Social Machines

Social Machines

Paul R. Smart (University of Southampton, UK) and Nigel R. Shadbolt (University of Southampton, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5888-2.ch675
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Introduction

A key trend in the recent technological evolution of the Web has been the development of applications and services that support greater levels of user participation in the generation and management of online content. The Web has now emerged as a platform in which user communities play a key role in terms of what appears online, and the sole purpose of many sites on the Web is to support users in generating, editing and organizing online content. With the transition to greater levels of user participation, we have witnessed the rise of what has been referred to as the ‘Social Web’: a suite of applications, services, technologies, formats, protocols and other resources, all united in their attempt to both foster and support social interaction. Social media sites (e.g., YouTube), social networking systems (e.g., Facebook), and microblogging services (e.g., Twitter) all form part of this Social Web, and they have arguably transformed our traditional notions of what the Web can be used for. Far from being a mechanism to simply support the online publication and dissemination of information content, there is a growing sense that the Web can play an important role in a broad range of social processes. These range from simple forms of social interaction through to the coordination of large-scale collaborative efforts. They include various forms of socially-distributed problem-solving, various aspects of social relationship management (including the formation, maintenance and dissolution of both professional and personal relationships), and various aspects of social cognition or social sensemaking (for example, person perception). To an ever-greater extent, the Web is serving as a platform on which a variety of social process are implemented. Some of these are familiar processes; others are not. All of them, however, are shaped by the properties of the Web.

In response to the growth of the Social Web, a panoply of new terms has arisen to refer to various parts of the emerging conceptual landscape. We thus have terms such as crowdsourcing (Doan, Ramakrishnan, & Halevy, 2011), human computation (Quinn & Bederson, 2011), collective intelligence (Malone, Laubacher, & Dellarocas, 2010), social computing (Parameswaran & Whinston, 2007), the social operating system (Rainie & Wellman, 2012), and social machines (Hendler & Berners-Lee, 2010). This latter term, which is the focus of the current article, was first used in a Web context by Berners-Lee and Fischetti (1999), and it has since grown in popularity to the point where it is now the focus of large-scale research programs, such as the EPSRC’s SOCIAM initiative1, and the subject of a multitude of academic publications (e.g., Hendler & Berners-Lee, 2010; Shadbolt et al., 2013; Smart, Simperl, & Shadbolt, in press). The term is typically used in relation to systems such as Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter, which are among some of the most popular sites on the Web today. In addition, the Web itself has been presented as a social machine (Hall & Tiropanis, 2012). This highlights the potential significance of the term to the Web and Internet Science community. By identifying a set of mechanisms and processes that are at the core of the Social Web, the notion of social machines serves as a conceptual anchor for research efforts associated with the nascent discipline of Web Science (Berners-Lee et al., 2006). In addition, by focusing attention on Web-based systems that are involved in the mediation or material realization of social processes, the notion of social machines serves to emphasize the socio-technical nature of the Web, and it provides the basis for multidisciplinary collaboration with the social scientific community. Such collaboration is of vital importance given the increasingly significant role the Web plays in the functioning of contemporary society.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Social Networking System: A platform to build social networks or social relations among people who, for example, share interests, activities, backgrounds, or real-life connections.

Social Computing: A general term for an area of computer science that is concerned with the intersection of social behavior and computational systems.

Social Web: A set of social relations that link people through the World Wide Web. The Social Web encompasses how Websites and software are designed and developed in order to support and foster social interaction.

Social Machine: Web-based socio-technical systems in which the human and technological elements play the role of participant machinery with respect to the mechanistic realization of system-level processes.

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