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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2002

Book Reviews

The Laws of the Web

Jane C. Duffy
Physics/Astronomy Librarian
Science and Engineering Library
Ohio State University

The Laws of the Web: Patterns in the Ecology of Information. Bernardo A. Huberman. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2001. (ISBN 0262083035) $24.95 cloth.

In this remarkably compact volume, Bernardo Huberman, a condensed matter physicist and pioneer in the field of ecology of computation, applies methods from the field of statistical mechanics and nonlinear dynamics to the study of the Web. Using empirical data from the Internet Archive Project, this book offers a macro-level explication of the individual behavior on the Internet. Written for a non-technical audience, The Laws of the Web: Patterns in the Ecology of Information describes how information seeking and usage on the World Wide Web are both highly predictable and subject to a precise law.

The first section of this work explains how and why an overview of the laws of physics may support the mission of information professionals. Chapter One: E-Cology provides an overview of the laws of the web as well as what these laws have to say about the social aspects attending the design of improved information access. This approach is one originally developed by physicists to facilitate a greater understanding of the behavior of matter as a group of single atoms and individual molecules. The "study of the dynamical behavior of individuals must take into account the project4ions that we all make about future events, however incorrect they may be." (p.5) Chapter Two "The Phenomenon of the Web" provides a solid, easily digestible trends of economic history through a deterministic lens, from the transformation of the energy/capital consuming manufacture of raw materials into machines and structures to the new wave of 1950's electronic and chemically engineered materials to the present "economy of services." While already slightly dated - obviously written before the recent crash of many dot com companies, the chapter provides an overview of the present information age, concentrating particularly on its "two revolutions": telecommunications and computing power. Any individual with access to these two revolutionary powers may directly acquire the information needed to make money, to develop a theory or to collaborate on a project. This chapter introduces the World Wide Web into this social context as a community so vast that no single search engine may represent, organize or control its content. Huberman concludes this section by introducing his position that it is possible to predict and make assumptions about individual and group behavior through the study of underlying laws governing the growth of the web.

The second section of The Laws of the Web explains what precisely those laws are. Chapter Three "Evolution and Structure" demonstrates the hidden and general patterns of the web with emphasis on how this system is affected and determined by the non-linear and complex interactions of the individual system members, i.e., consumers, computers and providers. The chapter describes these patterns as "power law distribution" and maintains that, if it is possible to determine the distribution of pages per site for one range of pages, then it is possible to predict what the distribution will be for another range of pages. The figures in this chapter offer two clear examples of power law distributions. This chapter demonstrates how power laws are used to describe why large events are rare and small common. Chapter Four "Small Worlds" elucidates the notion of "six degrees of separation" as it applies to the web, showing how examination of the smallness of web communities may imply the nature and size of relationships between people and organizations. This section includes a case study of web communities on the Stanford University and MIT homepages, which demonstrates that most users typically link to a very limited - only one or two in most cases - number of other users. The section concludes by offering a method for how such small world communities may be studied through the choices of links made by member individuals.

The third section of The Laws of the Web examines how application of various laws to web activity may be used to benefit information and other professionals. Chapter Five "As We Surf" traces how Brownian motion and random walks may reveal a great deal about web surfing patterns, so that data from these patterns may help knowledge providers design ways to offer information to users. Chapter Six explicates "Social Dilemmas and Internet Congestion" as a function of mathematical theories of social dynamics, particularly game theory, which assumes that an individual's choices are heavily influenced on past experience of the benefits of those choices. "Users decide to switch their behavior between cooperation and defection by considering the cost of postponing their current activity as well as their expectations of the future state of the network."(p.63) Chapter Seven "Downloading Information" offers an explanation for group downloading patterns using "portfolio theory". Portfolio theory, applied in the context of web behavior, demonstrates that the more users access a diversification - or portfolio - of sites, the less variability in their downloading activities will take place. Chapter Eight "Markets and the Web" explores recognizable systems of e-commerce, i.e., the increasing buying and selling activities on the web. Of particular interest to information professionals is the author's belief in the role of "branding theories" in the success or failure of a commercial site. Branding, through the use of and linking to other familiar pages, is shown to be a key attribute in the user's selection - and repeated selections - of particular sites.

The book concludes with an elegantly written "Epilogue" which ties together the author's individual and social theories of web behavior. In addition to substituting lucid and vivid prose for the equations and technical jargon of other works, Huberman's book is also supported by clear illustrations and a well-constructed index. For those determined to formulate a working understanding of the performance of individuals and communities on the World Wide Web, The Laws of the Web: Patterns in the Ecology of Information has a great many insights to offer.

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