Social media: either we love it or hate it. In the newspaper business, we’re becoming more and more familiar with its many uses and how to use it effectively to reach our audience.

But back in days before Facebook, Twitter, email 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 10 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, 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.”

Yes, 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 who was our neighbor — really, she was sweet, just annoyingly chatty and nosy — was the champ. She 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. He’d turn six shades of purple when he would pick up the phone and, yes, there was she on the line. He’d wait a couple of minutes, try again and, sure enough, she still was jabbering away. A couple more tries and Dad would start looking downright homicidal.

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

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

When my mom was pregnant with my sister, she didn’t want our nosy neighbor 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, “She doesn’t need to know everything.”

When my sister was born, our nosy neighbor was shocked.

My father, who was once again waiting to sell another load of hogs, overheard the old farm wife 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 her she might want to mind her own business. Then he told her to get off the phone again.

She was a nice old lady, but she always wanted to know every neighbor’s move.

Several years ago, during a seminar 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 the presenter during a question-and-answer period that 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 cellphone and a laptop computer and started to update the newspaper’s website several times a day. Later, the newspaper had 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 boss walked into my office and asked how we were keeping our readers engaged.

“Constantly posting,” I replied. “Our busy-body farm wife neighbor would be proud.”

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

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

Today when I look at various social media sites, 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 to know or want to know.

It’s when I’m flipping through Facebook postings of my friends that I’m reminded of that busybody farm wife who loved to eavesdrop on the old “party line.” She would have been “The Diva” of social media.

Recommended for you