There is a little town, about a hundred miles north of Dallas, called Telephone, Texas. My friend Dan Burrus remembers visiting his grandparents on their farm there.
“It was one of those places,” says Dan, “that was so small you could put the Now Entering and Now Leaving signs on the same post.” (Shameless plug: Dan and I write about this in our book Flash Foresight, coming out this month.)
The town got its name in 1886 from its single telephone, which was located in Pete Hindman’s general store. By the time Dan was visiting as a young boy, most homes had desktop rotary phones—those heavy things made of hard, black Bakelite.
In the 1960s, the Princess phone, with its easy portability (and by the 70s, modular jacks), revolutionized the way we communicate nearly as radically as MySpace and then Facebook would forty years later. (In both cases, starting with teenage girls, and then filtering out to the rest of society. Hmm. Tech forecasters take note: Are teenage girls our technology bellwether?) Suddenly you could make calls from the bedroom. Suddenly anyone could talk … to anyone.
Why am I mentioning all this? Because the telephone was the first genuine social media. Not radio (one-way), not television (one-way), but the phone. In many ways, the 20th century was the century of the automobile. The personal car “changed forever the way we lived and thought, shopped and courted, made war and spread the peace,” as Dan and I say in the book.
But as much as the car changed our reality, the phone transformed it more profoundly still. With the car, we could move away. With the phone, we could move away—and still talk to each other.
Pocket-sized cell phones democratized communication even further. By the ’90s, anyone and everyone could talk from anywhere. And then we did this mind-blowingly ingenious thing: we married our phones to our computers.
It’s easy to think of the Internet as a big, global computer. More importantly, it’s a big, global telephone. What Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all the rest have done is profoundly accelerated a direction that was already well underway a half-century ago: the ushering in of the Age of, perhaps not Aquarius, but Authenticity.
We have become a transparent world. There is no more hiding. Consumers know everything about products, patients know more than their doctors about the latest drugs. As Mike Dillard says, “Today, if you treat someone badly or do them wrong, everyone knows about it. And once it’s on Google, it’s not going away.”
You know what they say, about people who live in glass houses? Guess what: today that’s everyone. Hold those stones.
JOHN DAVID MANN is Consulting Editor of Networking Times.