Updated: Mar 8
Back in the 60s and 70s, when I was just a kid, our rural property was hooked up to a telephone party line. I don't know the science behind the technology but I always imagined a lone woman sitting in a tiny, windowless room, a prodigious headset muffling external sounds and a circuitry board the size of a small outhouse looming before her.
If the telephone rang in one house it rang in all houses on that line. You were supposed to listen for your own combination of short and long rings, not unlike Morse code; however, and this is where it gets interesting, anyone could pick up the phone and get involved in the conversation.
Many's the time we kids, through sheer boredom, would gingerly pick up the phone receiver (the weight of which recalled a clothes iron when they were actually made of iron),
held our breath, and listened in to the conversations of our neighbours. We were strictly forbidden to do so but that only made eavesdropping all the more enticing.
We didn't recognize whose voices we were hearing, nor did we know the people those voices were talking about but, somehow we were still drawn to the details of Mr. So-and-So's bout of flu, or Mrs. Whose-it's cherry pie recipe. I don't ever remember hearing anything remotely interesting, which validated my view that all adults were boring.
Party lines played an important role in the social dynamic of rural communities vis-à-vis a steady, reliable, and anonymous mainline to gossip. In a sense, party lines were the precursor to the nightmare that is now social media. One could assume that nothing said aloud on the telephone was private. One could assume that the minutiae of their lives was fodder for the gossip mill. Sound familiar?
With the advent of the internet and social media, it feels like we have entered a whole new realm of party line. We've scaled up and doubled down on who we talk about, how we talk about them, and the frequency with which we engage in it. We have the ability to plug into other people's business any time we want and we can "share" those tidbits (true or false, it doesn't seem to matter) to the entire world. From the comfort of our own homes, often alone, hooked up to our neighbours across the globe, we hold our breath and we listen in.
The utter lack of privacy in our lives has taken us to the point of "curating our brand" on the internet. As an essential form of self-protection, we create persona lives where we present a version of ourselves that has little basis in reality.
At least with party lines, there came a time when you had to hang up the phone and go outside and play.