[Dave Birch] I was writing something about mobile payments when I began to think that the way that we use phones for things like payments is still pretty new, and that we probably don’t envisage how they will be used in the future, in the sense that while I can see how the technology might work, I’m still not sure how it will be used. Will people be tapping their phones together? Will we want to? Will it seem odd to meet someone new and not touch your phone to their phone?
The etiquette may be evolving, but the technology is moving faster than our social practices can adapt
We’ve been here before, of course. When the telephone originally reached the mass market, people had to learn how to use it. No-one knew what do or how to behave on the line, so helpful guides were designed for them, containing useful tips such as
If you get a busy signal, it does not mean that the person you are trying to reach does not wish to speak to you, or that the operator is being rude or lazy.
There was also advice on how to answer this tricky piece of technology. The 1934 phone book warned against confusion. “Don’t say Hullo! Announce your identity.”
The key resource in this field is Claude Fisher’s “America calling: a social history of the telephone to 1940“. He gives a fascinating tour through the evolution of telephone etiquette. It strikes me that people felt about the telephone then they way they feel about Facebook now: allowing strangers to call your wife, servants and children without you at “gatekeeper” would inevitably lead to social breakdown. People wondered what was acceptable, and what wasn’t. In 1914, one Florence Hall wrote about telephone etiquette and advised strongly against inviting people to anything over the phone because “the person invited, being suddenly held up and the point of a gun, as it were, is likely to forgot some other engagement”. In the 19th century, arguments about whether the telephone was the friend of the criminal or the friend of the policeman adumbrate exactly the same debates about the internet a decade ago and social networking today.
Another factor was that the telephone companies saw their business as linking businesses, or as linking businessmen to their homes, they did not see the potential for domestic interconnection and, specifically, the use of the phone by women in that context. In “Hello Central?: Gender, Technology, and Culture in the Formation of Telephone Systems, Michele Martin says that the early structure of the domestic telephone networks shows that they were primarily used within friendship circles, which expanded as new exchanges were opened. We probably don’t see the telephone as social media, but it was.
The point is that the social impact of the communications technology was not something planned by the developers. It takes time for new communications technology to really become part of the fabric of society, and I don’t believe we’re there yet when it comes to social media, mobile phones, games consoles or, for that matter, the internet itself.
Presumably someone is writing a book a Facebook etiquette?
In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes