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Author: Jeffery G. Barlow
Title: Bernardo A. Huberman's The Laws of the Web. Patterns in the Ecology of Information
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2003
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Source: Bernardo A. Huberman's The Laws of the Web. Patterns in the Ecology of Information
Jeffery G. Barlow


vol. 6, no. 2, September 2003
Article Type: Book Review
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3310410.0006.210

Bernardo A. Huberman's The Laws of the Web. Patterns in the Ecology of Information

Jeffrey G. Barlow

Editor, Journal of the Association for History and Computing

Huberman, Bernardo A. The Laws of the Web. Patterns in the Ecology of Information. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2001.

For those who regularly use the web as a tool, or are merely anxious to understand it, one of the true obstacles to understanding is its sheer size and its apparently chaotic structure. The classical blind men trying to describe an elephant seem to have had a much easier problem. For us as historians, the usual approach is to describe its development within a chronological framework. But Bernardo Huberman (See his home page at: http://www.hpl.hp.com/shl/people/huberman/), one of the consistently successful scholars in the enterprise to analyze the web, has taken quite a different approach.

Huberman, trained as a physicist, can be said to be an expert in understanding and quantifying nonlinear systems. That is, he discovers orderly properties in apparently chaotic bodies. Huberman is also very adept in deriving an understanding of human behavior on the web from game theory as utilized in economics and related fields.

Huberman is obviously a busy man and anxious to convey as much information in as few words as possible. One can feel his frustration at writing for a lay audience when a few long formulae would doubtless be the best means of conveying most of his arguments. But this very small (105 pages) and elegantly presented book is well worth reading, despite the difficulty of doing so.

The scope of his analysis can be seen in this quotation taken from his summary:

... there is order in the midst of the gargantuan and arbitrary nature of the web. This order can be explained by using reasonable and simple assumptions about human behavior in the context of the Internet... strong and sometimes beautiful patterns emerge, and... those patterns in turn reveal a lot about social dynamics, individual preferences, and order beyond the appearance of total disorder. (P. 97)

Huberman deals with very large bodies of data, such as thousands of AOL logs, surveys of large audiences, aggregations of thousands of web pages, and, in addition, conducts his own experiments to determine latency and other functions of the Internet. He then analyzes his data with mathematical approachs drawn from a wide range of fields, and when necessary calls upon economics and game theory to further understand the data. He is widely published. He can also be said to write well for a lay audience, though his intricate arguments sometimes requires repeated readings to understand fully.

Among the questions to which Huberman has useful answers are these:

  • What causes the slowing of the Internet and how can we as individuals minimize download times?
  • What is the most important parameter in any e-commerce transaction?
  • What is the correlation between the age of a site and the number of links it has? (Answer: None.)
  • If we pick two web pages at random, how many clicks will it take on average to get from one to the other? (Answer: Four.)
  • How can we persuade individuals to cooperate in closed systems to maximize the speed of their individual connections, that is, to reduce web use at times of high use?
  • How can we encourage consumers to stay within our web pages? Long search paths or short ones? Good content or incentives to move to other pages in our site?

These are just a few of the questions that Huberman answers (more thoroughly in some cases than others) and his approach to them is always based on a variety of useful insights.

This is not an easy book, but the information and understanding to be gained from it more than repay the effort.