‘Party Line’​ Redux: Sometimes Reinvention Is a Shortcut to Innovation

Rick Robinson
Feb 10 · 4 min read

I entered a time machine recently, with the ticket to ride being my phone — naturally — and traveled years deep into the last century where I fell into a good old fashioned … party line?

People were chattering on about shorting stocks in one corner and how to be a successful entrepreneur as part of the “Millionaires Club” in another; a woman was confessing the shortcomings holding her back from “success realized” as an audience of dozens listened in yet another.

But this was not some 800-CHAT number I dialed, racking up thousands of dollars in charges like one California teen did in 1988. And it was not quite as People Magazine put it in 1988:

“…these party lines are big business. Kids — and adults too — are frequently paying more than the cost of a long-winded call to Tibet just to chat with up to nine strangers in their local area. Across the country, the conversational options include Gab Line, Phone-A-Friend, Teen Line, Date Line, Sports Talk, Rock and Roll Line, Santa Claus Line and Tele-Friend, to name a few. (In Washington, D.C., there is even Bitch Line, affording callers a place to vent their complaints about teachers, bosses, spouses and other provocateurs.)”

Rather, this was so much better. And yet very much the same.

I was hanging out in Clubhouse of course, which has quickly gone from an exclusive Silicon Valley salon to a slick update on the party lines many are likely too young to recall.

The interface is now visual, thanks to smartphones, and navigation is familiar — much like selecting chat rooms, threads, message boards or groups, depending on your social environment choice. And lurking is a joy — the conversation can be background noise while you do other things but come alive when your focus returns.

So why all the hubbub over a tool that simply updates an old and nearly forgotten service? Overlooking technological factors (we all have cellphones nowadays), what remains is behavioral: We’re social creatures, and during a year where a virus has kept us apart and desperate for connection, we are ripe for the kind of safe socializing Clubhouse encourages. Clearly they saw an opening and exploited it.

And good for them.

But where’s the innovation? Point is, nobody said innovation has to be novel. Some of the most successful products are in fact new spins of an old wheel. Did you know Uber cribbed a product that preceded it by nearly a decade? We all know Facebook was created on the back of an earlier service (where I once worked). And most of the ways we interact in apps and websites find their roots in earlier services you’ve likely never heard of.

But looking to the past to improve the future can be just as effective as toiling to birth something unique. Impactful consumer products and digital experiences needn’t spring from a lab fully formed, dazzling us with mind-bending newness, like those creations Tesla wrought 100 years ago or some of what came from Edison’s creative army. Or more recently Sir Tim Berners Lee imagining the Web into existence. Iterative, complementary or derivative inventions are often just as important.

Now, cynics might cry out “Everything is derivative. There are no new ideas.” While this may be largely true the reality is more nuanced. (See Steven Poole’s book about “steppingstone” ideas if you need more evidence.)

Nobody said innovation has to be novel

Innovation is infrequently about a new idea, sometimes about execution and more often about timing and positioning. Getting a derivation of something into a new context at the right time can be everything: suddenly a copycat product sparks a eureka moment for its intended consumers. This is Clubhouse. (You might argue Discord was there first and Capiche.fm is better for its egalitarianism, but their innovations weren’t sited specifically to drive demand through scarcity of access, hence the result.)

This is not to argue terrific execution isn’t immensely important. Compare Clubhouse to Parlor, the “Social Talking App” that’s been around for a decade (not Parler, mind you). Execution of the UX, design and audio technology certainly set Clubhouse apart. But its repositioning of an old idea sating universal and everlasting needs to connect was paramount.

So when looking for the next breakthrough while staring at a blank whiteboard, marker in uncertain hand, have a look over your shoulder for pointers. Many rusty categories are waiting to be reinvented … re-innovated, shall we say.

Could be exactly what those profiteering re-innovators in the ’80s were thinking when they looked back, rifling through history in search of ideas to find an amazing thing popularized decades before in the 1930s … a party line.

A version of this story was originally published on Innovation Leader

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Rick Robinson

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thedictum.com … BBS Magazine then 10 yrs at AOL, Webs.com, Sprint, NatGeo, startups like Urgent.ly, Politico and now AARP Innovation Labs.

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