It was expected to cause the “destruction of community because [it encourages] far-flung operations and far-flung relationships.” At the same time, it was called the “antidote to provincialism.” It’s not Facebook. It’s not Google. It’s not even a technology invented in this century – or the last.

The telephone mirrored many of the fears and promises attributed these days to social networks, author Tom Vanderbilt writes in the Wilson Quarterly. This technology, as revolutionary as it was, failed equally to deliver both critics’ most dire predictions and supporters’ fondest hopes. There’s a lesson here for how we view the Internet.

Vanderbilt outlines basic stages of a new technology’s introduction, including:

  • Dismissal, when it’s seen as novel but of little practical use. Vanderbilt points to a 1939 New York Times review of the television, in which the author notes, “The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.”
  • Grandiose pronouncements, the phase when critics either laud the technology to the skies or damn it with evocations of fire and brimstone. Television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, for example, believed television would lead to world peace. “If we were able to see people in other countries and learn about our differences, why would there be any misunderstandings?” he said. “War would be a thing of the past.”
  • Acceptance. As the prices fall and the technology comes to permeate every level of society, “we no longer pause to think about its presence, or indeed what might have once lain beneath the shimmering surface,” Vanderbilt writes.

Indeed, some of the very same concerns surrounding the Internet (especially with the emergence of social media and cloud-based platforms) arose as the telephone started to gain widespread adoption. Worries over identity theft, financial instability and unwanted sales solicitation were all raised as the telephone won acceptance.

Given the comments I receive, pro and con, almost every time I write about social media – which range from conspiracy theories about the evil nature of Facebook to the unquestionable perfection of Twitter’s ability to disseminate news – I’d guess that we’re still in the grandiose pronouncements period when it comes to social media.

At least, I hope so. The world would be pretty scary if it were indeed what conspiracy theorists say it is. On the other hand, tech journalism would be a rather dull field if Facebook, Twitter and Google were as perfect as their cheerleaders insist they are.