Social Machines

Starting with A Taxonomic Framework for Social Machines* as our main text (from which all citations in this document refer, unless otherwise stated) we performed a literature review of the field of Social Machines.

The paper concludes with a working definition, which is a good starting point for understanding what Social Machines are, using the definition put forward previously by Smart and Shadbolt: 

“Social Machines are Web-based socio-technical systems in which the human and technological elements play the role of participant machinery with respect to the mechanistic realisation of system-level processes.”*

This definition builds on the one by Tim Berners-Lee and Mark Fishetti:

“Real life is and must be full of all kinds of social constraints – the very process from which society arises. Computers can help if we use them to create abstract social machines on the Web: processes in which the people do work and the machine does the administration.”*

Examples of Social Machines

A list some of the most familiar examples in this space, as highlighted by SOCIAM, taken from the site

Social Networks: 4chan, Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Twitter

Public Service Social Machines: CollabMap, Crime reports, eBay, Fix my street, The search for Jim Gray, Ushahidi 

Knowledge Sharing Social Machines:, digg, Github, Quora, reddit, Stack Overflow, Wikipedia 

Citizen Science Social Machines: Duolingo, Galaxy Zoo, New Forest Cicada

‘Work’ & Computer/Human Relationship

The non-rigid distinction between computers doing ‘administration’ work and humans doing ‘work’ is highlighted* using examples of Wikipedia bots and the PicBreeder software system, showing that it is far from clear that humans have a monopoly and computer systems have a monopoly on clerical tasks. I think this distinction, based on their assertion that work really means ‘creative work’*, stretches the original notion of ‘work’ into a particular definition which may not be wholly appropriate, since there are so many other ways to describe human ‘work’, such as being about decision making, not necessarily about execution, in which making a decision for the computer to perform a ‘creative’ task would be valid. 

The notion of human and computers working together, utilising the strength of both in order to provide the human with high levels of efficiency, goes back to Doug Engelbart who wrote:

“By “augmenting human intellect” we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble.”**

And further still, by Doug Engelbart’s supporter and sponsor, J. C. R. Licklider’s, afew years earlier, in 1960:

“Man-computer symbiosis is an expected development in cooperative interaction between men and electronic computers.”*

And then back to Vannevar Bush who wrote about a need for more advanced means through which to work with information, which would lead him to explore the possibilities of augmenting work though a system he would call the Memex, which would be composed of, among other technologies, microfilm:

“The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships … A record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted. ”*


What is added with this perspective is the explication and highlighting of the ’social’ component, where social refers to interactions with multiple people as being the primary activity, not one person interacting with a computer system but enabling a wide range of activities that rely on a combination of decentralized human activity and computational processing.*

The focus on the social aspect, that is to say, the multiple user aspect, provides benefits of large numbers of ‘brains’ and in addition, social machines are able to exploit differences between individuals with respect to abilities, skills, insights, perspectives, knowledge, geographical location, experiences, group membership, social position, and so on.*

Web /  Internet

For what I imagine is political reasons, there is a perhaps undue reliance on ‘web’ when discussing Social Machines, rather than ‘simply networked’ or Internet: 

“…for our purposes, social ma- chines are cast as Web-based systems. Although we do not rule out the possibility of social machines that are independent of the Web, we suggest that the properties of the Web make Web-based social machines a particularly important focus of social and scientific attention. One virtue of the Web, in this respect, is that it enables us to tap into the capabilities of human agents in a manner (and on a scale) that has never been seen before. The Web is a social technology that interfaces with a large proportion of humanity. By firmly embedding itself within a human social environment, the Web opens up a range of opportunities to incorporate human agents into episodes of machine-based processing. This makes Web-based social machines capable of supporting processes that would be difficult or impossible to realize in other kinds of social (or indeed socio-technical) context.”*

Who Works With Social Machines 



The people associated with Social Machines were initially Tim Berners-Lee and Mark Fishetti by introducing the term in their book Weaving The Web.

Nigel Shadbolt, Daniel Smith, Elena Simperl, Max Van Kleek, Yang Yang and Wendy Hall wrote Towards a Classification Framework for Social Machines for the  International World Wide Web Conference Committee 2013 as part of work under The SOCIAM Project.


The SOCIAM team is made up of researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Southampton, and Edinburgh, with researchers listed at From the project website: “The ultimate ambition of SOCIAM is to enable us to understand how the Social Machines evolve in the wild and what factors influence their success and evolution. Its aim is to develop both theory and practice so that we can create the next generation of Social Machines.”*

MIT has a Laboratory for Social Machines focusing on the development of new technologies to make sense of semantic and social patterns across the broad span of public mass media, social media, data streams, and digital content. 

Earlier Work

Information coming out of the paper ‘Towards a Classification Framework for Social Machines’ by Nigel R. Shadbolt, Daniel A. Smith, Elena Simper from 2013 helped shape the above paper. 

The Future

The papers referred to above do not address the coming of Virtual or Augmented Reality, but this level of interaction with, and through, computers will shape the notion of what a social machine can become, over the next few decades and beyond. 

The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online By Judith Donath (Donath, 2014) who spent some time at the MIT Media Lab, discusses implications of such a future, but I’m afraid I have not had the opportunity to read this title deeply yet. She provocatively refers to Ted Nelson’s ‘Dream machines’ (Nelson, when she refers previous uses of the term ‘machine’ for ‘computer’ and Ted’s notions should be considered quite ripe for embodiment in VR. I finish with that thought.

Liquid Information

Some say information wants to be free.

The reality is that power of information comes from the fact that information is interaction – information on its own is dead and useless and in a very real sense not information at all.

Liquid Information is therefore about freely interacting with information, letting information interact with other information and ultimately, for the users themselves to become liquid within the information, to themselves flow amongst the information, not to just skim the surface.

Being liquid means that wherever the user’s curiosity is sparked the user can interact with any information to question it, find out more, see it differently, compare and contrast it, change it, share it and more, more than we can possibly imagine at this very early point of the digital evolution.

When information is freed, it is we who become free.

This is the philosophy as developed by Frode Hegland with Sarah Walton.