The “Party Line” (An Experiment in Public-Access Ad Hoc Teleconferencing)


Johnson’s account of the “Party Line” experiment that he ran in Milford — a project of his “A Small World Exchange” venture.

YOU PICK UP THE phone and dial a local number. It rings once and then is answered automat­ically with a message like: “Wel­come to the Party Line. When this message finishes, your call will be added to a conversation which is already in progress. This number does not accept collect calls. You are welcome here.” And, plink! there you are in the middle of a conversation.[1]

The experience may seem strange at first, but you know there is no risk because although the others heard the “beep” that entered with your line, they have no way of knowing who you are or if you are even still there. And you also know that you always have the option of just hanging up at any time. So, you stay and listen.

If you call before school or from after school into early evening, you will hear kids dominating the line with their high energy: “Hey, what’s happening? . . . Not much, who’s that?” Late at night and especially in the wee hours there’s a more mature, laid-back exchange which can even focus on a topic as the partici­pants discuss and argue issues. These are people home from late-shift work, old people who can’t sleep — or don’t want to sleep in favor of this new way to combat loneliness — and other night owls who like a chance to talk. Morning finds a bunch of house­wives and kids who stayed home from school chatting, exchanging recipes, arranging for rides and swapping advice. They find the Party Line a welcome change from daytime television and a new form of socializing.

Is this a fantasy? No, it hap­pened, day after day, in Nashua, New Hampshire, during early 1980.

Small World Exchange, Inc., started off as a plan for a broad, computer-based regional infor­mation service. We anticipated having subscribers and the pub­lic at large call in to our operator at a data terminal to ask where to buy local farm produce, what nearby handyman could repair a leaky roof, which doctor’s office is open this weekend, who is of­fering a ride to Boston, what’s at the movies within a half-hour drive. In short we would have one operator in command of a marketing service that would be skills bank, Yellow Pages, classi­fieds, transport pool, and more all rolled into one.

In late 1977, while we were ex­ploring design and marketing possibilities, an old friend asked: “What are you going to do if you are successful and have tele­phone callers in queue waiting for attention from your opera­tor? Will you place them on hold?” Well, no, I don’t like being left on hold myself. I would at least like to be able to talk to other people who are on hold to find out how many there are and how long they have been waiting. So, we started thinking about a system that would an­swer calls automatically and al­low callers to talk to each other. There appeared to be many ad­vantages for all of us to this pooling of caller interest and information.

In 1978, when we thought we had a business plan formal enough to go looking for venture capital, we were encouraged to separate the information service from the proposed conferencing gadget and prove out the latter first. At that time teleconfer­encing was still a relatively young market, but we did not yet intend to enter that competi­tive arena. So, with fewer delays and hurdles than usual for new technologies, the Uni-Linx (TM) Telephone Conferencing System came into being.

We started operations on July 2, 1979. Marketing the service, or even finding enough users to run a full-scale test, was a slow and frustrating experience. Every­body seems to know what con­ferencing is and that it’s a good thing, but until you are able to show them how it will save them money, it’s just an interesting bauble and not a part of their regular telephone use. The Uni-Linx System can handle 50 active lines simultaneously, but we leased only 20 lines from New England Telephone as a start. The system displays the status of all lines to the operator on a CRT screen and, sitting there as operator day after day, I longed to see that screen really light up. How could I get 20 people to want to use the system all at the same time and for a sustained period?

In August we hit upon a stroke of luck. A woman broadcasting a daily midday talk show at a local radio station was willing to try us, and ”Open Forum” be­came a once-a-week event. Some surprisingly good discussions arose, but only sporadically. Noon is not a good hour for a call-in talk show and the topics had to be fairly controversial — Iran, abortion, teen problems or complaints about the schools — in order to draw a good number of simultaneous callers. General­ly no more than six or seven lines were connected.

Then, on the afternoon of No­vember 9, a call came in while I was at the console. It was a high-school boy who asked: “What is this?” Maybe he’d heard our number on the talk show. I explained the system to him and suggested that he use it with some of his friends. I didn’t tell him where our office was lo­cated but asked instead that he think of us as being inside his telephone. It was a Friday and I promised to leave the system up and running in its automatic mode. He and his friends had only to call that same number at any time and up to 20 of them could all talk together. He was incredulous but said he’d give it a try. “The Party Line” was born.

The use of the system started calmly enough for the first few days, but a week and a half later I sat down as operator to pre­pare for a new radio talk-show customer and was appalled to find that I could not get control of the system. I pushed “Boot” again and again (a program reset command which also hangs up all lines) only to see a new wave of calls fill up the machine like the tide. I was the sorcerer’s ap­prentice who now had too much of what he had once wanted. I struggled and cajoled and turned off the machine for a few minutes, but by air time only a few lines were clear and I wound up losing my new customer. The experience shook me. 

Not long afterward, I discovered some more graceful ways to take control when I wanted it. As the users came to appreciate the new medium, they cooperated sufficiently to leave the system alone at times critical for me. If the annunciator message said that the Party Line was not in session, but gave a target time when it would again be available, most of them would wait. I have a notation in my log from an evening soon thereafter when I sat with a friend listening and watching the activity on the CRT. It was amazing. A line would disconnect and in two to five seconds it would be full again! Since it takes longer than that to dial the number, hang up, and redial, we could only as­sume that there were kids out there having to try over and over again to get in.

The pandemonium which was generally exploding in that “con­versation space” is hard to ima­gine and was difficult to decipher at first hearing. Too often some­one would get frustrated or cantankerous and would lean on a touch-tone button so that every­one else would yell angrily for the noise to stop (which was, of course, the preferred response). Only with an operator present were we able to isolate or dis­connect such vandals, and when the task of getting in was difficult enough, the threat of disconnec­tion was sufficient to quell most abuses.

I asked New England Telephone for a “Busy Line Study” and it was conducted during the first week of the new year, 1980. Keep in mind that a busy signal was only put out when all 20 lines were active and a 21st call tried to enter. Results were totalled hourly from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. There were a few zeros in the early morning, but none thereafter. During the busiest hours, 3 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 8 p.m., there were almost 3000 busy signals put out for us. That’s almost one per second! Some kids claimed to have dialed for more than an hour before connecting successfully. Eventually one of them tried maintaining a marathon talk session with friends calling in on shifts to keep him awake. He is said to have lasted 107 hours, but I doubt the record ever reached the pages of Guinness.

From the start we suggested to the kids that there might be some dangers in giving out real names or telephone numbers on the “Line.” Although many were initially reluctant to surrender their accustomed identities, they soon found that there were un­expected advantages in choosing a nickname — sort of like a CB handle — for a public self-image. The range of these nicknames was wonderful: Almond Joy, Black Knight, Cougar, Danger Zone, Freebird, Granny, Hot Legs, Lonesome, LSD, Moon Unit, Purple Haze, Scissors, Stoned, Sweet Honesty, Unknown, The Witch. I was Waterboy.

A cooperative and interested businessman in a neighboring building donated some time on a word processor for me to keep a list of nicknames, updated every few days, when we began to solicit token subscription fees. There were other enthusiastic users who kept lists of names and the numbers eventually headed toward 2000 “regulars” but there were some that only appeared for a short time and never again. Some people used it very much and some not at all, but the circle of users never stopped widening.

We sought to prohibit dope deals because we didn’t want the law on our backs. I tried not to impose my own values onto events on the Line and would only pull someone aside when I was operator if there were active objections to his or her behavior by the other users. Often the language was abominable and I occasionally heard protests from parents about the abusive pro­fanity available to their little dears. (I pointed out that we were not a broadcast medium: one had to dial in to reach us.) The question often arose as to whether the Nashua police were monitoring the Line. My answer was that since this was a public communication space — with free access to all, including the police — it would not be like wiretap­ping and we might as well as­sume they were listening: i.e., so what?

I was amazed to find that sometimes there might be three con­versations maintained simultaneously without apparent interference. Mostly, though, there weren’t any formal “conversations” in the sense of there being a sustained topic or agenda. It was a melting pot of salutations and epithets and questions \ requesting only brief answers: ’ “Who’s that? Hey, how ya doin’? How old are you? Are you good-looking?” For a time there emerged a rollcall procedure (later bastardized to “road call”) in which everything was expected to come to a halt and the various participants would chime in as sequentially as possible with nickname and age. I knew, as operator watching the CRT, that only a fraction of those connected indicated their presence at these times.

Early on I found myself pres­sured by some of the kids to let one or more of them come in and be operators. It was some­thing of a power trip to take control of the Party Line, but I was able to find a few who were trustworthy and reliable. Part of their wish to be operators came from a genuine enthusiasm for the thing and a desire to zap the “pushbuttons” and the “loud stereos” who would try to disrupt the Line out of frustra­tion or anger or whatever. I wanted to leave the Line un­attended as much as possible, but we discovered there were creeps mean enough to leave a touch-tone key depressed for hours.

The operator’s CRT screen indi­cated with a flashing asterisk which line was delivering sound at any given moment. Accumu­lated connect time and “talking time” were also displayed. As a result, the operator could tell at a glance who had been on for how long and which lines con­tained the “listen-only” types. There were almost always a few of these and often if such people were isolated and addressed di­rectly, they would simply hang up without responding. At the other extreme there were, of course, those who tended to dominate conversations, and I realized that in this totally audi­tory medium a “critical mass” of these garrulous types were necessary in order to keep the talk moving.

Apart from the Uni-Linx “main pool” into which calls are placed automatically after receiving the annunciator message, there are six other groupings that can be formed, isolated from all the rest. All of this happens at the touch of a few keys on the CRT keyboard. I often picture it as a public building where anyone can enter into the front vesti­bule space and talk to whoever is there. If a receptionist (operator) is present s/he can assign people to six private rooms down the hall and then bring them back later to the main pool.

The kids on the Party Line seemed to have ambivalent feel­ings about the “private lines,” as they called them. Sometimes two or three or more would want to go off for a while to talk just among themselves, but they always wanted to make sure they could get back later into the maelstrom of the moment. As with all kids who “hang out” somewhere, they wanted to stay on the boundary between the “indoors” and the “outdoors” of where things were happening.

I can remember being charmed the first few times I helped a couple who didn’t know each other yet but wanted to talk pri­vately. The moment they reached out within the private space and no longer had to cope with the myriad other relation­ships in the main pool, their voices softened audibly and their tempo slowed to a comfortable cadence. If two people mono­polized a private line for too long, we would ask them please to hang up and call each other directly. Almost invariably, they would opt instead to be re­turned to the main pool.

There were also times when I was able to take the lines over which two people were yelling at each other angrily and place them together in a private connection so quickly that they didn’t miss a beat of the argu­ment nor notice at first that the rest of the crowd wasn’t with them anymore. Often the loss of their audience would suffice to obviate the disagreement and they would laugh (perhaps throw in a curse at me for good measure) and fall to friendly commiseration while waiting to be returned to the chaos they loved.

I have a fantasy of a future system which includes an algorithm in its computer that can watch for simple cyclical patterns in small groups of lines. Thus, if a group wanted to achieve some measure of privacy they would simply commence a chanting round of counting (1,2,3,...) and when the algorithm had a fix on that cycle it would start slowly to di­minish the sounds of the rest of the pack as heard by that group and of their sounds for the pack so that the effect would be as if they had moved off slowly as far as desired. Stopping the count and resuming normal conversation would hold the relationship fixed, while return to the main group would be achieved simply by maintaining silence for a time longer than is normal in active conversations. One could still retain some audi­ble grasp of any abrupt happen­ings or anticipated arrivals in the main group while also enjoying a measure of privacy with a friend. The heuristics of such an algorithm might be difficult to perfect, but I think not.

A lot of what was exchanged on the Party Line was just stuff of the moment; people calling in to “be there” where it was all happening. Some news was swapped and the overall effect was like the old town well, where people had to come once or twice a day to fill their buck­ets and where they would talk with whoever else was on the same errand.

But there were some events that never would have come to pass in any other way. I heard at­tempted seductions of young girls by older men but never knew if these went any further than just talk; and there were some serious fight challenges and re­ports later on the outcomes. Would the fights have happened anyway? Perhaps. But it was the positive connections that tempted me into keeping the Line going well beyond the point when warning signs were saying otherwise.

“Mustang” was a kid who was being abused by her stepfather and she stayed out of school for weeks at a time, preferring in­stead to sit in a hot bath at home and talk on the Party Line. She wasn’t much of a complainer, but gradually her story came out. A family with four daughters in a neighboring town took an in­terest and soon adopted her themselves, giving her a new home.

Then there was “Rejection.” He attempted suicide in the spring and wound up in the hospital, but from that bed he was able to keep in touch with the Party Line and then he began to find out how many friends he had. He even changed his nickname later.

“Blue Eyes” was one of our teen­age operators for a while but her subterranean anger got in her way too often and we ultimately asked her to give back her office keys. One day, though, she was on the Line from home and was obviously hurting. Her mother worked at an emergency ward many towns away but Blue Eyes didn’t want any part of that. We finally talked her into accepting a ride from “Paul Bunyan” to a local E.W. to have her pain checked out. The diagnosis was an infected kidney!

One of our adult women regulars found herself stranded late at a night spot and didn’t trust any­one there to drive her home. She called the Party Line, found a familiar voice, and got her ride.

“Queen Elizabeth” and her hus­band, “Billy the Kid,” were elderly people housebound by failing health who came to rely on the Line as an all-night recreation and a source of good talk and fellowship. A few others worked late-shift jobs and had always dreaded the after-work hours when no one else is up and around and nothing much is open.

We would like sometime to set up a regular morning check-in service for senior citizens with one of their number in place as operator. We are aware of the growing number of such services that have sprung up around the country where the clients report in every morning to say they’re okay and then, if the roster is incomplete at some hour, a check is made on the missing names. In other places the agency involved calls up the clients one at a time. With both methods there is no time for chatting because the line must be cleared for the next call. What if that is the only human contact all day for that particular person? If a conferencing device were used, many of the callers could stay on after checking in and talk to their friends—perhaps about what to do together on a nice day.

Loneliness is something that grows and deepens in the moments when we want human contact but cannot have it. If you have a telephone, there may be no one to call, perhaps because of the hour or because all the numbers you have tried come up empty. If the Party Line is there, loneliness can often be short-circuited indefinitely. The medium is alive, responsive, and high variety. It creates its own community.

We suspect also that counseling for some forms of human distress such as wife- or child-beating can be initiated more effectively in a telephone conferencing environment. Being able to call in anonymously to a place where others are talking who have already shared your experience and remorse affords a giant step toward feeling less unique and irredeemable.

In the arena of commercial voice-only telephone conferencing for business and industry, the going rate for just the interconnection service has been around 35 cents per line per minute, with the customer(s) picking up any toll charges for their calls in to the conferencing bridge. But what of an open-ended, ad hoc call-in free-for-all? How can such a public-access communications medium earn enough from somewhere to sustain itself?

Early in the game we began asking the kids to pay us a buck a month as a subscription fee. It was a rounded, token amount that would test our market response. We rented a P.O. box for the Party Line and asked that they each send a dollar along with a nickname and we would keep the list up to date and know who was paid up until then. The generous contribution of word-processor time aided us with this task.

Some of the kids were fanatical about paying and some helped further by talking up the need for revenue on the Line itself, patiently giving out the box number and zip code for us. Along with the dollars that did, much as we received piles of unsolicited testimonials lauding the Line as the best thing happening around Nashua, N.H. But our paid-up subscribers numbered about one in ten of the total number of users, just about the same success enjoyed by educational television. Of course, we did have the friction of an operator on duty, of cutting off anyone who was not paid up, or of not letting him or her into the “room down the hall” where the Party Line was happening that day. I occasionally tried such methods of applying pressure, but I didn’t like the feeling I took home with me. I was also aware of the chilling effect of an interception on a new caller who was trying it for the first time.

The most adequate and direct solution would have emerged out of cooperation from the New England Telephone Company. Supposing they were to create for us a “local toll exchange” and then were to pass on to us a royalty some of the revenues derived from it. Their recordkeeping is computerized anyway and the subroutines necessary to keep track of our activity would in no way alter their basic procedures. Long-distance rates are traditionally calculated as a function of time and distance, so why not picture the Party Line as residing on top of a tall flagpole in the middle of Nashua? I suggested that we define a call-in unit as 20 cents and that Small World guarantee a base of 10,000 such units per month or $100 per line, whether or not we generated that much activity. (We estimated we could exceed the minimum within the first three days of the month.) After those first guaranteed units we wanted a 50 percent royalty on all further traffic. Furthermore, the accounting of our share would be only on the number of calls in to us—irrespective of any other tolls they might be generating by distance of origin or duration of connection.

We could have guaranteed generous revenues both for us and for them. We were refused. New England Telephone said they had never served in the role of billing agent for anyone else and did not intend to start. They expressed concern over opening the door to similar demands from other vendors such as data services and reservation booking agencies which generate toll revenues without expectation of a royalty. I pointed out that we were offering nothing to our clients other than an interconnection between them. Unlike the other vendors they worried about, for whom customer identification had to be the first step in their process, anonymity was of high value to our users. Furthermore, it is unlikely that unit accounting by number of calls would have interested the other vendors. I thought that we could differentiate our service sufficiently to warrant granting us the request, but my arguments fell upon deaf ears.

Curiously, there was a meeting called by Ma Bell in our office to discuss our impact upon the Nashua area telephone system. It seems that we had, by early March of 1980, increased the number of attempted calls, or “dialouts,” by 18 percent. They were troubled by the trend and indicated that we might be asked to lease more lines, presumably so that the repeat-busy dialings would decrease in frequency. I guessed that the actual effect on dialouts would be like throwing gasoline on a fire. As events turned out, the point was superfluous. It was also revealed at that meeting that because of the kids’ eager exploratory efforts to reach the Party Line when all lines were full, a number of telephone customers had to request that their numbers be changed in order not to be harassed around the clock by misdialings. I had heard a few such complaints in the first weeks, but no one had until then told me how far the problem had gone.

What to do next? We had a proven piece of equipment that anyone could operate and a proven market that had spread of its own without advertising. In less than four months we had more than 2000 daily users in a local dialing area of 150,000 — but we had no reliable way to collect a fee directly. We might have to look for sponsors who would buy our annunciator message time and perhaps other intervals of interruption to ex­pose our captive audience to commercials. We have all become conditioned to tolerate such intrusions but I didn’t want to im­pose them on the Line.

By April it was apparent that some of my volunteer operators, especially the ones who wanted the graveyard shift, were not really operating in the best in­terests of the Party Line but had some agendae of their own. Drug deals and other solicitations can set up dangerous liaisons be­cause of their illegality quite apart from whether drugs for consenting adults are themselves dangerous. I got wind of some mortal threats (not threats to me, but ones that would probab­ly not have arisen without the line having been there), and there was word also of some parents becoming upset by the language their kids could hear. Revenues from the $ 1 contribu­tions were running less than $400 per month.

There were days when I spent hours as operator, dumping off the “pushbuttons” and “loud stereos,” talking quietly with those who really wanted the Line to continue but didn’t know how to help me and telling all the kids that the revenues had to come in or the Line would go off.

On the evening of Friday, April 18, 1980, I came into the office after a warning of chronic gross violations of my request for at most two operators (and no one else) to be there at one time. (1 had security obligations to the offices around mine in that build­ing.) That night I found an of­fice carpeted wall-to-wall with Nashua’s teenagers. I decided, to quote Muad’Dib, “It’s finished because I end it here.” The struggle had gone past my limits of tolerance and I pulled the plug, literally.

The next day I set up the system with four lines receiving calls and putting out an annunciator message, but no conferencing connection between them. The message said that the Party was over and that those paid up in advance could get their money back. I had no takers.

The flood of calls did not sub­side immediately but tailed off slowly for the next weeks and months. Even now, more than two years later, there is still the occasional wistful call that will come in when I am running a conference for a commercial customer. Some may be wrong numbers, because they hang up during the message, but some are kids who talk for a moment, hoping that the Party Line might somehow come back; Teenage Camelot.

Well, I would like to bring it back and in almost as free-swing­ing a mode as it was then. I’d like to be able to pay operators a sensible wage so that I could hire people for the job who could handle its pressures as well as its joys. Some bizarre things can happen and there are crazy­making chllers who can anger anyone. I would want people who are flexible enough to come up with a response appropriate for themselves to any situation. That’s a tall order. There are all sorts of people out there, even skilled conciliators who can talk the angry disruptors out of their need to get in the way. There are desperate people who sudden­ly find out that there are others who care and that their troubles are not unique nor insoluble. And there is always the bois­terous, marvelous talk of people who for once have an audience.

The Party Line was turned on around-the-clock for just over five months. It is something of a legend around Nashua and oc­casionally I will run into some­one who used it or whose kids used it. I am offered as many descriptions of what the Party Line was all about as the blind men gave of the elephant.

It was whatever you made of it.


Avery Johnson first wrote us in 1980, suggesting his Party Line machine for Next Whole Earth Catalog review - a $20,000 device for connecting together everyone who called a certain number and making them into a community. His device seemed too pricey and unproven to review then, but the image of the Party Line stayed in my mind, and when he eventually sent this article about the dream instead of the machine, we were ready. The Party Line is still for sale for $20,000 to $100,000 from A very at Armory Road, Milford, NH 03055. There’s a small system running privately in New York City. Be the first in your town to melt together the phone lines. -Art Kleiner