The Prototype for Clubhouse Is 40 Years Old, and It Was Built by Phone Hackers

In the late 1970s, hackers forged a social media network using the dominant audio tech of the time — the telephone

A vintage landline phone
Photo: Busà Photography/Getty Images

POV: You’re a 14-year-old kid in Atlanta. It’s 1978, and the internet hasn’t been invented yet, so you mostly get your kicks over the phone. You love to call up your local radio station, WQXI, to request your favorite oldies. This time, however, the line’s been disconnected. A prerecorded message plays in your handset instead. QXI’s AM call-in number is now 741–0790, and QXI’s FM call-in number is… Just as you’re about to hang up, you hear something weird: After the recorded message ends and just before it loops again, you hear someone else on the line. They’re yelling “Hello? hello?

Suddenly you’re listening to a cacophony of voices in one big jumbled conversation: Hello, hello, this is John, this is Peter, somebody talk to me, how old are you, I’m 16, call me, call me, I’m 17, hello!? These kids, you realize, have all discovered the same thing you have. For some reason, anyone who calls this phone number can hear everyone else on the line. It’s a loophole in the phone system, and you’ve all found each other there. It’s chaos. Welcome to the original Clubhouse.

A half-century before social media as we know it today, a generation of bored teenagers, tinkerers, blind kids, and radicals connected with one another in the margins of the dominant technological infrastructure of their time — the telephone network.

The telephone network is a social technology, what the historian Phil Lapsley calls a “gigantic cyber-mechanical-human endeavor.” It is enormously complex and filled with people. In the ’60s and ’70s, before digital systems took over the task of routing calls, even telephone operators, whose job it was to route calls to the correct destination, regularly called other telephone operators for help daisy-chaining connections from coast to coast. Such a vast network was bound to be riddled with busy signals, broken recordings, and vulnerabilities. But these failings also created empty spaces in the network — spaces where people could gather.

Take busy signals. In certain parts of the country, in the early 1960s, if you phoned someone and got a busy signal, your call was actually shunted to a busy line shared by all callers. If you were loud enough, anyone else who happened to be getting a busy signal in that moment could hear you yelling between the beeps. As inconvenient as that was, people started calling busy numbers just to talk to one another. The most enthusiastic among them discovered that certain wrong-number recordings — like the Atlanta radio station’s broken call-in line — functioned in much the same way, and began calling them just to hang out in the crosstalk.

Eventually, conference line enthusiasts, some of whom called themselves phone phreaks, discovered internal telephone company test lines called “loop arounds,” which allowed them to call one another, for free, from anywhere in the country. In the late ’60s, Al Diamond, a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur who ran a business selling maps of stars’ homes from Hollywood street corners, figured out how to tie the seven-line phone system in his basement into the phone company loop lines, creating a free conference call that became known as the Maps to Stars Homes Conference System.

The telephone culture soon experienced its renaissance, in both the arts and sciences: While more technically oriented phreaks gravitated toward the inner workings of the network itself, studying its exchanges and long-distance trunk lines, the artists and pranksters started to use the network as their own personal soapboxes, turning their answering machines into broadcast devices and community hangouts. As such, throughout the ’70s, people could get their social networking fix from telephone comment lines, conference lines, and myriad other phone entertainments.

You could, of course, chat live with other people, on loop arounds and conference lines (not to mention that well into the ’80s, many communities in rural America were served by “party lines” shared by multiple households). On “comment lines,” you could record a message that the line administrator would edit into an audio digest for future callers to hear — something between a radio call-in show and a messageboard. But you could also dial-a-horoscope, dial-a-date, and dial-a-prayer. You could dial for sports scores. You could dial a number to hear Phyllis Diller read from her Rolodex of jokes.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak ran his own joke line in Oakland, although most of those were concentrated in the greater Los Angeles area. With names like The Machine, FLUKE, and The Wrong Number, they were run by teenagers and college students, often on semi-illegal technology, out of their houses. For a period in the mid-70s, the most frequently dialed residential phone number in the world was an answering machine on the floor of a shoe closet in West L.A.

If you called that number, this is what you’d hear: ring, ring, beep, and then a game show announcer bellowing “You’ve reached the entertainment center of your telephone dial!” This introduction was followed by one of the many oddball audio sketches produced by a small collective of jokesters and audio nerds. These recordings changed regularly and varied in sophistication. The best sounded like Saturday Night Live if it were a radio play: “I’ve heard there’s a man in Bluffton, Indiana, that can tap out the rhythm to ‘Winchester Cathedral’ on the air cleaner cover of a 1969 Chrysler DeSoto, and I was wondering if you could have him on the phone for this show?” “I’m sorry ma’am, but we can’t do it. But we do have a man from Cave Creek, Arizona, who can play the cymbal accompaniment to ‘I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman’ on the oil drip pan of a 1966 Rambler Marlin! Will he suffice?”

Inspired by ham radio call signs and lonely hearts ads, people in the phone culture used aliases, like Bryan W. Feedback, Steven Z. Bloopline, Dan Dual-Phase, and Regina Watts Towers. Each were virtuosos in their own way. Regina Watts Towers had a pitch-perfect ability to identify numbers on a touch-tone phone just by listening to the tones. Dan Dual-Phase, a teenager from La Crescenta, used an auto-reverse car stereo to run continuous audio playback on his joke line and jazzed up his recordings with piano and audio effects. Some aliases were indicators of geographic location — like Stephen Pasadena, Lynn Woodland Hills, or Richard Beverly Hills — and others used a shared last name as an indicator of tribal identity (a strategy shared by that era’s punk rockers, like The Ramones).

Some of these people were savants whose deep telephonic studies had earned them access to the phone network’s hidden underbelly. But as phreak archivist Evan Doorbell (also an alias) explains in one of the hundreds of recordings he’s uploaded to YouTube, “the network was so porous, providing so many meeting places just waiting to be used, that ordinary people who didn’t have technical expertise would find these places” too. Loop arounds became popular nationwide, in part, because they were shared between blind kids at summer camp; the Atlanta radio station call-in number was a fluke proliferated by local teens. In New York City, an entire party line subculture emerged after it was discovered that New York Telephone, the Bell subsidiary that served all five boroughs, left the intercept lines of its Centrex service — a centralized phone system it provided to businesses in the city — wide open.

These meeting places had local flavor; the recordings of the Centrex hangout, known as the 790 conference, are a vernacular buffet of New Yorkese trash talk. Even within the greater New York area, “A conference that could only be reached from a certain part of suburban Long Island had a different social feel than one that could only be reached from downtown Brooklyn,” Doorbell tells OneZero. Like any social network, they had their trolls. Disruptive callers might “touch-tone,” jamming all their keys at once or hold their receiver up to the radio to drown out the crosstalk with music, and there was no shortage of obscene and lascivious language on the line. Like modern social media spaces, some conference lines had moderators, who could unilaterally boot disruptive callers; on the more informal lines, the phone phreak Mark Bernay explains, “there was no handling of it other than screaming” until the offending party got bored and hung up (which might be worth a shot with certain Clubhouse personalities).

Of course, the telephone system has long since patched its holes, and the phone network went electric starting in the late ’70s. Human operators were out; transistors, modems, and microprocessors were in. Although conference line culture continued into the ’80s, it grew less anarchic when the phone company began to offer conference calling (and dial-a-joke lines) as a paid service. As a consequence, many phone phreaks shifted their attention to the new electronic networks that would soon come to dominate the world. By bringing their enthusiasm for learning about — and joyriding on — complex systems, many became the first network hackers.

Now, nearly 50 years after phone culture’s golden age, every city in America is littered with abandoned pay phones, untethered from the vast network they once served. Few people pay for a landline anymore. Ironically, we’re on our phones more than ever — except we no longer hang out on conference lines or dial into joke services. Instead, we scratch those itches in the walled gardens of social media apps, many of which, thanks to tech’s unceasing tendency to reinvent the wheel, are beginning to introduce live voice conferences as a feature. To compete with Clubhouse, Twitter is rolling out Spaces, an audio chat function, next month; Facebook won’t be far behind.

“Multi-voice chat systems like Clubhouse are similar to the old phone conferences,” says Mark Bernay, who prefers one-on-one messaging now. “The essential similarity is the need for people to find each other. People could call loop lines or conference lines and meet random strangers. That’s much of what modern social media is for.”

The major difference, of course, is just how all these random strangers find one another now, and what happens once they do. It required serious technical know-how to create conference lines in the ’60s and ’70s, and some measure of curiosity, or word-of-mouth intel, to know where to dial. Because the phreaks were essentially exploiting loopholes in the phone system, they enjoyed the freedom shared by all pirates: What they built may not have been permanent, it may not always have been entirely legal, but it was theirs. “It was an underground culture which few people knew about, and there was almost no media acknowledgment of the phenomenon,” Doorbell says.

Phreaks spotted the weakness in their dominant technological infrastructure; within those, they carved out communities, shared knowledge, and indulged in a larger spirit of exploration. We are far less able to conduct ourselves this way today because we’re penned into flat user interfaces and kept distracted while our behaviors are farmed for profit. It’s nearly impossible to develop our own sense of place because we’re not stakeholders, we’re products.

“The addiction to things like Facebook is very much like the addiction many people had to these conference lines,” Doorbell adds. “The main difference in that in the ’70s people were having fun with these things.”

He’s right — we’re still hooked on the immediacy of communication, but we’re too hamstrung by the platforms to have any fun. The countercultural panache of the phone phreaks is long gone, too, replaced by ceaseless hustle. In a recent piece about Clubhouse for the New Yorker, Anna Weiner observes that it’s “hard to shake the feeling that everyone on Clubhouse is selling something: a company, a workshop, a show, a book, a brand.”

In his 1971 underground bestseller, Steal This Book, the political revolutionary Abbie Hoffman shared dozens of strategies for defrauding the phone company. He did so as a protest against the 10% government tax on long-distance calls that helped fund the Vietnam War. Hoffman later co-founded a newsletter, the Youth International Party Line (motto: FUCK THE BELL SYSTEM), which, by branching out into other forms of technological subversion, was a predecessor to hacker magazines like 2600.

“Ripping-off the phone company is an act of revolutionary love,” Hoffman wrote. These were the politics of the phone culture: ongoing creative resistance against an inflexible monopoly. The recent popularity of audio-based messaging apps may feel nostalgic, in part, because they emulate an older form of communication — audio, and its attendant ephemerality — but they are a far cry, in spirit, from their predecessors. We can only hope that somewhere, far from the polished facades of social media, deep in the glitches, in the broken, in-between spaces of the web, a new generation of phreaks is on the line. I hope they’re having fun. I’ll be waiting by the phone until they call.

Into old technology and new biology. Author of Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet (Penguin, 2018).

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store