“Most people are not formally trained to use the Web, however it has assumed a central role in their lives.” (quote from Web Science event press release)
Whether we like it or not we have all been thrust onto the Web. It is an ever-present daily reality for most of us. Our formal introduction to this technology has been minimal for the most part. Very few of us started out by taking any classes. Our understanding of etiquette, what to share and not to share, knowing if a source of information is reputable, etc. came for most of us in an ad hoc manner.
To avoid the mistakes of the past there is a need for the current generation to be educated about the Web in school. How to use it to find reliable and correct information, how not to use it in terms of protecting privacy and also how to conduct oneself when online. There is also a need to make sure that a given individual does not sabotage their future by writing or posting something that will come back to haunt them later on.
There are also lessons that have been learned by more experienced users which need to be applied sensibly and advantageously for all. We need to share our knowledge. The future designers of the Web need to have an understanding of how we use it so that they can create better services so that users can fully understand both the consequences and the possibilities that the Web offers. Services need to be provided as learning opportunities in addition to merely solving a problem. It is not enough for some people to be smart about the Web. For it to fulfill its promise the Web has to work for all of us.
The Story Up Until Now
The technical structures of the Web were developed over 20 years ago but there is still precious little general understanding about how things actually happen, how it really works. The Web was mainly an information source when it first began but that changed in the last decade when most people started using the Web as a communications and sharing medium for social and professional reasons.Then five or six years ago social networks and social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., exploded onto the scene transforming how we share information in dramatic and interesting new ways.
The implications of using these services are still being discovered. Will lots of ‘liking’ something on Facebook lead to some smart type of Internet search using the combined recommendations of your friends? Does it allow companies to build up a picture of us so that they can better target advertisements at us? How important is this exactly and what are the implications for all of us?
Attempting to answer these questions are various scientists from different backgrounds and disciplines. They are trying to develop an understanding of how the Web works. An effort encompassed by the term Web Science.
They are trying to answer a variety of questions such as how does popular information bubble from the bottom to the top in an overload of status updates and homemade videos? Where does people’s attention go to on the Web every day? How can this be harnessed? How can service providers and businesses make sure their message or product is delivered to the right people without scaring them away? And how can someone easily access information relevant to their interests?
Where is The Web Going?
There are various efforts ongoing in parallel to make the Web better. There’s a bunch of terms for the future Web: Web 3.0, the Semantic Web, the Mobile Web, the Real-Time Web, Social Media and the Social Web. But they are all just efforts towards improving what we have today – the Web.
We know that it is becoming harder and harder to find the right results when we search for something. The Web is overloaded with noise. Words have different meanings in different contexts, and relevant terms don’t always float to the top of a search result or a social stream.
All of us exist in a world constrained by the amount of time we can spend doing anything before we are obliged to do something else. Finding the right information quickly is extremely important. It can be extremely time consuming to skim through the wrong search results on a mobile device and extremely frustrating as well.
At the moment there are various efforts to either make the information on the Web more meaningful through what is called the Semantic Web and Linked Data. There are also attempts to derive meaning from what people are doing on the Web and in social media through ‘data scientists’ and information mining. If they are successful then it means we can then do the cool stuff like providing better recommendations, improving and enhancing search engine results, enabling joined-up views of information on certain topics across previously disconnected websites to name just a few possibilities.
Ireland is Leading the Way
Two thirds of our population can go online, and one third regularly use Facebook. In the past two years, our percentage of internet users has increased from 50% to 65%.
Ireland is at the forefront of future web developments through its combination of world class research and successful multinational / indigenous web companies in Ireland.
DERI at NUI Galway is the world’s largest web research institute. It has been contributing to the future web infrastructure from the West of Ireland for some years now. They are funded by Science Foundation Ireland, and Tim Berners-Lee is on the advisory board.
TSSG in Waterford IT are a leading R&D centre focussing on the telecommunications software industry. Clarity in UCD, DCU and Tyndall Cork is focussing on the sensor web. And there are various other research groups around the country.
Facebook and Google both have very successful operations here. Google Ireland recently announced 200 more jobs to add to their existing workforce of 1500. LinkedIn is coming to Dublin, EA Games to Galway, and more.
We also have various Irish web success stories, like StatCounter, ranked in the top 200 websites in the world; PollDaddy, HostelWorld, boards.ie and RTÉ all regularly feature in the top 5000 websites in the world.
The Immediate Future is Bright
No one can know what will come over the horizon but what we can see happening in front of us is very heartening.
With its highly educated population and its clear track record in Web innovation Ireland is clearly the key nexus in the design an co-creation of the next iterations of the Web. The next current and next generation of web users cannot be anything other than deeply influenced by the work that is taking place here.
Development and change can have chaotic and unpredictable consequences but as our experience grows with our willingness to pass on our knowledge to those that will follow we will be able to progress confidently into a much bigger much wider world than has existed before and be in a better to position to avail ourselves of opportunities as they arise.