“Web science”: recognizing integral role of human behavior

Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues have been advocating for a field of “web science” for several years. They describe it as a multidisciplinary, systems science needed to understand and engineer the future Web.
I’ve not fully grokked what they are proposing: the research questions they suggest to define seem a bit vague, and I don’t quite see what defines this “science” other than a set of topics (the semantic web prominent among them, natch) in which this group of people is interested. I’m not saying I think it’s not science, I’m just not sure what field definition they are proposing (so that, for example, many universities could start offering courses, or even creating departments of web science) — it feels like the space of current interest to a particular research center (and indeed, there is a Web Science Research Institute).
They have published another manifesto (also available from the WSRI site) (there have been several in the past few years), this time in the Communications of the ACM. Maybe I’m just paying more attention, but I think I’m starting to get parts of it. In any case, one thing seems clear to me: incentive-centered design (ICD) fits comfortably in their framework. It’s a subset of their very ambitious agenda, but I think it’s clearly a central piece of. Put another way, they are saying some of the same things our ICD group has been saying independently over the last several years.
For example,

We show there is significant interplay among the social interactions enabled by the Web’s design….However, the study of the relationships among these levels is often hampered by the disciplinary boundaries that tend to separate the study of the underlying networking from the study of the social applications.

I agree, and this has been part of the ICD manifesto from the beginning. It is rather vague, but here’s a clearer statement of the common starting point: “It is the interaction of human beings creating, linking, and consuming information that generates the Web’s behavior.”

They suggest, as do we, that this inquiry should rely (among other things) on the sciences of motivated behavior, such as economics and psychology. However, I think there is one way in which we diverge: for the most part, I have seen these authors talking about computer scientists and web engineers needing to understand how people behave so they will understand the consequences of web design decisions. But, I have not really seen much evidence that they recognize the role of incorporating motivated human behavior directly into the design loop, which is the essence of ICD: design incentives or motivations for the humans who will be interacting with and over the web in order to obtain desired consequences. What we propose is more a more central recognition of the malleability of human behavior, and the social (or commercial) value to be gained from designing for that malleability.
On the other hand, one large area of research (and not the only one) that the “web science” promoters claim that is not inside the boundaries of what we call ICD, is a micro-behavioral science of understanding and explaining observed macro web phenomena. For example, they point out that social network analysts (like my SI colleague Lada Adamic, U Mich’s Mark Newman, or HP Labs’s Bernardo Huberman) rarely explore or test the underlying human behavior that generates the macro phenomena they observe and characterize.

You think you bought the music?

(This is not really an incentive design entry, just information economics more broadly. But too interesting to pass up.)
Yahoo! Music store announced yesterday it would be closing this fall. All that music you bought (well, not many people actually bought from Yahoo! Music, but still)? They are taking down the DRM servers in September, and your computer will not be able to “phone home” to get the key. The only solution: burn to CD (which of course, made DRM pretty ineffective in the first place). Apparently the same problem occurred when Microsoft and Sony announced the shuttering of their online music stores.
Conventional notions of “owning” property generally involve control over the use of that property in perpetuity (including transfer of ownership). When there are significant use restrictions and rights retained by the provider, it’s licensing, not buying. This has been drummed into us over the years with software licenses (you can’t take a copy of Windows off your old machine and install it on your new machine, for example). With music, I think the general sense is that we are buying it, not licensing it, however. Be that as it may, DRM imposes licensing-like restrictions, and apparently one of them is “you may not be able to listen to this music if we decide to shut down our service in the future.”
Note to self: Finish burning backup CD copies of all of my iTunes music!

Economics meets social psychology on incentive theory

In another June 2008 American Economic Review article, Ellingsen and Johannesson introduce a standard concept from social psychology into a standard economic model of incentives, and find that it helps explain some well-known empirical puzzles.
This is not at all the first article in the economics literature that explores the role of social motivations, and the authors provide a good discussion of prior work.
In Pride and Prejudice: The Human Side of Incentive Theory“, Ellingsen and Johannesson add two motivational premises to the standard principal-aget model: people value social esteem, and the value they experience depends symmetrically on who provides the esteem: they value esteem more from those who they themselves esteem.
Their main result is to show how an incentive that otherwise would have a positive effect on behavior can have a negative effect for some people because of what the incentive tells the agent about the principal. For example, they suggest this as an explanation for “the incentive intensity puzzle that stronger material incentives and closer control sometimes induce worse performance” (p. 990).

ICD introductory readings from on high

Students often ask me what they can read to learn about ICD. I’ve not had a terribly good answer to that. On the one hand, the foundations — especially mechanism design in economics, and game theory, and engineering design theory, and social psychology — are ancient (well, a few decades old), and have very rich literatures. But I haven’t seen (haven’t really searched for) good intros. And, these are the building blocks of ICD, but the particular area in which we focus — incentive-centered design for information systems — and the particular multi-disciplinary approach we take — is rather new. I don’t know that folks have written any good overviews yet.
However, three quite nice articles just appeared in the American Economic Review that are a step in the right direction. They are focused on mechanism design and microeconomics (not social psychology, computation theory, nor specifically applications to information system design). But they are accessible, short, and written by giants in the field; in fact, they are revised versions of the Nobel lectures given the by three laureates recently cited for creating the foundations of mechanism design theory: Leonard Hurwicz, Eric Maskin and Roger Myerson.
Maskin’s overview, “Mechanism Design: How to Implement Social Goals“, doesn’t require any math. He introduces implementation theory, “which, given a social goal, characterizes when we can design a mechanism whose predicted outcomes (i.e., the set of equilibrium outcomes) coincide with the desirable outcomes” (p. 567).
Myerson’s article, “Perspectives on Mechanism Design in Economic Theory“, begins to introduce some of the basic modeling elements from the theory, so it has a bit more math, but it’s not heavy going for those who have had an intermediate microeconomics class. He introduces some of the classic applications from economics: bilateral trade with advsere selection (hidden information), and project management with moral hazard (hidden action).