#WebSci20 – Evolutionary thinking for the Web workshop by Maria Priestley

Posted on behalf of Maria Priestley

Our intention behind the “Evolutionary Thinking for the Web” workshop was to explore some of the metaphors that compare the Web to an evolving ecosystem, and to discuss how this process can be studied scientifically. This year’s online conference format provided a unique opportunity to bring together academics who may otherwise not have had a chance to meet. We invited four pioneering experts who study Web evolution through diverse disciplinary lenses such as anthropology, philosophy, cognitive science and computer science. The workshop took the form of an extended panel session.

The first panel presentation was by Dr Alberto Acerbi from the Centre for Culture and Evolution, Brunel University London. Alberto spoke about “Cultural evolution on the web”, with a special focus on the cumulation of cultural material. One of the things I like most about Alberto’s work is how he explains cultural evolution theory and empirical methods through fun and interesting examples. In this presentation he discussed an experiment exploring the vast amount of Harry Potter fan fiction that has accumulated through online digital media.

The second presentation was by Dr Paul Smart from the department of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. Paul’s presentation was titled “Designer Environments” and he utilised the biological concept of “niche construction” to describe how the creation of new technologies in the Web influences the selective environment in which subsequent technologies and human behaviours evolve. I think this analogy brilliantly captured the bi-directed process of co-constitution between technology and social behaviour that we often hear about in Web Science.

The third presentation was by Professor James Hendler from the Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). James spoke about “Evolution in Action – the first ten years of Semantic Web”, and he used the Semantic Web Layer Cake illustration to discuss the increasing sophistication and complexity of the technical architecture of the Web. It was fascinating to hear James’ thoughts on evolution from the perspective of someone who is directly involved in engineering the Web structures whose dynamics we are interested in analysing.

The final presentation was from Professor Wolfgang Nejdl from the University of Hannover and the L3S Research Center. Wolfgang’s presentation was on “Harnessing the Web for Computer Science and the Social Sciences”, where he discussed the opportunities of historical data and web archives as a means for studying change and evolution in the Web. It was wonderful to hear about the many initiatives happening in this area, such as SoBigData++, Alexandria and NFDI4DataScience, which offer impressive data infrastructures for tracing and understanding the Web over the long-term.

After the presentations, we had a roundtable discussion with the panellists. Their diverse interests and areas of expertise made for a stimulating and challenging conversation. We plan to continue this discussion through further collaboration.

It was my first time organising an event like this, and I am very thankful to my supervisors (Thanassis Tiropanis and Tim Sluckin) for their guidance and encouragement throughout this process. I am also extremely grateful to all of the panellists and audience members for their time, engagement and support, as well as the WebSci organising team for making this meeting possible.

Additional background on our workshop can be found here

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