The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online

The Social Machine

Online, interface designs shape our appearance, transform our communication and influence our behavior. The Social Machine shows how design affects society and helps us think through what sort of experiences and communities we want to create. It is is a manifesto for balancing legibility, social responsibility and innovation as well as a manual for designing radically new environments for social interaction.

119 full-color illustrations

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or read it online

what people are saying

For anyone with interest in this field, either as a technology designer or just as someone who loves beautiful technology, this is destined to become the definitive text. It is eloquent, well organized, and thorough. (full review)

- Jennifer Golbeck, Science

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...

- 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... 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... 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 UX at Google and co-author of Foundations for Designing User-Centered Systems

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

The Social Machine is a beautiful object, replete with illustrations of the projects Donath reflects on, her own and those from the broader technical and artistic world. It's deeply satisfying to flip through, looking for provocation and inspiration.

- Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection

This book is a wonderful read for non-designers and designers alike and should be required reading for all graduate degrees in digital design.

-Rey Junco, author of Engaging Student Through Social Media

... a beautiful book that poses a profound question to designers: How can we create digital, social objects that enable and encourage us to be together in fruitful and fully human ways?

--David Weinberger, author of Too Big Too Know

This is a beautiful, intellectual book about living life online... Although this book was written by an academic, it is totally accessible to the layperson...Donath presents her ideas elegantly, always backing them up when needed with scholarly research and theory. (full review)

Articles and interviews

"As people learn more about how interface design shapes society, how it affects how they are seen by and perceive others, they will, I hope, demand greater control over their data. And not just to hide it, but to also embrace also the ways that more knowledge of each other can enrich and strengthen society." from MIT Press's Five Minutes with Judith Donath

"You really want to start with an understanding of what motivates people, what do they pay attention to, how they make sense of other people." Jasmine McNealy of New Books in Tech asked thoughtful questions in this in-depth interview about how design - good or bad - shapes online society.

Reinventing social media - what works, what doesn't, what have we not tried? "Donath thinks about the notion of balance in the digital world: balance between identity and anonymity, between text and graphic, and between connection and isolation." (MIT Alumni interview.)

"Can pseudonyms make better online citizens?" (Harvard Magazine interview.)

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

Video of the Book Launch! @ the Berkman Center. Or, more succinctly, here's a live blog, another live blog, and the storified tweets.

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.


Dec 10, Cambridge, Harvard Women in Tech
Feb 3, Los Angeles, UCLA
Mar 11, New York, Cornell Tech

past: NYC: MIT Enterprise Forum; University of Southern California: Designing Identity; UC San Diego: Designer Framings; Northeastern University: Algorithmic Likenesses; Boston Book Festival; University of North Carolina: Interface and Identity; MIT Media Lab: Conversation with Joi Ito and Ethan Zuckerman; Harvard: Book Launch!!

about the cover

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

table of contents

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

Ch. 2 Visualizing Social Landscapes shows how to create informative and intuitive interfaces by analyzing and depicting social patterns.

Ch. 3 Interfaces Make Meaning delves deeper into the question what makes a legible and intriguing depiction.

Ch. 4 Mapping Networks explores ways of depicting the network of relationships among people.

Ch. 5 Our Evolving Social Super-Networks asks what social structures are well suited for today's mobile, information-centric world?

Ch. 6 Visible Conversations focuses on visualizing interactions among people.

Ch. 7 Contested Boundaries examines the challenge of creating boundaries online, where there are no walls and identity is fluid.

Ch. 8 Data Portraits explores how we can depict an individual through data by and about him or her.

Ch. 9 Constructing Identity looks at how we form impressions of each other online.

Ch. 10 Embodied Interactions explores the design of new interaction interfaces.

Ch. 11 Privacy and Public Space discusses the control of personal data and proposes designs to make the private/public distinction legible.

Ch. 12 Social Catalysts features projects that bring computer mediated interaction into physical space.

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