marti_hearst's picture
Computer Scientist, UC Berkeley, School of Information; Author, Search User Interfaces

In graduate school, as a computer scientist whose focus was on search engines even before the Web, I always dreamed of an Internet that would replace the inefficiencies of libraries, making all important information easily available online. This amazingly came to pass, despite what seemed like insurmountable blockages in the early days.

But something I did not anticipate is how social the Internet would become. When the Web took off, I expected to see recipes online. But today I also expect to learn what other people thought about a recipe, including what ingredients they added, what salad they paired it with and who in their family liked or disliked it. This multitude of perspectives has made me a better cook.

Now if I enjoy a television show, within minutes or hours of the air time of the latest episode, I expect to be able to take part in a delightful, informed conversation about it, anchored by an essay by a professional writer, supported with high-quality user-contributed comments that not only enhance my pleasure of the show, but also reveal new insights.

And I can not only get software online, but in the last few years a dizzying cornucopia of free software components have appeared, making it possible to do research and development in days that would have taken months or years in the past. There have always been online forums to discuss software — in fact, coding was unsurprisingly one of the most common topics of early online groups. But the variety and detail of the kind of information that other people selflessly supply each other with today is staggering. And the design of online question-answering sites has moved from crufty to excellent in just a few years.

Most relevant to the scientists and researchers who contribute to the Edgequestion, we see the use of the Web to enhance communication in the virtual college, with academic meetings being held online, math proofs being done collaboratively on blogs, and deadly viruses being isolated within weeks by research labs working together online.

Sure, we used email in the early eighties, and there were online bulletin boards for at least a decade before the Web, but only a small percentage of the population used them, and usually over a very slow modem. In the early days of the Web, ordinary people's voices were limited primarily to information ghettos like Geocities; most text was produced by academics and businesses. There was very little give-and-take. By contrast, according to a 2009 Pew study, 51% of Internet users now post content online that they have created themselves, and 1 in 10 Americans post something online for others to see every day.

Of course, the increased participation means that there is an increase in the equivalent of what we used to call flame wars, or generally rude behavior, as well as a proliferation of false information and gathering places for people to plan and encourage hurtful activities. Some people think this ruins the Web, but I disagree. It's what happens when everyone is there.

Interestingly, the Edge Question, while innovative in format when it started, still does not allow readers to comment on the opinions offered. I am not saying if this is a good or a bad thing. The Edge Foundation's goal is to increase public understanding of science by encouraging intellectuals to "express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public." I just wonder if it is time to embrace the new Internet and let that public write back.