The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online

The Social Machine:

Designs for Living Online

by Judith Donath

MIT Press, 2014

Online, interface designs fashion people's appearance, shape their communication and influence their behavior. Can we see others' faces or do we know them only by name? When our words leave the screen do they disappear forever or are they permanently archived, amassing a history of our views and reactions? How can we discern how public or private are our surroundings?" The Social Machine" is a manifesto for balancing legibility, social responsibility and innovation -- and a manual for creating radically new environments for social interaction.

Order from Amazon Barnes and Noble Powells the MIT Press or find a local bookstore on IndieBound



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)

June 1 The book is now in stores - and it looks great! Thank you to the amazing design team at the MIT Press.

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.


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, revised and expanded edition

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


Chapter 1, Design Shapes Society, sets forth three design goals for online spaces:

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

Chapter 2, Visualizing Social Landscapes shows how to create informative and intuitive interfaces by analyzing and depicting social patterns. These social visualizations can map the overall structure of a community or communities, show the interactions among a group of people, or depict an individual.

Chapter 3, Interfaces Make Meaning delves deeper into the question what makes a legible and intriguing depiction. It shows how interface metaphors are essential for help people make sense of the inherently abstract online world, as well as examing how form, color, motion and interactions create meaning and expression.

Chapter 4, Mapping Networks explores ways of depicting the network of relationships among people. It discusses what we can learn from such maps, how we can depict what flows through the connections, and how network maps can help us track changes in social connectivity--a particularly relevant issue as social media accelerate these changes.

Chapter 5: Technology makes it easy to meet and stay in touch with increasing numbers of people, yet simultaneously our need for these connections diminishes as markets increasingly provide the support and services for which we once relied on family and friends. Our Evolving Social Super-Networks asks what social structures are well suited for today's mobile, information-centric world?

Chapter 6, Visible Conversations focuses on visualizing interactions among people. These depictions help establish social mores, provide context for the conversation, and illuminate the complex history a group's dynamics. To design them, one needs to understand the many social functions of conversation, beyond the mere exchange of information.

Chapter 7: Any conversation or interaction has boundaries, whether physical or purely social and conventional; they define the situation and limit participation. Contested Boundaries examines the challenge of creating these boundaries online, where there are no walls and identity is fluid.

Chapter 8, Data Portraits examines how we can depict an individual through data by and about him or her. Framing this visualization design problem as "portraiture" highlights how such works answer to the often competing desires of artist, audience, and subject--including when, as is often the case online, the "artist" is the machine.

Chapter 9, Constructing Identity looks at how we form impressions of each other. Online, it is easy to fake many of the familiar external signals of identity, such as race, gender, and age. We can design interfaces that replace these physically-based markers of identity with others such as knowledge tests, interaction history. When is this desirable?

Chapter 10, Embodied Interactions explores the design of new interaction interfaces. It traces the tension between recreating the experience of face-to-face interaction versus creating new types of experiences, i.e., "going beyond being there." Its focus is on the representation of the participants and the translation of physical actions into online behaviors.

Chapter 11: In order to know how to act and what to say eople need to know how public a place is and who is privy to their conversation. Yet, these things can be hard to discern online. Privacy and Public Space discusses the control of personal data online and designs that make the private/public distinction legible.

Chapter 12, Social Catalysts features projects that bring computer mediated interaction into physical space. By bringing distant people into contact or by providing people with new means of interacting these works act as "social catalysts"--transforming the social dynamics of a situation and bringing the online world's open sociability to face to face experience

about the cover

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

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.