Social media is the old 'party line'

May. 18, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Back in days before Facebook, twitter, e-mail, and text messages, you might think it would have been considered impolite to eavesdrop. And you’d be right.

There was a thing called the “party line.” It was a telephone line that you shared with eight or ten neighbors who lived on the same country road. You couldn’t casually chat with your friends for any length of time because you had to share the phone line with all your neighbors, who sported huge families. 

When I told my niece about this concept a few years back when she received her first mobile phone, she was horrified. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “Why everyone would be listening into what I would be saying to my friends.” 

Yup. That would be correct.

No one owned up to eavesdropping, even though everybody did it — especially the old farm wives in the neighborhood. If they weren’t talking on the party line, they were listening in to whoever was carrying on a conversation. A sweet lady — really, she was sweet, just annoyingly chatty and nosy — named Edith was the champ. Edith could talk for hours, then spend hours more listening to anybody else who managed to fit in a call.

My dad would come in from the field, needing to place a call to sell his hogs or cattle. 

To put it mildly, my dad was not a patient man. He’d turn six shades of purple when he would pick up the phone and, yes, there was Edith on the line. He’d wait a couple of minutes, try again and, sure enough, Edith, still jabbering away. A couple more tries and Dad would start looking downright homicidal.

Finally, exasperated, he’d pick up the phone and say, “Edith, get off the line. I’ve got to make a business call.”

And I’ll bet good money Edith listened in on every call he made, too.

When my mom was pregnant with my sister, Wileen, she didn’t want nosy Edith to know. Instead of calling the doctor’s office to make an appointment, my mother would drive 10 miles to the doctor’s office to make her appointment. Mom’s logic was, “Edith, doesn’t need to know everything.”

When my sister was born, Edith was shocked.

My father who was, once again, waiting to sell another load of hogs overheard Edith exclaim to a neighbor, “I didn’t even know she (my mom) was pregnant. She was driving a tractor all fall hauling corn to the elevator. I’m just going to have to call Betty and ask her why she didn’t tell me. I must have to get my hearing checked.”

Unfortunately, that’s when my dad piped in and politely told Edith, she might want to mind her own business. Then he told her to get off the phone again.

Poor Edith, always wanting to know every neighbor’s move.

Several years ago, when my former employer gave its employees a workshop on how to engage people using social media, I was horrified that I had to start letting people know my every move. I had tell our readers where I was and what I story I was working on. I remarked to my publisher during a question and answer period, this was nothing more than the old “party line.”

He gave me this strange look and said, “you’re right. You need to think of yourself as the community eavesdropper.” 

I got a cell phone and a laptop computer and started to update the newspaper’s web site several times a day. Later the newspaper got a Facebook site and we starting posting more news and community events. I was constantly writing and posting stories.

One day when I was in the thick of writing a county board story, my publisher walked by my office and asked how we were keeping our readers engaged.

“Constantly posting,” I replied. “Edith, would be proud.”

He gave me this bewildered sort of look. Hence, I had to stop and tell him the story of Edith, the old busy-body farm wife who was the “Queen of Gossip” on telephone’s party line. 

“Sounds like she would of have made one heck of a reporter,” he quipped.

Today when I look at my social media sites and I am often quite amazed how people share the most personal and private information. Sometimes, I know more about their personal lives that I care or want to know. 

It’s when I’m flipping through Facebook postings of my friends, that I reminded of Edith. She would have been “The Diva” of social media.


Wanda Moeller is the publisher of The Daily Courier. She can be reached at