Web Science Conference
July 7th - 10th, 2020
Southampton, UK

WebSci’20 Workshop:

Evolutionary thinking for the Web

The Web has been the subject of compelling biological metaphors that liken it to an evolving ecosystem. Analogies of this kind could benefit from further theoretical and empirical examination. To address this, evolutionary and cognitive approaches provide not only a powerful theoretical framework, but also a heritage of robust analytic tools that help to quantify complex and subjective social and technological phenomena. This half-day workshop (hosted online by the Web Science conference) will feature an extended panel session with speakers who have been pioneering work at the intersection of evolution and the Web. The discussion will bring into conversation perspectives from evolutionary anthropology, cognitive sciences and engineering. The goal will be to discuss how evolutionary approaches can inform our understanding of the Web at present, as well as methodological challenges and opportunities to shape its evolution into the future.

Workshop date - July 7, 2020

Provisional programme (UK time):

14:00 – 14:10 Workshop line opens: dial in & introductions
14:10 – 14:20 Welcome and introduction from the organisers
14:20 – 15:20 Individual panel presentations and Q&A
15:20 – 15:30 Coffee break
15:30 – 16:50 Roundtable discussion
16:50 – 17:00 Closing remarks


To register for this workshop as part of the WebSci’20 conference, please visit: https://websci20.webscience.org/



Dr Alberto Acerbi

“Cultural evolution on the web”

“Cultural evolution - a byword for evolutionary and cognitive approaches to human culture - can provide a useful framework to understand how information is produced, transmitted, and selected on the web. Human culture is cumulative, meaning that it increases in complexity and efficiency from one generation to another, drawing on past innovations. Cumulation, however, differs depending on the specific domain. Two features of cultural systems impact the velocity and the robustness of cumulation: availability, i.e. the number of possible cultural traits one has access to, and fidelity of transmission, i.e. the degree to which cultural traits are preserved during transmission. I will discuss how the diffusion of online digital media increases both availability and fidelity, thus boosting the potential for cultural cumulation, possibly in domains where it was before limited.”

Alberto Acerbi is a lecturer in Psychology at the Centre for Culture and Evolution, Brunel University London. His research interests are in cognitive and evolutionary anthropology, with a particular interest in computational science. Alberto recently wrote the book “Cultural evolution in the digital age” for Oxford University Press.


Dr Paul Smart

“Designer Environments”

“Niche construction refers to the processes by which organisms alter their environments, thereby changing the selective pressures that confront both themselves and their descendants. In some cases, niche construction can give rise to designer environments. These are environments that stem from niche construction processes. They are environments that are ‘designed’, in the sense of being created and maintained by a species. But they are also environments that play a role in ‘designing’ a species, either via inter-generational (e.g., evolutionary) and/or intra-generational (e.g., developmental) processes. The Web is, I suggest, one example of such a designer environment. On the one hand, it is an environment created by us, and it forms an increasingly important part of our species-specific niche—the human niche. On the other hand, it is an environment that shapes who and what we are, in a cognitive, epistemic, social and (perhaps ultimately) biological sense. The Web is also an environment that is poised to provide opportunities for the ‘evolutionary’ emergence of AI systems. This suggests the Web may have evolutionary and developmental consequences that go beyond our own species.”

Paul is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Southampton. His research interests lie at the intersection of a range of disciplines, including philosophy, cognitive science, and computer science. He is particularly interested in the cognitive scientific significance of emerging digital technologies, such as the Internet and Web. Paul’s work has appeared in a number of journals, including Minds and Machines, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, Synthese, Cognitive Systems Research, and IEEE Intelligent Systems. He is a co-author of Minds Online: The Interface between Web Science, Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Mind (now Publishers) and a co-editor of Blade Runner 2049: A Philosophical Exploration (Routledge).


Professor James Hendler

“The ever-changing Web: meeting the challenges of the semantic Web and the Web of broad data”

“As the Web has grown, two key pieces of the evolving infrastructure has been the increasing use of “crowd sourcing” of information and the increasing use of open data available to web developers. One of the themes unifying these has been the increasing use of light-weight semantics helping to bring these together – whether in the form of linked data, knowledge graphs, or semantic web representations. Looking towards the growth of these areas and the potential balkanization of the web needs to be an important aspect of the future of Web science.”

James Hendler is the Director of the Institute for Data Exploration and Applications and the Tetherless World Professor of Computer, Web and Cognitive Sciences at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). James has authored over 400 books, technical papers and articles in areas such as the Semantic Web and artificial intelligence. One of his interests is the evolution of social machines through the accumulated knowledge and interactions of humankind.


Professor Wolfgang Nejdl

“Harnessing the Web for Computer Science and the Social Sciences”

“How would a comprehensive research data infrastructure providing web data look like? This presentation provides some ideas towards such an infrastructure, based upon existing sources like the archive.org, Web and social media crawls, online bibliographies, and others, and connected to initiatives and projects like SoBigData++, Alexandria and NFDI4DataScience.”

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Nejdl (born 1960) has been full professor of computer science at the University of Hannover since 1995. He received his M.Sc. (1984) and Ph.D. degree (1988) at the Technical University of Vienna, was assistant professor in Vienna from 1988 to 1992, and associate professor at the RWTH Aachen from 1992 to 1995. He worked as visiting researcher / professor at Xerox PARC, Stanford University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, EPFL Lausanne, PUC Rio, Milano and Trento.

Prof. Nejdl heads the L3S Research Center, as well as the Distributed Systems Institute / Knowledge Based Systems, and does research in the areas of Information Retrieval, Web Science, Artificial Intelligence, Social and Semantic Web, Digital Libraries and Technology Enhanced Learning. He was PI of the ERC Advanced Grant ALEXANDRIA, from 2014 - 2019, working on foundations for temporal retrieval, exploration and analytics in Web archives. Current projects include NoBIAS, SoBigData++, IIP-Ecosphere and the International Leibniz Future Lab on Artificial Intelligence.

Wolfgang Nejdl published more than 390 scientific articles, as listed at DBLP, with an h-index (based on Google Scholar) of 72.



In the recent decades, evolutionary approaches have been gathering momentum across academics from a wide range of disciplines that seek to understand the emergent diversity and complexity of technologies and cultural traits. The main premise of this research is that small-scale evolutionary mechanisms operate gradually to create changes that are observable on a larger scale (Mesoudi, 2011). This thinking complements the intention of Web Science to analyse the microscopic laws that generate emergent behaviour and patterns in the Web (Berners-Lee et al, 2006).

Analogies between biological evolution and technological evolution are being used by social scientists who study digital media and software, as well as by engineers who build these systems. Similar to the role of genomes in living organisms, software encodes and transfers the information that determines how a technology functions and expresses itself (Valverde, 2016). There is also socially generated information, whose transmission and accumulation can be traced online in ways that surpass offline media. Current topics of interest in this area include the spread of online misinformation, cognitive biases and echo chambers (Acerbi, 2019; Smart, 2018).

Insights from evolutionary and cognitive approaches hold promise for the future of machine intelligence (Smart, 2017), presenting challenges and opportunities to engineer infrastructures that support the accumulated knowledge and interactions of humankind (Hendler, 2010). Data sharing is central to this process, entailing additional matters of legal and ethical best practice for the structures that evolve through human data (Wilson et al, 2016).

This interdisciplinary workshop will bring together a panel of pioneering experts who study Web evolution through the lenses of anthropology, philosophy, cognitive science and computer science. Our aim is to establish collaboration and increase the visibility of evolutionary approaches in Web Science.

Workshop organisers:

Maria Priestley, University of Southampton
Dr Thanassis Tiropanis, University of Southampton
Professor Tim Sluckin, University of Southampton

If you have any queries, please email Maria: mp5g15@soton.ac.uk