Saturday, July 14, 2007

In the Beginning …, A View of Web Evolution, series No. 1

(revised at May. 24, 2008)
(revised at Sep. 26, 2007)

This series is a step-by-step introduction to a view of web evolution. Many of us believe in the evolution of World Wide Web. Very few, however, have thought in depth why and how the Web evolves. I believe that World Wide Web is a self-evolving system which follows objective evolutionary laws. Hence the main goal of web evolution research is to discover these laws.

There is, however, a debate between whether the Web evolution is an objective process or whether the Web evolution is a human-guided process. From the philosophical point of view, this debate is equivalent to ask whether the progress of human history is determined by the general public or by the few heroes in history. If it is general public that determines history, we may thus be able to predict the future of history by figuring out the objective laws by summarizing the behaviors of general public. On the contrary, if it is few heroes who determine history, the future of history is basically unforeseeable. In person, I support the former viewpoint. Heroes in history are the ones whose behaviors happen to match the objective laws of evolution. On the basis of this philosophical belief, I exclaim the existence of objective laws of Web evolution.

In the beginning

Tim Berners-Lee Everything has a beginning, so does World Wide Web. In the beginning a man invented World Wide Web. His name was Tim Berners-Lee.

Objective evolutionary laws, however, do not applicable at the very beginning of an evolutionary event. The closer to the origin point, the less applicable the evolution laws are. In the opposite direction, evolutionary laws gradually dominate the progress of the evolution.

At the very beginning, when Tim Berners-Lee wrote a private program for himself to share documents through a network, it was unlikely that he had explicitly followed any evolutionary laws. When Berners-Lee was the only contributor at the beginning, there was no obligation to his development. No evolutionary laws made sense at the moment.

Later on when more contributors joined to the development of WWW, gradually they felt the demand of a formal organization to coordinate everybody's contribution. The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) thus came to the world. Subjective willingness of individual developers started to be pressured by group willingness. This transition simultaneously indicates that objective laws started to be formed to guide the further progress of World Wide Web.

The Web keeps on growing. After it engages billions of contributors, a question becomes critical---could the progress of a project in such a scale still be controlled in the hand of a single organizations such as W3C?

If the answer to the previous question is yes, I can then reasonably infer to a conclusion that all the theory of "invisible hand" by Adam Smith must be wrong. Any billion-people-involved, long-term project must have its own evolutionary laws. At this super-large scale, solely human guide becomes unrealistic. In fact, we have already gotten an example to verify this claim.

Both Semantic Web and Web 2.0 were proposed to the public almost simultaneously at 2001. The proposal of Semantic Web was exclaimed by leading scientists such as Tim Berners-Lee himself and with the full support from W3C. After it was proposed, thousands of the best Web researchers all over the world started working for this vision of Semantic Web. On the other hand, Web 2.0 was suggested by few thinkers such as Tim O'Reilly and there were no formal organization behind to lead its progress. After seven years, the real-world practice shows the success of Web 2.0 while the practice of Semantic Web is still inside research labs.

This Web-2.0 phenomenon strongly suggests the existence of objective laws of Web evolution. The execution of these Web evolution laws is beyond the willingness of any individuals or any special interest group.

In summary, World Wide Web has grown mature enough to be a self-organizing system whose growth is determined by objective evolutionary laws instead of particular willingness of any individual humans or individual organizations. This recognition is the foundation of Web evolution research.

The next: Three Evolutionary Elements


Sachbak said...

A very insightful post.
IMO, the web indeed obeys certain (evolutionary?) laws which pertain to its structure.
I do think that there is still some point and possibility for guidance. While the W3C does not actively coordinate or govern the evolution of the web, it still lays the path to certain directions by specifying and choosing where to put the effort.
For example, by choosing to invest time in XML instead of microformats or JSON specification (just an example), it specifically lays the technical foundation to use that specific technology. I think that a W3C-supported technology and\or specification still has some advantage over other technologies when it comes to adoption.
The fact that semantic web is being adopted more slowly is, IMHO, mainly to the fact that the technological learning curve is higher in this case, whereas in the Web 2.0 case, most of the technology was already there, and the hype was mainly a business/marketing that combined these web 2.0 technologies and patterns into newer and better web sites and business models (architecture of participation).

Yihong Ding said...

Hi Sachbak,

Thank you for your comments.

In general, I agree on what you said. In particular, I did not degrade the importance of W3C. W3C is still a leading organization of World Wide Web. As you have said, many of us would like to adopt W3C-supported technologies because many of them are well studied and designed by highly professional experts.

On my side, however, the problem is not what W3C could do and have done, which are great. The problem is what W3C could hardly do. The project of Semantic Web is a typical example.

Do I believe in the future of Semantic Web? Yes, I believe. At some day, this World Wide Web would evolve to be Semantic Web. But the problem is that when is the "some day"?

W3C researchers have spent much time to design the standards for the Semantic Web. I have fully respect to these efforts. Nevertheless, myself is part of them. But the more I do and the more I study the evolutionary path of World Wide Web, the more I question myself---are these what W3C should do at present?

W3C is designing standards for something that could not be realized soon (Semantic Web). At the same time, W3C overlooks designing standards for something that is realizing (Web 2.0). This is the center of my question. Why should this happen? Moreover, if Web 2.0 could become such a great hype without formal help from W3C (and possibly even discouragement from W3C because many SW researchers slight over Web 2.0 for long time), why should W3C be crucial in the web evolution?

As a summary of these observations, I believe that web evolution must be an objective process that is independent to any particular organizations, even if it is W3C.

Kaka said...

While people may have different views still good things should always be appreciated. Yours is a nice blog. Liked it!!!

Yihong Ding said...

thank you, kaka

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