Great Expectations (Except When They're Not)

telephone.jpgKen Brecher tells this story about Alexander Graham Bell. The inventor of the telephone apparently spent the last part of his life railing against the way people were using his invention. When greeting someone on the phone, he insisted, the proper protocol was to exclaim “ahoy!” Saying “hello” was a misuse of his work.

You can’t predict how people will use things, and you can’t force people to use them in the ways in which you’ve conceived of them, even if you’re the inventor.

Actually, you can force them. But you forfeit the potential that what you made could be something bigger or more interesting.  Bigger and more interesting is when you release software in the wild (open source) and thousands of developers think of things to do with it that the original author never dreamed of. More interesting is when you give up some control of what you made and let others make things around it. TV ended up being something entirely different than what its inventors initially thought it would be because it was a tool others could be creative with, not an end product with one defined way of using it.

The corollary is trying to impose expectations on things that weren’t intended to address those expectations. After a flurry of media attention, Twitter has recently come under attack for things it doesn’t do and never pretended to. Jon Friedman in MarketWatch: “I object to Twitter’s idiosyncratic cap of 140 characters for writing
messages and the inherent inability of its users to go into any real
depth about any subject.”

Depth is hardly the point. At its best, Twitter can be an incredibly efficient way to monitor a topic or see what stories are flashing into the public consciousness. Much better than blogs. As a news device, Twitter can function as a stream of link blogs that points followers to things they’re interested in. It’s like having a personal web of friends who work on your behalf in real time. No more waiting on traditional publishing schedules. As I wrote in a recent post after Twitter starred in coverage of the Iran election aftermath, short texts proved remarkably effective at organizing multimedia coverage.

So expectations can get in the way of your own potential, either to create something or to use it effectively. Sociologist Barry Shwartz says that with greater expectation can come less happiness, and that we’re happier when expectations are exceeded. The telephone was an amazing thing that revolutionized communication. Imagine thinking it a failure because expectations for its etiquette were disappointed.

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  1. says

    Thanks for the interesting post, Douglas. I am a fairly new user of Twitter, approximately 6 months. At first, I didn’t get it. But as I used it more, and saw how others used it, it became evident to me that this was an effective way to assimilate and gather a lot of different ideas about a given topic.
    Off hand, I can think of one particularly interesting innovation springing off the invention of Twitter. Sites like and others that shorten longer URL addresses are directly related to the growing use of Twitter to communicate ideas and news stories. Most recently, I learned that the National Symphony Orchestra, located in D.C., will begin tweeting live concert program notes. I am still note sure how I feel about this. My main concern is who will be reading those notes other than the people in the audience. And if people are looking at their phones while listening to a concert, how much of the music will the actually be listening to?

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