The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online

The Social Machine

Online, interface design shapes people’s appearance, transforms their communication and influences their behavior. The Social Machine shows how we can visualize conversations and networks; portray identity using data and history; delineate public from private space, and bring the online world's open sociability into the face to face world. It is a manifesto for balancing legibility, social responsibility and innovation -- and a manual for how to design radically new environments for social interaction.

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Design Shapes Society, sets forth three design goals for online spaces:

  • Innovative: Go "beyond being there" to create new ways of interacting, seeing others, and presenting oneself.
  • Legible: Interfaces should provide meaning and structure to the abstract online world.
  • Beneficial: The interface design has a profound effect on the user's experience and on the evolution of online culture.

Visualizing Social Landscapes shows how to create informative and intuitive interfaces by analyzing and depicting social patterns.

Interfaces Make Meaning delves deeper into the question what makes a legible and intriguing depiction.

Mapping Networks explores ways of depicting the network of relationships among people.

Our Evolving Social Super-Networks asks what social structures are well suited for today's mobile, information-centric world?

Visible Conversations focuses on visualizing interactions among people.

Contested Boundaries examines the challenge of creating boundaries online, where there are no walls and identity is fluid.

Data Portraits explores how we can depict an individual through data by and about him or her.

Constructing Identity looks at how we form impressions of each other online.

Embodied Interactions explores the design of new interaction interfaces.

Privacy and Public Space discusses the control of personal data and proposes designs to make the private/public distinction legible.

Social Catalysts features projects that bring computer mediated interaction into physical space.

about the author

Judith Donath synthesizes knowledge from urban design, evolutionary biology and cognitive science to design innovative interfaces for on-line communities and virtual identities. A Harvard Berkman Faculty Fellow and formerly director of the MIT Media Lab's Sociable Media Group, she is known internationally for her writing on identity, interface design, and social communication. She is the creator of many pioneering online social applications; her work and that of the Sociable Media Group have been shown in museums and galleries worldwide.

about the cover

The cover image is from Metropath(ologies), an immersive art installation about living amidst non-stop information and under ubiquitous surveillance.

what people are saying

Judith Donath's thorough, in-depth look at social media is worthy of detailed, careful reading, but it also wonderfully supports opening at random, then reading and pondering. Want examples? Although interacting with people through technology is not as good as actually being with them, sometimes it can be better. What does it mean to be a stranger in the world of social media? "The stranger," she suggests, "may cease to exist." What do these observations mean for us as people and as a society? A book worthy of repeated reading, repeated pondering.

- Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things

If you use social media and especially if you design social media, The Social Machine is a must-read. Judith Donath has spent years studying, building, and using online communication media and shares what she has learned in a readable, detailed, prescriptive book. The truth of her observations can be verified by looking at the media you use and the way you use it. Every user experience and user interface designer in particular should read The Social Machine to learn what they didn't teach in engineering school.

- Howard Rheingold, author of Net Smart

Delightful, informative, and comprehensive, The Social Machine by Judith Donath provides a sumptuously illustrated overview of important design concepts for the design of mediated sociality. Donath's book will make you look at every social interface anew--wondering what the design process was that produced it and why specific design choices were made. The text informs us but also invites us to engage with the ethics of choices that have been decided and that lie ahead of us. It will make you want to review your own history with social media and mediated interaction, evaluate and critique the current landscape, and imagine future possibilities. As we move into a world exploding with social media and with representations of us in data and in digital form, this is the book to read to understand the history and garner a foundation for thinking about the future.

- Elizabeth F. Churchill, Director of Human Computer Interaction, eBay Research Labs, and co-author of Foundations for Designing User-Centered Systems

The Social Machine provides new insights gathered from decades of research and practice by artists and technologists in visualizing the social landscape. Drawing from her own pioneering work in making networks of human relationships visible at the group, institutional, and Internet scales, Donath succeeds in painting an unusually deep and personal portrait of the continually expanding universe of social media.

- John Maeda, Design Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers



October: Boston Book Festival, USC, UCSD. February: UCLA.

Sept 22, in North Carolina: Lucile Kelling Henderson Lecture at UNC (open to the public)

Sept 18, in San Jose: Privacy Academy keynote on "Designs for Privacy".


Video of June 12 conversation with Joi Ito and Ethan Zuckerman @ the MIT Media Lab (and storified)

May 20 Book Launch! @ the Berkman Center.
Missed it? Here's the video (and other formats). Or, more succinctly, here's a live blog, another live blog, and the storified tweets.