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
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.