This month we are talking about community. Usually we think about community as a group of people. Humans united by place or interest who interact with each other in some way. But there is another side to community. That’s communication. My editor triggered this thought process when she questioned my use of the phrase, “your phone has been ringing off the hook” in one of my books. The character who says this is in her 60s. The phrase has real meaning for her, coming as she does, from the days when answering machines were non-existent and if someone really wanted to make you nuts, they would let the phone ring, and ring, and ring, and ring. You get the picture.
My great-grandparents’ were farmers. They didn’t have a phone. Cost too much to bring it in. Their neighbors, six miles away through the fields, further by road, had something that hung on the wall and looked like a shoebox with a horn. One side had a crank handle, the other a cuppy thing you put to your ear. There was a woman inside. You told her whom you wanted, and she told you if they were home. That was community. The operator knew everyone’s business and she shared! No secrets. Saved a ton of time.
Shoeboxes gave way to rotary dial phones. These were much easier, they cut out the middle woman, but unless you had a party line, you lost the edge on the town gossip. One of my neighbors had a party line. As teenagers, we would slip the phone off the hook quietly and listen to whatever was being said. Not proud of that now, but at least we weren’t calling people and asking them if their refrigerator was running and instructing them to go catch it! Phones were community links. They brought us together, and sometimes brought us callers who drove us crazy.
In those days, phones were centrally located, and households usually had only one, two at the most. You paid for those extensions. The phone became a family gathering place. Everyone seemed to expect calls at the same time. And it was a great way for Mom and Dad to keep an eye on what their offspring were planning. Every kid in that generation learned there is nothing as loud as a telephone whisper.
Really important people in the 1980s had banana phones. They were early cell phones, about as big as a size six sneaker, and that’s not counting the antenna. Portable home phones came along at about the same time. Suddenly talkers were freed from the wall. A revolution began. You didn’t have to find a phone to connect with someone, you just had to lug out your forty-pound banana phone (exaggeration), punch in the number, and hope the person you were calling would find their portable phone between the couch cushions before the call cut out. Eventually, it all worked out and phones got smaller, more self-contained, and truly portable. It became possible to stay in touch with friends and family from restaurants, interstates, work, and school. The community was shrinking through expansion. Suddenly we were all closer together and in frequent contact.
Now the community is changing again. Moving from voice to text. Emoticons and Emoji substitute for the depth and texture of a voiced emotion. A cornucopia of abbreviations, some longer than the words they are meant to depict, have taken the place of the subtle phrase or shaded tone. Texts serve their community well. I’ve seen groups of people in elevators thumbing away at speeds I couldn’t hope to approach only to discover they are texting each other! Texting allows huge communities to shrink to manageable groups. And one other good thing about a text. Unless you erase it, you can refer to it. How much grief could that save in terms of misunderstandings averted?
The same miracle of instant communication joins us in the Mysteristas community right now. I’m in Florida. You could be in California, or Australia. It doesn’t matter. We share a community. Something impossible a few decades ago.
How do you feel about the ever expanding and contracting communities of communication? Do you think this trend to downsize words and communication will affect the books you read?