Telephones and Fandom

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Fandom: Panfandom
Dates: early 20th century-present
See also: Fandom and the Internet

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The use of, and reference to, telephones in fandom has a long history. However like all technologies, it has been reshaped and in some cases superseded by other technologies.

"In 1939 many fans still didn't have phones - including the four who organized the first Worldcon. But in those days if [Sam] Moskowitz mailed a Special Delivery letter by 6 p.m., the other party would get it by 11 if he wasn't more than 50 miles away, at a cost of 3 cents." [1]

Fan Use of Phones

From a fan in 1976:
We are not just lonely "Trekkies" misunderstood and far scattered, alone or in small bunches separated by Long Distance Phone Rates and Post Office Snail Mail. Together we are strong. We spoke our minds and the world heard. [2]

Much As It Ever Was

Fans used phones much in the same manner that fans use email today: to collaborate on writing and publishing stories, to organize a convention or to squee over their favorite TV show.

In 1996, two fans used it to practice for some filking they were going to do at Shore Leave: "I sang this year with [MR] who came all the way from Los Angeles... She practiced with me over the phone for hours, and made up beautiful harmonies." [3]

the inside back cover of Pegasus #4 v.1, Leia Organa talks to someone on her Western Electric Princess phone artist is Joni Wagner (1979)

One zine publisher explains the process of producing a zine: "…the dozens of miscellaneous items that go into producing a zine, but aren't part of the actual printing cost. Such things might include presstype-lettering, typewriter rental, typing and layout supplies, long-distance last-minute phone calls to distributors, etc...postage…" [4]

Another fan wrote that when publishing her zine it required: "Soliciting contributions, working with the contributors on editing and revising, advertising, and sales relied on postal service communication and whatever long-distance phone calls the budget could handle." [5]

There were also social nuances to fandom phone use as evidenced by Susan Garrett's chapter in The Fantastically Fundamentally Functional Guide to Fandom ("Telephone Courtesy OR How to Make Enemies Without Even Trying") here.

And the inability to 'reach out and touch' another fan by phone, spurred some fans to more creative heights: "Though it seems to her like she was born there, Mindy Glazer dates her entry into ST fandom to February 11, 1978, at 8:30 p.m. (precisely), when there was nothing on tv and the only person she wanted to telephone had already telephoned someone else. Unable to find anything better to do, she began writing The Perfect Object."[6]

Most phones in the 1960s-1980s were corded, which meant that the phone could not be carried off to a more private or comfortable place. For fans who did not have freedom to talk openly about their fannish passions (such as slash), this made phone use both tricky and onerous. And because phone headsets and speakerphones had not yet been made widely available, fans would spend hours with the phone pressed to their ear or clamped against their neck. Arm and neck pain were a typical complaint after many long phone sessions.

The phone was also how some TPTB passed on information to fans in expectation that these fans would then pass that information on to others. One of the highlights of the August Party was a long distance phone call from Gene Roddenberry: "The August Party convention was held in Maryland in the 1970s. It always featured a long-distance call with Gene Roddenberry, and the information would then be passed along to the rest of fandom, often by way of reports in various zines." [7]

Those fans with greater access to telephones would immediately put that access to fannish use:
"One fan in the late 70s and early 80s ...had free long distance phone service, which she made extensive use of in fannish pursuits. She was a driving force behind the "Save Spock" campaign in 1982, and because of this she was able to get the word out to numerous people on the status of this project. There were also extensive uses of "telephone trees" - i.e., when something of fannish interest because known, people had assigned people to call. Fan A would call fans B and C, fan B had a couple of people to call, fan C ditto. I don't have firsthand experience of this, but I was told that fans in the New York City area made extensive use of this technique. (Which, of course, had the danger of the "telephone" game in which information can get distorted the further away it was from the original source.) The use of monthly letterzines helped keep accurate information out there. (And, of course, fans were constantly calling each other with updates on fannish information without any formal “telephone trees”.)"[8]
"No review of Perestroika would be complete without mentioning the fantastic Suzan Lovett art throughout... I find it impossible to select one as a favorite, but the drunken (and nearly naked) Illya talking to an amused Napoleon comes close." [9]

Don't Call Me During That Time!

From 1991:
... I must warn you that I can be rather rude to people who call during my favorite TV shows. ST:TNG is never interrupted because of its time slot (10:30 Saturday evening). "Twin Peaks" (8:00 p.m. Thursday) and "Quantum Leap" (9:00 p.m. Wednesday) are not so protected. If you therefore call and get Mr. Hyde, check your TV listing for a possible explanation. Also, I ask you not to call (if you can help it) after 9:00 p.m. (Central Time). From about 9 to 10:30 p.m., my teenage girls get calls from at least 100 of their most intimate friends; thus you can expect an interruption from call waiting at least once every five minutes. Mary Jane, of course, has been very generous at fielding phone calls from the network, but she does have an atrocious phone bill If you want to be kind to Mary Jane (she has not complained — this is MY idea alone), how about having her return your call collect or send her a stack of postage stamps occasionally to help defray her expenses. [10]

The Cost, Oh The Cost…

For many years, letter writing, letterzines, and newsletters were the mainstays of fannish communication. Telephone bills in the US were divided into local calls (usually free within a limited area), regional calls and long distance calls. The charges for the latter two types of phone calls were often prohibitive.

" really a shill for Ma Bell? Phone numbers in the Litterzine? Gads, if my phone bill goes any higher I'll be forced to start working the streets! (Tho how I'll support my "habit" on 25 cents a night...)" one fan wrote when the editors of the Starsky & Hutch letterzine proposed subscribers begin including their phone numbers in their LOCs.[11]
"New Year’s Resolution - RESOLUTION #2: CUT DOWN ON THE PHONE BILL: Rip out all phone jacks and expose the wiring. The phone company will charge you a minimum of $65.00 to replace it, which should be incentive enough to let it be."[12]

Phone charges were horrendous,[13] even by today’s standards. Fans would complain of monthly phone bills in the mid-hundreds (translating into thousands of dollars by today’s standards)[14] and would often stay up until after midnight to be able to afford lower rates. Some monthly phone bills were more than the average's fans' rent and when their phones were disconnected, they'd use elaborate work-arounds relying on pay phones, refused person to person calls and callbacks. Sometimes, phone calls would be scheduled in advance by mail or via a LOC in a letterzine: one fan sent the following LOC to a letterzine to alert another subscriber to an incoming long-distance phone call: "I'm letting you know now that I will call you on April 16, 1985 at 8:00 p.m."[15]

ET gets his phone bill, Warped Space #48, art by Gordon Carleton

The high cost of using phones was not only an issue in the US, it was a worldwide challenge that many fans faced. Outside the US, local calls are generally charged. A member of the UK fan club STAG wrote ironically in 1973: "For anyone absolutely dying to ring me, my phone number is [phone number redacted, yes even after 30 years]. But beware! FIRST, learn how to revive your husband/Mum/Dad/Boyfriend from the shock, of getting a mile high phone bill, and don't leave it, like I alas did, almost too late to revive my poor Old Man. He's still recovering now, bless his tootsies, and it's a very long road to recovery."[16]

Likewise, international phone calling was beyond the reach of most fans, making communication between countries painfully slow, rife for misunderstandings and reliant almost exclusively on letters. Even creators of famous TV shows could not afford international long distance calls. For example, Gene Roddenberry dictated and mailed a series of audio letters on cassette tape to UK and Australian fans the 1970s and 1980s. These 'letters' were then played to fans attending conventions.[17]

Roleplaying Over the Phone

A fan in 2005 comments:
It's so funny when I think about the role playing I did with my friends on the telephone...we didn't really call it that...didn't call it anything, and now I see the same sort of thing being played out on LJs, IMs, etc. It's pretty exciting, and I don't miss the old way at all....

LOL...I was a weird kid...but it was fandom related. I was a Bee Gees fan and my friend loved Peter Frampton, so we'd play over the phone like I was a Bee Gee and she was Frampton and we'd go from there... *heh*...

I was never into RPS! LOL...but if I was doing RP gen and and het fic over the phone, there's probably someone who was into teh slash! [18]

The Arrival of the Internet

The arrival of the Internet did not immediately replace phones. Most fans had to use regional or long distance numbers to access the Internet, meaning they had to quickly log on, download their mail, log off, read the email, compose their responses and log back on. In some cases fans did not have the ability to read while offline, so they were forced to read and respond to email messages very quickly and briefly. In other instances, fans paid by email message (ex. In 1991, ISP Prodigy began charging 25 cents per email)[19] which made digest versions of mailing lists and single email responses to multiple posts commonplace. Internet chats were also not feasible for many years due to high phone charges. Other fans had access to free academic e-mail, although this could lead to its own problems with explicit content.

Eventually, customer complaints and competition from other ISPs pushed Internet providers to offer more and more local access numbers or flat rates, and some providers dropped the ‘charge by email’ (although the practice lingered longer in Europe than in the US). When this happened, phone usage began taking second place to email: "Kathy and I made liberal use of the electronic mail available to each of us - me using America Online's Internet Gateway, Kathy using Internet through the University she works for. This wonder of modern technology literally enabled us to story conference on a daily basis while keeping our respective long-distance telephone bills down...” [20] More and more fandom began using mailing lists, blogs and IRC chats as their major source of communication.[21]

Smart Phones and 21st Century Technology

In 2012, even with cell phone ownership at its highest and free long distance calls, some fans have never spoken to another fan by phone.

Yet, after digital means of communication superseded the telephone, new mobile technology allowed people to access the Internet directly from their cellphones. So fans can once again use the phone to talk to each other, though they may not ever hear one another's voices. Twittering, tumblr-ing and Facebook updates are now replacing mailing lists, IRC chat, and blogging.

Phones in Fanworks

Phones rarely appear as a central theme in most fanworks. Their use is casual, a background element of the modern age, much like cars, TV and radio (ex: see the Lovett phone image from Perestroika above). However, a few fanworks have made the telephone their focus:

Sonny Crockett makes a call in Phone Sex, artist is KOZ
Avengers fandom example of the popular Texts From Last Night Meme on Tumblr: these graphic combine an appropriate fandom-specific screencap with a real text message quoted on the Texts from Last Night website.
from Spockanalia #3 (1968), artist is Alicia Austin for Visit to a Weird Planet
  • The Phone Booth is slash Starsky and Hutch anthology pass-around theme zine from the early to mid 1980s.
  • The Miami Vice zine Phone Sex (1995)
  • The John & Rodney Show, a Stargate Atlantis vid by lim. This surrealist video collage includes images of rotary phones, sock puppets, and repeating cut-outs of John Sheppard and Rodney McKay on the phone, from a brief scene in season three depicting the period when the main characters were temporarily exiled from Atlantis and were given jobs at different military bases. In the scene, Rodney is talking to John on his cell phone while John plays with a toy airplane; the vid presents this as a series of many, many phone calls from Rodney, in which John becomes increasingly reluctant to pick up. Created for a phone call challenge on sga flashfic. (2006)
  • Vibrate, a QAF vid. (The video begins with the phone call from 501 in their separation in terms of distance and later shows the scene again in the middle of the last chorus with extra meaning with other clips around it highlighting Brian's need to bring Justin closer to him. The vidder closely follows the lyrics and is sometimes a little too literal in clip choices that distract from the central point of the vid. However the metaphor of a phone call and reaching out to the other person have a separation (such as a breakup) is shown throughout the vid and strengthens the message of the vid.) (2007)
  • "Reach Out and Touch Someone" by Jeanne DeVore - a title that plays on a popular ad slogan for a telephone company: Peter Caine's dad finally gets a telephone (Kung Fu: The Legend Continues)
  • Fifty Five Cents by Alexis Rogers is one of the first Starsky & Hutch stories published online -- "Another dime. Five, five, five. How can all the numbers in L.A. be five, five, five? Hutch did not answer. Twenty rings. Shit, Hutch, this is ridiculous. He hung up. Waited for his dime. The machine ate it."
  • Telephone, 24 vid by jarrow. "Jack Bauer really just wants CTU to stop calling him, okay." Features various cell phones and push-button land-line phones. (2012)
  • Many Sherlock (BBC) fanfics employ the canonical use of Sherlock's remark, "I prefer to text."

More Example Fanworks


  1. "Sam Moskowitz delivered two talks at the 1939 con, one of them 'The Fan World of the Future.'... [At the 1992 Worldcon], he began with his own look back at the way fans lived 50 years ago, a series of recollections that enthralled everyone." -- from File 770 #95, November 1992
  2. Sharon Ferraro in A Piece of the Action #45 (1976)
  3. from a con report in Come Together #32
  4. from Connie Faddis, The Halkan Council #20/21
  5. K.S. Langley, The Times, They are a'Changing, posted to the Fanfic Symposium on June 19, 2003 (expanded from an earlier email to FCA-L. Accessed June 2, 2009.
  6. 1982, The Annual Fan Q Awards Nominations Booklet.
  7. Joan Marie Verba from Boldly Writing.
  8. Kathy Resch's memories in Back When Dinosaurs Roamed The Earth Part IV dated September 9, 2012.
  9. from Partner Mine
  10. from Electronic Male News #6
  11. S&H issue #16 (1980)
  12. Mock New Year's Resolution to reduce a fan's phone bill from Pop Stand Express #15 (1987).
  13. of Communications Common Carriers PDF by the FCC; historical rates begin on page 277. In 1975, a daytime call between LA and NYC was $2.16 for 5 minutes. In today's dollars (2012) that would be approximatively $9 for 5 minutes.
  14. One subscriber to the Black Bean Soup newsletter wrote: "My first round with S&H fandom was right at the end of the 4th season. I met some really neat people (could we have used the internet then, my average phone bill was $300)." Vol 1, #13 (1995).
  15. Between Friends #8a (1985).
  16. STAG issue #3, 1973.
  17. A few of these audio letters have been digitally converted and donated by Janet Quarton to the University of Iowa Special Collections in 2011.
  18. comment by fleurette at Fanthropology: Fandom: Evolution; archive link, February 1, 2005
  19. Prodigy Special Offer hits my mailbox... posted in, Feb 4, 1991)
  20. editorial to Trap Open! #1 (1993).
  21. “Since I'm a fervent advocate of CHEAP, let me tell you how you can cut down on those killing phone bills chatting with your B&B friends and start e-mailing them instead.” Beauty and the Beast newsletter Of Love and Hope #3 (1995).