Semantic Web, an effort led by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web standards body Berners-Lee founded and directs.
The Semantic Web will provide a common framework that allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, and community boundaries. (HP Labs, which began work in this area in 1990, has made significant contributions to Semantic Web standards and developed the most-used Semantic Web toolkit, Berners-Lee noted.)
Berners-Lee and others hope to be able to do for the Semantic Web what they weren't able to do for the Web itself – design it from the beginning with a better understanding of its implications.
"We need people studying how the Semantic Web takes off, if it does what we expect or if behaves in other ways," Hall says.
Other WSRI projects include an effort to ensure transparency, accountability and trust when accessing personal data on the Web and a project to develop online journalism standards aimed at helping people better evaluate the quality of news on the Web.
Berners-Lee, who compared the growth of the Web to the course of a bobsled – "there's the initial stage when you push it very hard to get it moving, and then there's the other part where it's speeding down the hill" – says he remains enthusiastic, albeit wary, about its future.
"There's still the feeling of unbounded possibility," he says. But the explosion of blogs (including his own) and social sites like Facebook and YouTube have added a level of scrutiny and a new social dynamic.
He also sees enormous potential for the Web to benefit the common good. For example, Wikis and other collaboration tools have produced emerging forms of democracy and decision-making.
"If people can collectively make decisions together," Berners-Lee says, "maybe humanity will be able to resolve some really nasty problems or see some huge opportunities."