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Study How the Web is Changing Society within a Generation

The University of Southhampton is offering a free MOOC, Web science: how the web is changing the world, starting October 6 on the Futurelearn platform. Charlie Chung of BestCerts sat down with professors Leslie Carr and Susan Halford (over the web, of course) to discuss some of the main topics of web science, resulting in this article.

 What do we mean by the ‘Web’?

The first question we have to ask is what is the ‘web’? The internet and the web are two different things. The internet is a set of technologies and protocols to connect computers together and exchange information. Prof. Carr, a computer scientist, notes that on top of this we have created many applications and new technologies. The web is really “shorthand for this amazing cyclone of technology and social activity”. Prof. Halford, a sociologist, notes that in the 25 years since the web has been around (a single generation), there are now an estimated 3 billion people in the world who use the web and using it in all kinds of interesting ways.

Three billion people is a lot, but we should keep in mind that this is still under half the world’s population–the majority of people on this planet don’t use the web. Prof. Halford described the main barriers: poverty and literacy (it is humbling to see even the web at the mercy of these traditional world problems). Also, it is more than just about access, it is what people use the web for: “if people don’t have certain educational, cultural skills and assets, then the content is not interesting and it doesn’t really matter much if you have access to it.” But the reach of the web is still spreading quickly. “I don’t think we should assume,” Prof. Halford says, “that the next phase of people coming online are going to want to do the same things with the Web as we do.

How the web is changing the world

So how do we use the web, and how does this change us? First there are the obvious big ones: information and social connections. We have access to a tremendous amount of information, and we are able to engage with others socially in new ways. This can clearly be beneficial, such as keeping up with high school friends via Facebook or finding out about events in Syria via Twitter messages from people who are there on the ground. But there is a downside to this as well. Prof. Carr notes “You see a lot of misogyny and homophobia and racism being amplified…how do we cope with comments sections, or death threats to people on Twitter?” It is this amplification of both the good, and the not-so-good, that we need to deal with.

This leads to the second way that the web is changing us: it is requiring us to renegotiate our social contract. We will need to figure out how to balance open free speech with the amplification of hate speech. We will need to think about privacy in a whole new way. We will need to establish new rules about who owns information. Prof. Halford comments that the Edward Snowden issue was a game changer in that it woke people up to some of these issues:

We don’t yet have good ways of thinking how to be citizens of the Web, because it transcends all the other ideas of citizenship and political action. People are organizing all kinds of groups and engaging in articulating values as to how the Web could and should be. That’s uncharted territory, but it’s really necessary and quite exciting. 

And this is a response to the way the web is currently. At the same time, the Web is changing and transforming in many different ways.

How the world will change the web

So what is the future of the web? There are four trends the professors think will be big:

The Semantic Web – this is touted as the next version of the web, or the Web 3.0. The word ‘semantics’ relates to meaning, and thus the ‘semantic web’ will have meaning encoded into the information on the web, so that you can retrieve it and use it in ways that have meaning for you. Here is a video of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, describing the semantic web.

Big Data – this is a hot concept these days and refers to the explosion of information that is being tracked and captured with the increase use of computers. An example would be your complete shopping history if you use a grocery store loyalty card. These data can now being analyzed by powerful machine learning algorithms (note: there are many MOOCs on machine learning, and you can use open-source Weka to do this yourself).

The Quantified Self – this is the application of creating big data about yourself, through biometrics (heart rate, blood pressure, etc.), and can include collection of all kinds of data such as moods, habits, and social activities. See a Ted Talk on this here.

Internet of Things – this is the application of internet connectivity and protocols to non-computer objects, such as cars, appliances, sensors, etc. Imagine if our plates and chairs had sensors and were connected to the internet and could give us feedback on our eating habits and posture. Gartner predicts that by 2020, 26 billion things (excluding devices and computers) will be connected to the internet

 The Web Science MOOC

So with these and other topics, you can see how the Web Science MOOC can be exciting. It has been run twice before and over 18,000 people from around the world have participated them so far. By the way, what do the professors think about MOOCs? They are aware of the criticisms but are very positive overall. Prof. Halford suggests that participation will widen once more MOOCs offer university credit, providing more benefit to those without college degrees. But overall, MOOCs hold promise because “there is a real appetite, not just for learning, but for social learning”. Prof. Carr captures this enthusiasm below:

Web Science's Leslie Carr on the Positive Impact of MOOCs

Leslie Carr on the potential of MOOCs

If you are interested in learning more about web science and discuss it with others, you can join the MOOC Web science: how the web is changing the world, it’s free and it starts October 6.