Notes from the Royal Society Web Science Conference

I’ve just returned from the Royal Society’s Web Science conference, which ran over 2 days and featured mathematicians, computer scientists, sociologists and philosophers talking about the web.

First, some general criticism. Pitching at the right level to a diverse crowd is hard, and unsurprisingly there were many talks I felt were mispitched. On day one (nominally a more technical day), some of the speakers talking about the mathematics of connectivity in social networks would do things like drop in a reference to some technical result of graph theory and then scoot on. Let’s make this clear: if you don’t think your audience will have the prior knowledge to understand something you’re about to present, it is your responsibility as presenter to find a way to explain it or omit it. Throwing in lots of references to the clever work you’ve done serves only to show off to the few specialists in the room, and tells the nonspecialists that you’re the sort of specialist who doesn’t like talking to nonspecialists. Or: It’s not what who you know thinks you know, it’s what who you don’t know does know. Hope that’s clear.

Another problem was lack of specifics; it’s ok to talk about “social algorithms” or “semantic processors” but for most people (by which I mean me), this remains baffling and frustrating without examples or at least specific instantiations of how this works. Luis von Ahn did this particularly well in his talk on social computing, a theme which appeared regularly throughout the conference. His technique to use reCAPTCHA to digitise old books is active now, and he claims that the tool captures (sorry) two million books a year.

I enjoyed the conference a great deal, not least because I got to ask some very clever people some very simple-minded questions. Manuel Castells delivered a very inspiring talk on the power of the web to connect and empower people socially, creatively, politically – and create a sense of autonomy which he posits as being a key component of human happiness. He higlighted the disparity between the old media reporting of web “scare stories” and the social science research which shows the web’s democratising and autonomising power. Given that the old media is dominated and bankrolled by advertising and sponsorship, I wanted to know whether the influence of advertising could erode freedom and autonomy on the web. Prof Castells was optimistic; the web is a “hot” (interactive) medium. This means that users resent and bypass advertising, because it stops them interacting in the way they want, and so old advertising models are ineffective. The question remains as to whether advertising can find more effective ways to infiltrate the web. And it reminds me of the old maxim, “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer – you’re probably the product” – a big issue if everything is “free”.

A lovely illustration of this was given in von Ahn’s talk. A pornographic website, say, wanting to send lots of spam email about their services, requires free email addresses (because of cost) in very large numbers (due to volume restrictions imposed by email providers). However, captcha requires human input each time an email address is registered, costing the spammers money and limiting the rate at which email addresses could be accrued. The solution? Well, one enterprising soul created a script which went through the automated signup procedure for a free email service, and when it reached the captcha page, passed that *back to the pornographic website*. Then, a user (“customer”) of the pornographic site would have to complete the captcha before they could enjoy their content, thus getting the website owner one more email address! In this case, if you’re not paying, you’re not the customer: you’re a worker.

On the flip side, with recaptcha, I love the idea that the consumers of erotic images are helping to preserve rare books. If there’s a bigger clash of high and low culture, I don’t want to know about it…

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