telephone by Flickr user Paul Keleher

"telephone" by Flickr user Paul Keleher

I have been riveted by a book called America Calling: A Social History Of The Telephone To 1940 by Claude S. Fischer, a sociologist at my alma mater, UC Berkeley. The book is just what you think – a study of social responses to the rise of the telephone as it went from a new invention to being an everyday appliance. I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

You won’t be shocked to learn that the parallels with current reactions to social media have been uncanny. The book was written in 1992, well before the explosion of communication that typifies today’s world. So it’s not like the book is trying to make such parallels. But they are there everywhere you look.

Just as an example from the very first page of the book: In 1926 the Knights of Columbus Adult Education Committee discuss the topic “Do modern inventions help or mar character and health?” Among the specific questions the committee proposed were “Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy?” [and] “Does the telephone break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?”

Just replace “telephone” with “MySpace” or “Facebook” and you see what I mean. The worries of people like Maureen Dowd are nothing new.

Rather than do a whole book report (I’d rather you just buy the book), I thought I would look a little more in detail at one particular facet: how the telephone was sold to America. It is illuminating.

Finding Uses

When it first began to be deployed (1890’s through the turn of the century), telephone companies faced a tough sell. They first had to explain to Americans what need the telephone might fulfill. They had to find uses for it.

From a 1909 Bell System ad:

[The Bell System] had to invent the business uses of the telephone and convince people that they were uses. It had no help along this line. As the uses were created it had to invent multiplied means of satisfying them. It built up the telephone habit in cities like New York and Chicago and then it had to cope satisfactorily with the business conditions it had created.

That reads like the history of Twitter circa 2007-2008. (That “coping” business makes me think of the #failwhale.)

An interesting element of this period was the need to educate users on how to use the telephone. Advertisements included instructions about where to place your mouth when you speak, how loudly to speak, how to place a call, and so forth. Just think, for a parallel, about the copious how-to’s that Facebook deployed when they rolled out their most recent changes.

The Business Case

The first uses imagined were business uses. The telephone would help you make and confirm appointments, save time, and make business more efficient. (Compare this with the early years of faxes and business email – designed to speed business communication.)

Even the personal uses were essentially related to the business of the home. Some ads pitched at wealthy women illustrated how easy it was to order groceries and, for men, how easy it was to call and say you’d be home late from the office.

Social Social Social

In keeping with the all-business vibe, a 1910 ad touted the telephone as a great way to make holiday celebration arrangements more efficiently – noticeably not mentioning anything about giving actual greetings over the phone. But as the decades wore on, things changed. Pretty soon, people were using phones socially. And the telephone companies were catching up.

In 1923, for instance, Southwestern Bell wrote that it had:

decided that it is selling something more vital than distance, speed or accuracy . . . [T]he telephone . . . almost brings [people] face to face. It is the next best thing to personal contact. So the fundamental purpose of the current advertising is to sell the company’s subscribers their voices at their true worth – to help them realize that “Your Voice is You,” . . . to make subscribers think of the telephone whenever they think of distant friends or relatives.

Wow. “Your Voice is You.” Think here about the care with which Facebook treats its users and how strongly they react to changes. “Your Profile is You” could be the new slogan.

Along with this new “sociable” use of the telephone came resistance and a backlash. Early on, people worried that “the telephone permitted inappropriate or dangerous discussions, such as illicit wooing.” (Think about Craigslist and South Carolina here.) Later on, etiquette guides suggested that visiting on the telephone should be “confined to a reasonably short duration of time.”

Noise, Noise, Noise

What may be an even stronger response was to the triviality of sociable telephone conversations and their incessant interruptions of more “reasonable” pursuits. “We are at the mercy of our neighbors, who have facilities for getting at us unknown to the ancient Greeks or even our grandfathers. Thanks to the telephone . . . and such-like inventions, our neighbors have it in their power to turn our leisure into a series of interruptions, and the more leisure the have the more active do they become in destroying ours,” wrote one professor.

That sounds like one’s uncle turning up his nose at Twitter, if you ask me.

Certainly, the parallels are not exact, but as I think about the arc that social media is following, I can see we are just about at that “sociability” stage. It’s happening gfaster than last century, of course, but people are people – their reaction to new connecting technologies seems quite predictable.

Utilities

If that’s true, then eventually (like the telephone, the automobile and to a lesser extent email), social media will become transparent. We won’t be talking about “what to do with” social media, we will just use it — like we pick up and use the telephone without thinking about it. It’ll be a utility.

In fact, look further back and think about the electrification of America, or the advent of universal indoor plumbing. These novelties are taken for granted too. Utilities.

Go read the book. But first retweet this.