Web 2.0 and Research

I've been chatting with many of my friends and colleagues about an issue that's been bugging me for a while, namely whether academic research has any role to play in the emerging Web 2.0. I've been slowly coming to the conclusion that the answer is not much.




I had a similar discussion with other researchers at HotMobile a few weeks ago. When the web first came out, pretty much every systems researcher ignored it because it was so ugly. The web was not very sophisticated in terms of distributed systems, HTTP lacked elegance, HTML conflated many different ideas, and so on. There were also not any really new ideas with the web, as evidenced by the fact that Tim Berners-Lee's first paper on the Web was (probably rightfully) rejected from an ACM conference on hypertext.

I'm sure one thing that really irked researchers about the nascent web was that it completely ignored the large body of work in hypertext and distributed systems that had preceded it. Even in 1997, as the web was rapidly expanding and well after Netscape's explosive IPO, Infocom (one of the leading conferences on network communication) only had one paper about the Web. However, by this time, it was already too late, and the Web had taken on a life of its own.

The main lament here is that, if only we researchers had engaged with the early developers of the Web, we could have avoided many of the problems we face today. I'm not entirely convinced of this, however, since researchers really like to explore the full design space of things and be highly rigorous rather than letting things be ugly and good enough. (But that's another rant for another day.)

(Another fun one I hear often from computer science researchers is, why didn't we invent the web? I've heard this from digital library people, systems people, and HCI people. It's also funny to see how many books and articles I see from researchers saying that they had anticipated the web... No, you didn't, otherwise you would have gotten it out first. It's like the number of people that worked on the original Macintosh: for some reason, the number seems to keep increasing with time.)




So the question comes up again: is there any role for the research community for Web 2.0? I'm increasingly thinking that the answer is no, because the cultures, goals, and incentives with these two communities are far too misaligned.

Most of these Web 2.0 web sites are from small startup teams that care about making a successful product that lots of people use. They have the time, money, and resources to engineering that research teams do not. Most Web 2.0 teams also don't care about novelty, but rather the best implementation of something. For example, when some developers felt that del.icio.us sold out by going commercial, they just set up a clone site called del.irio.us (though the site seems to be down now).

There's also no incentive for web sites to do fully rigorous evaluations like you would see in academic papers, because there's no time, resources, or credit for doing so. Likewise, there's no reason to publish papers at all, as it might help your competitors.

Lastly, it's not immediately clear to me what research papers could be published in this domain. Pretty much every single Web 2.0 interaction technique was done decades ago on desktop computers, the only thing that's new is being able to do it in a web browser with Javascript and XML. There might be some new things, like tools for helping with development, but it all seems well within the state of the art, and is a standards issue rather than a research issue.

There could be papers published about how people use it and the community that develops around such web sites, but that seems less about anything in particular about Web 2.0 and more about the general usefulness and utility of the web site.




So, in summary, I think that the research community will have little to directly offer to the emerging space of Web 2.0 apps, but may have some things to contribute with respect to evaluating and understanding how people use these kinds of apps in the wild and how to improve the user experience. You know, the stuff that we've already been doing at CHI.

Now, I just have to figure out what I'm going to teach Web 2.0 in the Software Architectures for User Interfaces (SAUI) class this fall.

Comments

Anonymous said…
It depends on what you're calling web2.0. For one, I'm really excited that finally we're moving to a platform that can be instrumented for end-user programming, via tools like firefox extensions and chickenfoot.


Another interpretation of web2.0 is user-contributed content, and I think that has some very interesting ramifications for research, such as machine learning. Now that people are tagging web pages, the traditional problem of text classification is no longer as relevant. Perhaps there's an opportunity to leverage this user-generated content in research, perhaps the nature of the research problems change now that there is more metadata out there on the web.
jas0nh0ng said…
That's a great point, I've been thinking of Web 2.0 more along Google Maps, Basecamp, etc, focusing more on the browser interface rather than tools you might have in the browser for things.

I guess Web 2.0 is ill-defined enough to mean anything. Maybe we should skip forward and jump ahead by calling our research Web 3.0.
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It depends on what you're calling web2.0. For one, I'm really excited that finally we're moving to a platform that can be instrumented for end-user programming, via tools like firefox extensions and chickenfoot.


Another interpretation of web2.0 is user-contributed content, and I think that has some very interesting ramifications for research, such as machine learning. Now that people are tagging web pages, the traditional problem of text classification is no longer as relevant. Perhaps there's an opportunity to leverage this user-generated content in research, perhaps the nature of the research problems change now that there is more metadata out there on the web.
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Wow, Great post,Nice work, I would like to read your blog every day Thanks
Today we are still a long way from academics fully embracing the potential of Web 2.0 technologies. Although this is likely to change in the future, it seems more likely that this will be the result of a new generation of academics with changing attitudes to open science rather than due to any new changes in the technological sphere.
You write about many interesting things and the themes you chose are fascinating. Can we expect any new feeds to your blog?
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interesting topic. thankful that some of my questions about web 2.0 and what it will be connected to academic are now answered. great post.
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