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Party Lines, Clubhouse, and Reinvention as a Shortcut to Innovation

February 8, 2021
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I entered a time machine recently through my phone, and traveled deep into the last century, where I fell into an old-fashioned party line.

For those of you too young to remember, that was a telecom service where people could dial in and socialize in a giant group chat. The idea stems from the switchboard operations of the 1930s (and later), when multiple homes had to share the same phone line, but has popped up in new forms in recent history. 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…to name a few.”

But this was not some 800-555-CHAT number I dialed, racking up thousands of dollars in charges like one California teen did in the 1980s. This was so much better — and yet very much the same.

I was hanging out in Clubhouse, which has quickly gone from an exclusive Silicon Valley salon to a slick update on the party lines of the past. 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. In one room, a woman was confessing the shortcomings holding her back from “success realized” as an audience of dozens listened. 

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 (most of us now have smartphones), what remains is behavioral: We’re social creatures, and during a year in which a virus has kept us apart and desperate for connection, we are ripe for the kind of safe socializing that the app encourages. Clearly, the team at Clubhouse saw an opening and exploited it.

And good for them.

But where’s the innovation? The 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 copied 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). Most of the ways we interact in apps and websites find their roots in earlier services you’ve likely never heard of

Nobody said innovation has to be novel.

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 coding the web into existence in 1989. Iterative, complementary, or derivative inventions are often just as important.

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 clicks with its intended consumers at the perfect moment. This is Clubhouse. 

This is not to argue that terrific execution isn’t immensely important. Compare Clubhouse to Parlor, the “Social Talking App” that’s been around for a decade (not the similarly-named conservative social app Parler, mind you). Execution of the UX, design, and audio technology certainly set Clubhouse apart. But its repositioning of an old idea sating the universal need 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 — and re-innovated.

That could have been 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.

 

Rick Robinson is the Vice President of Startup Engagement at AARP Innovation Labs. For more of Robinson’s work see his Linktree or connect with him on LinkedIn

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