The Role of Social Machines in the Digital Age

Photo by Mike B:

There’s a very good chance that you used a social machine today. Either Facebook or Wikipedia. Perhaps you use Waze or its open source alternative OpenStreetMap. These are social machines. Some have and are having, a profound effect on our societies. Others are affecting more limited spheres such as law or health. Some are big, some are small. Social Machines play a key role in our digital society. How important are they? What is their significance? Why have we even created them?

So what then, is a Social Machine? In simple terms it is the meshing of human ingenuity to create activities with useful societal outcomes with powers of mechanisms and engines. The process is created, shared, learned and applied by humans. We then use a technology or suite of technologies to deliver the intended outcome.

In this sense, we must think of the machine as an intertwined system of humans and technologies. It can be argued that a clock is a social machine. It tells us the time (a human construct) and enables modern society to function in a synced, sort of, manner.

There are two overarching types of Social Machines; voluntary and business. Wikipedia is voluntary. Facebook and Twitter are businesses. Mastodon is voluntary (for now.) Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Bot affect society in different ways.

Voluntary Social Machines are usually created to solve a societal problem or challenge. Some start out voluntary and eventually become a business with the goal of making a profit. Others, may spin-off part to become a business or may remain entirely a non-profit, such as OpenStreetMaps and Wikipedia or WikiMaps.

Waze is a Social Machine, but it is purely a business, now owned by Google and enabled Google to incorporate traffic analysis into Google Maps. Waze has also helped Alphabet in development of self-driving vehicles.

It is easy and very cheap, almost free in many cases, to ideate and build a social machine. Usually a person or small group of people identify a problem through personal experience. Such as the rise of pothole reporting apps starting around 2008. They were entirely citizen driven efforts. Today, many cities around the world have built apps to report a variety of municipal issues from potholes to water main breaks, noise and animal issues. This is a prime example of how voluntary Social Machines can lead to positive societal changes.

For-profit Social Machines such as Facebook and Twitter provide a different value to society. Some might well argue that such value hasn’t really turned out to be very good. This is both right and wrong. Business Social Machines have delivered social value by connecting us. All technologies are inherently double-edged swords.

Some, not all, business Social Machines shifted however, from delivering social value to delivering shareholder value. They largely lost their way at the executive / board (especially those who went public) level, but many employees remain committed to delivering a social value, thus creating tensions within the organisations. This tension can be seen in Musks disastrous takeover of Twitter and Facebooks continuing disregard for citizen safety and consumer privacy. But Pinterest is a great example of being able to deliver both social and shareholder value while being profitable. Waze still delivers social value as well yet is a business.

Ushahidi (Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”)is another great example of a Social Machine that came out of Kenya in 2008. Its main goal is the promotion of democracy in fragile states and brings together citizen activism, citizen journalism and geographic information.

Social Machines can and do play a vital role in today’s digital societies. From local to global. It is likely that they will continue to grow as societies become ever more entwined with digital technologies. They are important because they enable not just citizen participation, but reflect the values and benefits of a democratic society and can play a part in strenghtening democracies. Yes, some can and have been created for nefarious purposes, but most are for the social good. They’re also a means to enable citizens to assist governments so that, in our complex world where we can longer expect government to solve every problem, we find collaborations. For business Social Machines, done right, it is the good side of capitalism at work; delivering a social good.



Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious