A New Web Science Book: The Theory & Practice of Social Machines

A new book “The Theory and Practice of Social Machines” has been published by Springer. This is an exciting new output from the SOCIAM project in which the University of Southampton was a partner, together with the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh

Professor Dame Wendy Hall, Executive Director of the Web Science Trust and Executive Director of the Web Science Institute, one of the twenty WSTNet Labs, is one of the authors. She commented:

“The concept of Social Machines is a powerful way of looking at the socio-technical systems enabled by the Web, such as Wikipedia. It is essential to think about them in an interdisciplinary way – social interactions and technological processes co-create systems that can be very empowering for communities, enabling them to define their own problems and seek solutions. This is exactly the sort of sociotechnical research issue that Web Science was designed to pursue.”

The term “Social Machines” was introduced by Tim Berners-Lee in 1999. Today we see them as networks of people and devices at scale, their behaviour co-constituted by human participants and technological components. They harness the power of the crowd, with everyone able to contribute – to document situations, cooperate on tasks, exchange information, or simply to play. Existing social processes may be scaled up, and new social processes enabled, to solve problems, augment reality, create new sources of value, or disrupt existing practice.

One of Dame Wendy’s co-authors, Dr Kieron O’Hara, associate professor of electronics and computer science at Southampton, added:

“The spread of social machines has been amazing, and the research programme was quite prescient. When SOCIAM began in 2012, there was relatively little to study. Now they are very common indeed. The book describes in detail examples from citizen science and healthcare to music and mathematics. We even consider the augmented reality game Pokémon Go!

Partnership and interdisciplinarity have been key, and to that end we’ve benefited greatly from our collaboration with SOCIAM partners at the University of Oxford Computer Science Department, the Oxford e-Research Centre, and the University of Edinburgh Informatics Department. In particular, we should emphasise that our book distils the excellent work of dozens of researchers across the project, although there could only be four names on the cover.”

The new book is the fullest and most complete discussion of social machines yet written. It is authored by Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt (Trustee of the Web Science Trust), Dr Kieron O’Hara, Professor David De Roure and Professor Dame Wendy Hall and is in the Lecture Notes in Social Networks series. It describes the set of tools and techniques developed within SOCIAM for investigating, constructing and facilitating social machines, considers the ethical issues relating to privacy and trust, and speculates on future research trends.

The SOCIAM project, which was directed by Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt, ran from 2012-18 and was funded by the EPSRC.