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Sat, Oct 22, 2016 19:31
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Telephone party lines and social media

One of my favorite and occasionally borrowed quotes is this gem from noted writer P.J. O'Rourke: "I'm not a liberal, so I'm not an expert on things I know nothing about."

For starters, I know nothing about the stock values – past or present – of things like Facebook and Twitter. I do know that I have no personal use for either one of them.

I will grant you, however, that employees of my company use both forms of social media and that our newspaper does (I'm told) have a Facebook page.

I do not.

For one brief period in time, I did have a Facebook page that was set up by someone much more intelligent about such matters than I ever hope to be. I couldn't generate more than 10 friends so I deactivated it.

What brings this topic up today is the recent announcement by Twitter that it is/has completed its initial public offering (IPO) on a product that has, reportedly, lost $500 million since its inception seven years ago.

At least Facebook had shown signs of profitability prior to launching its IPO.

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me about social media is the younger public's fascination with them. (I believe my subjects and predicates are close to matching in that previous sentence!)

These so-called social media outlets are nothing new.

For many of us 40 or older, we do remember something called a telephone – and a party line.

I can recall in rural southern Ohio in the late 1960s when picking up the home telephone (927-5286) in hopes of making a local call, instead hearing the voices of neighbors like Elvie Walker who were already online. I mean on the rotary telephone.

To me, the telephone party lines of a generation or two ago are similar to today's Facebook/Twitter craze.

They also have this similarity: Telephone party lines prompted litigation just as much as today's social media have been a part of numerous legal actions.

A quick records search will show that telephone party lines were at the center of potential legal matters as far back as 1952 in St. Petersburg, Fla. over an alleged gambling operation, and again in 1956 when a service provider refused a request to segregate telephone party lines.

In between, in the spring of 1955, a New York woman faced charges after her alleged refusal to get off the local party line delayed the report of a fire.

In many areas, party lines were phased out by the 1970s and early '80s.

Fast-forward a couple of generations and we have replaced the telephone party line with newfangled social media like Facebook and Twitter. It's almost comical to think of this as "progress."

Those poor souls 40 or 50 years ago who showed a lack of discretion on the local party line have given birth to a new generation of people who show the same lack of discretion on today's social media.

Today's abusers can rest assured that two of the first things that local, state and national law enforcement investigators will demand – should they be involved in possible litigation – are cell phone records and social media records.

We see it among public officials, private businesses, schoolchildren, friends and neighbors. Hell, I know one small-town mayor who appears to spend more time on Facebook than the public services for which he is compensated.

As business owners, it would behoove you to implore your employees to avoid or at least show some restraint in personal observations that may be related to or posted on their workplace media.

One simple rule that I like to employ is akin to that of Occam's razor: An explanation needs no more assumptions than necessary. In other words, keep it simple.

Or, as I tell my children about their respective social media websites: Unless you want your words on the Front Page of the local paper (which your old man happens to own) don't post them on Facebook.

Rory Ryan is Senior Editor, North American Desk, at Paperitalo Publications and the owner of The Highland County Press in Hillsboro, Ohio. He can be reached by email at or

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