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On the Unintended Uses of Information Technologies

Danah writes up her Etech talk on “Revenge of the User”, and she notes:

When technologies are built, the creators often have a very limited scope of desired and acceptable behavior. They build the systems aimed at the people who will abide by their desires. Often, their users don’t have the same views about how the technology should be used. They use it differently. Creators get aggravated. They don’t understand why users won’t behave. The demand behavior. First, the creator messages the user, telling them that this isn’t what is expected of them. Then, the creator starts carrying a heavier and heavier stick. This is called configuring the user. And y’know what… it doesn’t work.

It brought to mind a panel I spoke on at South by Southwest 1999 called “Interface Design as Social Architecture.” I wish *I* had written up my notes, but instead I have to plumb the cobwebby depths of my memory. For my part of the panel, I talked about how people adapt technologies to their own needs, which often run orthogonally, if not in direct oppostion, to the creators’ intents. Essentially what happens is that creators put functionality Out There — what happens after that can be somewhat up for grabs.

My primary example at the time was’s customer reviews. The designer’s intent was to allow customers to provide feedback about products (in order to alleviate concerns with the uncertainty of buying online.) Somebooks, such as The Fountainhead, though, end up encouraging discussion between users. Probably not intended, but also not really problematic. But then there’s the case of the infamous Family Circus book reviews. For the longest time, Amazon tried to squash the obviously parodic comments, but over time just gave up in the face of the unremitting onslaught.

I then stepped back to consider the Web and hypertext itself. Originally, TBL just wanted to help physicists publish and share their works. Even more ambitiously, Douglas Engelbart developed the Online System (NLS) to augment intellect.

Now we use these technologies to accumulate pornography.

(Yes, that’s flip, maybe even facile, but still addresses my point about unintended uses.)

The point in all of this, is that, as William Gibson said, “The street finds its own uses for things.” Cory had a remarkable riff on this at ETech two years ago.

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