Emerging Fields | DOI: 10.1145/1941487.1941497
Web science meets
A pair of divergent scientific communities discusses their similarities
and differences, and search for common ground.
EVer sInCe WorLD Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners- Lee announced the Web Sci- ence Research Initiative in 2006, researchers have been
trying to map the boundaries of Web
science, which spans a dizzying range
of disciplines including computer science, economics, government, law,
Complicating matters further has
been the parallel evolution of a markedly similar-sounding field: Network
science, whose devotees explore the
characteristics of all types of networks,
from neural networks to social networks to, yes, the Web.
Where do these two emerging fields
overlap? Where do they diverge? These
are some of the questions a group of
scholars broached in the Third International Workshop on Network Theory, hosted last March at Northwestern
“In one sense, Web science is a
subset of network science. In another
sense, network science is a subset of
Web science,” says workshop co-chair
Noshir Contractor, a professor of behavioral sciences at Northwestern.
VISualIZa Ton Crea TeD By yun HuanG, © SonIC a T nor THWeS Tern unIVerSITy 2011
Proponents of the former view argue that the Web is just one network
among many that share certain common properties; for example, they are
open, scale-free, and exhibit emergent
properties like power laws. Proponents
of the latter view tend to argue that the
Web is fundamentally different from
other networks in that it encompasses
a broad range of human concerns that
have little to do with a macro understanding of networks, such as issues
of government policy, commerce, and
“In practice, Web science is focused on how we could do things better, while network science is more
focused on how things work,” says
Collaboration network map of the participants
of the northwestern university workshop.
Contractor, “but aspirationally, they
are not different.”
Given their overlapping areas of in-
terest, it might seem surprising that
many of the leading researchers in
each field remained largely unaware
of the others’ work before they met
for the first time at the Northwestern
“This was a coming together of two
different communities,” says Dame
Wendy Hall, a professor of computer
Where do these two
overlap? Where do
science at the University of Southampton, who is one of the cofounders of the
Web Science Research Initiative and
now the managing director of its successor, the Web Science Trust.
Like so many good ideas, the idea for
the workshop originated over drinks at
a hotel bar. Hall remembers having a
lively conversation with network theorist Manuel Castells during a meeting
of the European Research Council.
“We realized that we were coming at
the same thing from different angles,”
Hall says. Soon afterward, Castells introduced Hall to Contractor, initiating
a series of conversations that led to the
The workshop organizers hoped to
frame a new research agenda by leveraging the commonalities and distinctive
contributions of Web science and network science, and to formulate questions of interest to both communities.
The two-day conference covered a
wide range of broadly related topics
such as debating the merits of network
science’s “pure” scientific approach vs.
the more applied, engineering-oriented
tactics of Web science; analyzing the effects of scale on network behaviors; exploring questions of causality, correlation, and inference; and discussing the
possibility of a Web index, an idea currently being promoted by Berners-Lee.
Looking ahead, plenty of room exists for continuing dialogue between
the two camps, who will almost certainly continue to probe each other’s
boundaries while searching for common ground.
“Is Web science a subset of network science or is it the same thing?”
asks Hall. “The answer is, It doesn’t
Alex Wright is a writer and information architect based in