W3C: Maintaining a Web of Humanity

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While the “C” in CSAIL stands for computer, it’s not solely what goes on inside a computer that CSAIL researchers care about – especially when what’s running on the computer is the World Wide Web. “When you’re on the Web, you’re not connecting to a computer, you’re connecting to humanity,” says Tim Berners-Lee, founder and director of CSAIL’s World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). “Every link on any website was placed by a person and is followed by a person so that two parties can connect to each other.

“The most interesting thing about the wiki system and the blogosphere isn’t necessarily that there are technologies and protocols that make these capabilities possible,” he continues, “but that people are meeting each other, learning from each other, and making connections that have the potential to improve our world.” Berners-Lee should know; after all, he invented and implemented the World Wide Web while at CERN in 1989 and 1990, defining its basic concepts (such as the now-ubiquitous URL, HTTP, and HTML), and writing the first Web browser and server software. Just as important, Berners-Lee understood that there needed to be some control and oversight over the development and introduction of new technologies and protocols to ensure that there was broad discussion and agreement about functionality and interoperability. To accomplish this, he came to MIT to launch W3C, the mission of which is “To lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure long-term growth for the Web.” In practice, this means to develop, test, and approve new technological standards for the Web. In this regard, W3C is the official World Wide Web international standards body. Given that the user community feels such ownership over the Web, one could wonder if W3C sometimes meets with resistance. According to Steve Bratt, CEO of W3C, “We can put out new standards until we’re blue in the face, but if people don’t use them then what’s the use? Our approach is that we don’t dictate and we don’t enforce. We have a fair and open process, and we seek input from all interested parties. We’re a consensus-driven organization and that leads to standards that have as wide support as possible from those who will use the standards. To date, we’ve approved more than 110 royalty-free standards, which help more than one billion people around the world to use the Web more effectively.” Web Science and the Semantic Web As mentioned earlier, there is a human aspect of the Web that is equally integral to W3C’s mission. “The Web is not just another mousetrap,” says Berners-Lee. “A mousetrap works in a very predictable, repeatable way every time a mouse interacts with it. With the Web, there are millions of people interacting in a way we can’t predict and shouldn’t control. The fact that clusters and communities form and endure is not a function of technology as much as it is of psychology and sociology. We’re interested in studying this.” In fact, Berners-Lee led the development of a joint initiative between MIT and the University of Southampton in England. Called The Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI), the collaboration brings together academics, scientists, sociologists, entrepreneurs, and decision makers from around the world to look at the Web holistically – not only how it operates but also how it is used. In doing so, WSRI has established Web Science as a new research discipline. One of the many technologies being leveraged by the work of WSRI and a growing number of other organizations and companies is known as the Semantic Web – something Berners-Lee proposed during the first World Wide Web Conference back in 1994. The basic idea of the Semantic Web is that the enormous store of data that currently exists on the Internet should be defined and linked to create a Web of linked data, such that these data can be used for more effective discovery, automation, integration, and reuse across various applications. It’s a powerful data integration solution that can make valuable connections between and among disparate data sets. “The Web was built upon principles of universality,” says Berners-Lee. “So any person on any device should be able to make use of any kind of data and access any kind of information. Our stated goal is to lead the Web to its full potential – that’s not a place but a direction, and our work is focused on trying to find the right direction.”