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Changes in phone number ownership – from party line to family line to personal line

I have written about the multi-user phone before, but that was in the context of phones as computers. Let’s ignore the fact that a phone can be a computer, and look at a phone as a phone. When you dial a phone number, who answers?

Privateline.com documents the first answer to this question in its page about the party line. Today, party line means something entirely different, but in the 20th century “party line” referred to a phone line that was shared by multiple households. This provided some advantages:

For years, [Homer Benedict] shared the telephone line with the woman next door. When he was working in his yard, she would pick up on his ring and summon him inside to take the call.

However, party lines had clear privacy issues, as Doris Day and Rock Hudson fans will attest. (Privateline.com notes that despite the movie “Pillow Talk” being set in New York City, that city had actually eliminated all party lines by 1930.)

Because of this, most people converted to what were then known as private lines (although Homer Benedict didn’t convert to a private line until he turned 100, and then only because the party line wouldn’t support Lifeline service). Back when I was growing up, private lines were actually considered to be private. After all, if you dialed a number, you would get mom, or dad, or one of the kids. And since these were the days in which phones were attached to the wall (i.e. no cordless phones), you usually wouldn’t have people eavesdropping on your calls. Usually.

But as I noted in my October 2011 post, more and more people are moving to cellular phones. While such a phone could theoretically be shared by a family, it often makes more sense for the phone to be associated with an individual.

This progression from party line to family line to personal line has numerous ramifications, but I’m just going to talk about one of them. I’ll return to my initial question – when you dial a phone number, who answers?

In the party line world, that answer could vary. Perhaps Doris Day isn’t at home, so Rock Hudson answers (ignoring the “distinctive ring” feature that indicated that the call was for Doris). This might be helpful if you’re the woman who lives next to Homer Benedict, but it could be disastrous if you’re trying to reach Doris Day and you reach Rock Hudson instead.

In the family line world, there was less variability – you’d usually have someone answer who was a member of a particular household. What would usually happen, however, is that the intended recipient of the call would NOT be the one to answer. Often dad would answer the phone, only to receive yet another call for his popular teenage daughter.

In the personal line world, the phone is usually answered by one person. If I dial a particular number, then I expect that a single person will answer that phone, and I will get flustered when someone else answers it.

These things have changed over the years, and we have had to change our behavior and our expectations accordingly. Sometimes we get confused – what happens if you call me and ask for my wife, forgetting that you are calling me on my mobile phone and my wife is in another county? Or what happens when a teenage boy calls that cute teenage girl – but he mistakenly calls her on her home line and her dad answers?

But the “who will answer the phone” question is just one of many questions that has resulted from these changes in phone number ownership. What issues do you encounter because of this?

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