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The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online

by Judith Donath
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014
432 pp., illus. 119 b/w. Trade, $36.00
ISBN: 978-0262027014.

Reviewed by Will Luers
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


The designers behind Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other successful social media spaces are always seeking ways to make online interaction more fluid and intuitive, not necessarily more meaningful. Facebook does not care what you post, just that you post frequently; content is only significant for ad placement. In this way, commercial social media spaces are not hosts, but landlords with a set of rules for engagement and an implied payment due. Profile pages give users the opportunity to brand themselves with text and image. Favorites and likes amplify messages that the crowd deems important, funny or moving. It is a fairly simple design strategy and it works. But, what else is possible?

Judith Donath's The Social Machine: Design for Living Online is a designer's thoughtful exploration of the ways interfaces can bring about meaningful social interaction in a networked world. If a machine solves a problem, she asks, what is the problem that a "social machine" is trying to solve? What drives people to seek each other out, to form identities, alliances and communities? And more importantly, how can the computer help us find new ways of doing these things? This book is neither a survey nor a compendium of best practices for the professional designer of social spaces. It is written for both "the creators and users of new social technologies." Donath's aim is to think creatively about what is possible, what is beneficial, what is ethical and what is dangerous in social interaction design as we move, inevitably, towards more mediation in our daily lives. The book is beautifully illustrated, with example's from Donath's own experiments, the work of artists and designers in the field of social interaction design, as well as historical works of art that depict social spaces and identity.

Donath divides the book loosely around various perspectives of visualizing social interaction. Though the visual is emphasized, representations of social interaction may be auditory, haptic or even olfactory. The term visualization also implies vividness or a sense of presence and not just a realistic representation. In many cases, less information can make for more vividness. For example, live video conversations seem to be more vivid, but can actually present more problems of presence due to the awkwardness in reading social cues. Donath uses the familiar cinematic terms long shot, medium-shot and close-up to present various perspectives on social interaction. The "long-shot" perspective are interfaces that map the interactions of communities, track social connectivity and information flows and provide useful navigation through large and complex social interaction. The "medium-shot" focuses on visualizing small group interaction, where there is more than just information exchange. How can an interface foster online conversation? By portraying participants more vividly, by defining contexts and boundaries, highlighting relationships, emotional reactions and rhythms in an exchange. And finally, the "close-up" is how the individual is seen and chooses to be seen in online communities. Perhaps the most interesting section, because it is the most challenging from a design perspective, is how to create a meaningful "data portrait." Usernames, photos and fantasy avatars allow us to keep track of distinct identities online, but give us very little information about a person and as representations they can often be misleading. Data about a user's networked life conveyed through abstraction and metaphor may be one a way to make an individual more vivid, but this introduces other issues of privacy, surveillance and control over one's identity.

Donath makes a compelling case that because networked social spaces are designed interfaces, that issues of privacy, surveillance, healthy group dynamics and the health of the larger commons are also design issues. That she presents these issue in their ethical complexity is a testament to her concern and hope for design strategies that pay attention to all the implications of networked life. The Social Machine: Design for Living Online is "a manifesto about what the connected world can be like." Social interaction design can be a catalyst not only for healthy online communities, but also a catalyst for more interactive physical spaces that are themselves increasingly networked. Think about what our cities would be like without parks, benches and gathering spots? These are public spaces, not overly determined or rule bound, as they are spaces to be alone or together with others. But they are conducive to openness and vivid presence. It is in this spirit, that Donath wants designers and users of social technologies to think in new ways about how we become vividly present to each other in virtual spaces.

Last Updated 1 August 2015

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