Earlier this month, I spent a few days in lovely Banff, Alberta, Canada, at WWW2007, the 16th International World Wide Web Conference. Here are my thoughts from the event. [See also: Yahoo! Research’s writeup.]
It’s becoming clear that other sciences beyond computer science, including economics and sociology, are necessary for understanding the web and realizing its full potential. This theme ran through both Tim Berners-Lee’s and Prabhakar Raghavan’s plenary talks. For every new advance in the web, once it reaches critical mass, the economic incentives to manipulate the system inevitably emerge. Email led to spam. Altavista led to keyword spam. Google led to link spam. Blogs led to comment and trackback spam. Folksonomies led to tag spam. Recommender systems and aggregators (e.g., Digg) led to shilling. It’s clear that a better understanding of incentives, game theory, and system equilibrium is needed, beyond just cool engineering feats. The University of Michigan calls this incentive-centered design and has a world-class research team exploring the topic; see Jeff MacKie-Mason’s blog ICD Stuff for an interesting and accessible discussion. Yahoo! Research is also betting on the importance of human incentives, building a group of economists and sociologists to complement our contingent of computer scientists.
Among conference events, nowhere was the convergence of economics and computer science more clear than at the Third Workshop on Sponsored Search Auctions. The workshop is a rare venue where terms like Nash equilibrium and NP-complete can coexist in harmony. The workshop explored the intricacies of web search advertising, a multi-billion dollar industry experiencing rapid growth. Contributions included new designs for auctioning off advertising space, new analyses of the systems currently used by search engines, new tools to help advertisers, and empirical studies of the industry. Participants included representatives from both academia and industry, including economists, computer scientists, search engine employees (including representatives from the “big three”: Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!), and search engine marketers. Yahoo! had a large presence at the workshop: Yahoo! scientists (including me) served on the organizing committee, Yahoo! employees and interns presented six of the fourteen peer-reviewed papers, and many Yahoos attended, contributing to their voice to the discussion of this emerging field.
Bradley Horowitz‘s talk also emphasized the new web order, where artists are needed as much as technologists: artists who can envision, create, and orchestrate online communities can be the difference between mass adoption and a flop.
An interesting addition to the WWW program was the Web History track and the Web History Center. Some of the talks were fascinating. Hermann Maurer recounted stories of interactive TV products that proliferated in Europe in the 1970’s and that mirrored almost everything that is done on the Web today in a primitive form. [Some keywords to search for if you’re interested: PRESTEL, Teletel/Minitel (France), MUPID (Austria).] For example, one massive multiplayer game, which involved social exploration of 64 million virtual planets, each with a hidden secret, was so wildly popular that it crashed the network. The apparent winner of the contest returned his prize, admitting that he didn’t actually solve for the secrets, but rather hacked into the system and reverse engineered the code. This pre-Internet system even featured some things I’m still waiting for on today’s web, like micropayments.