It occurred to me this morning, as I poured my coffee and checked my twitter feed, that I am old enough to have lived with party line phone service, and now I am watching shared conversations on this little device in the palm of my hand. When Twitter first launched, it seemed so voyeuristic… why would I want to watch my neighbors? But really, it’s not such a new concept.
When we moved from Bethesda, MD to Martinsburg, WV, several of my school friends had, or had just removed, party line phone service. In 1970 Berkeley County was in the last phases of party lines, converting homes to single line direct service. Coming from a suburb of Washington, DC, we really did think we had fallen off the edge of the earth!
For those of you who missed this particular party, a party line was one shared phone line connecting several houses. Each house had it’s own ring pattern, and you only answered your calls. Shared lines were an economical way for each house to have a phone, and communication to the rest of the world, but it also allowed other people to observe that communication. In a small town everyone knew everyone’s business.
There was no mistaking that the neighborhood privy to your conversations. Common courtesy meant that your give your neighbors right of way on the phone line, but really, people listened in. I remember one friend demonstrating the art of silently lifting the Bakelite phone from the cradle, and then gently putting it back in place, making as little noise as possible so as not to alert the other callers.
Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, Yelp, these modern tools are just a new take on some old behavior. Humans are verbal and exhibitionist. We like to share our stories, and we like to perform them, too. We are just doing it in different places than our grandparents.