Social Machines And The Future

Kelly Kirkham examines the concept of social machines and discusses what they mean for the future…

Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently received $10 million from social media icon Twitter as an investment in their “Laboratory of Social Machines”.
Their what? You might be wondering. Well, firstly ‘social machine’ is the term that describes an environment in which humans and technology interact to produce outputs that would not be possible without one or the other being present.
The social machine lab was created as part of MIT’s mission to research how people use and achieve shared goals through social media networks. With the support from Twitter, over the next five years, MIT will analyze data harvested from an assortment of social media networks (including Twitter and Reddit) to search for trends and patterns world wide.
This is not the first time Twitter has awarded funds (called “Twitter Data Grants”) to academic institutions, but it is definitely the largest awarded sum to date. Twitter chief executive, Dick Costolo said in a statement,
“Twitter is seizing the opportunity to go deeper into research to understand the role Twitter and other platforms play in the way people communicate, the effect that rapid and fluid communication can have and apply those findings to complex societal issues.”
The official website of the Laboratory of Social Machines states that,
“In a time of growing political polarization and institutional distrust, social networks have the potential to remake the public sphere as a realm where institutions and individuals can come together to understand, debate and act on societal problems.”
The development of a Social Machine Lab comes at a critical point in online social interaction. Internet users are at somewhat of a crossroads. While the accelerated speed of information can gather like-minded people together to accomplish amazing things, it can also allow misinformation to run rampant throughout the Internet.
Time magazine coined a term for those propelling (aka ‘sharing’) misinformation across the web in their article “Fear, Misinformation, and Social Media complicate Ebola Fight”. Time refers to such people as “the infected” referring to the hysteria and fear circulating the controversial outbreak in Africa.
It’s possible to think of social media as ‘the Force’ of the modern world (yes I just referenced Star Wars). If used for good, social media can achieve amazing things. But when used for dark or evil purposes, it holds the power to bully, harass, misinform, and spread fear through society as a whole.
MIT now has the resources needed to track information, both good and bad, and measure the outcome across the globe. Their lab is dedicated to…

  • Developing technologies that analyze social systems, map the public sphere of beliefs, opinions, and events to create information feedback loops that close the gap between public will (constitutions, laws, ordinances) and collective behaviour (customs, habits).
  • Building tools for institutions and individuals to collaborate openly by debating and setting shared goals, then organizing themselves into sustainable networks capable of achieving, social, cultural and political progress.
  • Deploying social machines – networked human-machine collaboratives – alongside external partners in real-world situations with transparent, measurable objectives.

And MIT and Twitter aren’t the only ones getting serious about setting the future of social machines on the right trajectory. Wikipedia
Enter the website SOCIAM: The Theory and Practice of Social Machines. This organization states that they, “will research into pioneering methods of supporting purposeful human interaction on the World Wide Web, of the kind exemplified by phenomena such as Wikipedia and Galaxy Zoo. These collaborations are empowering, as communities identify and solve their own problems, harnessing their commitment, local knowledge and embedded skills, without having to rely on remote experts or government.”
So what does this all really mean for the social media world as we know it? Well, it demonstrates that through the use of the Internet, individuals have the platform for social change. Small online ideas can actually affecting people in a big way. Recent headlines have included reports of teenagers orchestrating large peaceful protests for social reform (Hong Kong).
But where there is light there is also dark, headlines have also reported Twitter accounts being used for terrorist recruitment and threats in the middle east (ISIS). These two stories show the drastic difference in the power of social media.
With a little help from Twitter and Massachusetts Institute of Technology we will hopefully crack the secrets of the social media force and use it for the good of all mankind, rather than to encourage fear and mass hysteria. Take a lesson from Master Yoda, “Fear is the path to the dark side… fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
You can see the labs progress of MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines at