I get as excited by online and hardware technology as the next guy. My wife cringes now when a new gadget is released onto the market, because she knows it won’t be long before I start working out ways to squeeze one into our budget. I’m a sucker for any new, over-hyped shiny techy goodness.

But I get more excited about human behaviour. Never mind the gadget, widget, web app or whatever – it’s how people end up using and innovating with it that motivates me. People have a nasty habit of using things in a way never intended by the designer.  That’s why, I think, customisable gadgets like the iPad have been so successful by allowing people to use it in whatever way they want (almost).

Sadly, online human behaviour is often reduced to zeros and ones in an Excel report. “Today, there were 324 clicks on our ads and 23% were converted into $x revenue.” Those aren’t clicks, they’re people!

Digital marketing has encouraged a tendency to view transactions, conversions and marketing as merely another technical challenge, rather than an exercise in anthropology. But the success or failure of an online marketing strategy or piece of web technology is more often contained in the anthropology and not how wonderfully clean and clever the web code is.

That’s not to say technical innovation and skill doesn’t have an impact – of course it does. But credit the user with some independence of choice as well. After all, your widget, website link or whatever didn’t control the user’s action to make them click – the choice remains theirs. And that choice is impacted by so much more than your technical trickery.

They have so many unique motivations, emotions, distractions, priorities that it’s not surprising it becomes easier to view your customer base as figures, rather than the complex messes of behaviours and conflicting motivations we really are.

The moment a business starts to view online consumers as a technical rather than a behavioural challenge, problems arise. Just look at the music industry. It doesn’t matter how they try to control the technology, they can never change an entrenched behaviour around the sharing of music that has been around since way before digital came along. Trying to fight it with more technology is just prolonging the agony instead of looking for new business models that benefit from this natural behaviour.

Ditto the news media. The New York Times is just the latest newspaper to enforce a paywall on its online readers. It didn’t work for The Times in London and is predicted to fail on the other side of the Atlantic as well.

OK, so far, so much you already know. But I point out these oft quoted examples because I get so frustrated when I see people still using web technology to lock things down, rather than open them up – web strategies used to wall people in instead of tapping into the natural flow of online behaviour.

Of course, Twitter and is one of the best examples of going with the flow of its users. Twitter was a very different beast when it first launched five years ago this week. All the things we take for granted on Twitter today – @ replies, hashtags, retweeting – were all features built into Twitter because of how natural behaviours evolved. The users were the ones to create all of those now standard Twitter protocols, to get around perceived limitations in the system and use it more effectively how they wanted.

Twitter never dictated how their service should be used. It was originally intended as a one-way microblogging service without replies, not a new form of instant messaging or a replacement for chatrooms, etc. They never said “hey guys, we built it to be used in a particular way so here are the fixed rules we will allow.” Instead, they took notice of how people had found ways around the limitations of the original platform and then developed features to enhance and formalise those behaviours.

Social media has tested the boundaries between technology and behaviour a lot in recent years and we are beginning to see how some businesses are adapting to the new world order. Group buying sites are an obvious example, as are various content sharing mechanisms.

The new buzz is around cloud computing and how this may also free people up from the walled gardens of hardware and single-point access. Yet there are still vendors trying to lock people in via contracts, plans and account management. That is not the spirit of the cloud, just as creating spambots for Twitter isn’t the spirit of social media.

How do your customers or users want to use the web – particularly your corner of it? If you can’t meet that need without somehow limiting or restricting normal behaviour, I would suggest the ingenuity of your technology won’t save you.

The people have spoken – and always will.