Wednesday, September 23, 2009

(empo-tuulwey) Misuse, from Apollo to Twitter

An important corollary to my slogan "a tool is not a way of life" is the thought that there may be instances in which it is good to use a tool for something other than its intended purpose.

Sometimes, as Jon Ippolito notes in his essay "The Art of Misuse," you are compelled to misuse a tool.

Of course, technologists sometimes misuse their tools for a practical purpose. NASA engineers jury-rigged a filter out of spare parts and duct tape to save the astronauts of Apollo 13 from poisonous gases venting inside the crippled capsule.

The bulk of Ippolito's piece, however, concerns how artists misuse tools, and Ippolito notes that some artistic actions can be bad, while some can expand the mind.

Which brings us to Jack Dorsey, one of the principals of Twitter. There has been much discussion over things that Twitter initially didn't support, but that customers demanded them to support. In this Wall Street Journal interview, Dorsey admits that the customers were right.

Many of Twitter’s features and terminology arose from its users, he added. The “@” symbol, for example, which indicates a reply to another Twitter user, initially met with resistance from the company. He eventually spent two hours updating the service to automatically link usernames to their accounts when they appeared next to an @ symbol.

The word “tweet” was another user-coined term, one that Twitter staffers first cringed at when it came up during media interviews, Mr. Dorsey said. Now it’s part of the service’s interface, and Twitter is working on incorporating retweets, another unexpected practice, into its functionality. “We didn’t have all the ideas. We didn’t have the direction, specifically. A lot of what you see that is successful on Twitter today is from the users,” he said.

Just as well that Twitter listened. If it hadn't, then it might have ended up abandoned, stranded out in the middle of nowhere, with no Gene Kranz to bring it back.
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