This Artist-Made App is Bringing Back Telephone Culture, One Call at a Time

The Dialup app, created by Danielle Baskin and Max Hawkins, connects users at predetermined times to talk about specific but wide-ranging subjects. (Graphic courtesy of Dialup)

When I was a teenager in the early 90s, the landline telephone was my social and cultural lifeline. Whether the calls were about weekend plans, homework assignments or high school gossip, there was nothing quite like receiving a phone call from your crush or best friend. Now, 22 years after I got my first cell phone, it turns out I miss listening to a dial tone.

Telephone culture is disappearing; journalist Alexis Madrigal wrote about the trend in a 2018 article for The Atlantic, blaming robocalls in large part for our increasing reluctance to answer our phones. While many aspects of our behavior and etiquette hold true since he wrote the piece, there’s been one remarkable development in the intervening year: Dialup, an artist-created app for people interested in having an old-fashioned telephone conversation.

In their individual art practices, Bay Area-based Danielle Baskin and Los Angeles-based Max Hawkins relish randomization and strange and coincidental experiences. Together, they created Dialup, a free app which allows you to connect at predetermined times with other users in the app’s growing network. Different “lines” facilitate chats on specific topics.

Danielle Baskin and Max Hawkins.
Danielle Baskin and Max Hawkins. (Courtesy of the artists)

“There aren’t many systems for serendipitous connections with strangers and extended networks,” Baskin says. “We’d like Dialup to simulate talking to an interesting stranger on a train or running into an old friend on the sidewalk. These unexpected moments always seem ‘meant to happen.’ There’s a lot of magic in surprise conversations.”

After joining Dialup in May, I subscribed to the “Tarot Time” line, swayed by its description: “Connect randomly to other tarot readers and give each other a reading on Thursday nights. For novices and experts.” The app notifies me once a week that I’ll have an incoming tarot-themed call on Thursdays at 7pm.

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(Currently, there are 18 lines available on Dialup, with subject areas as varied as “Breakfast” and “Bob Ross.”)

The overall aesthetic of Dialup is straightforward and minimal. Its cool greens and blues usher in a sense of calm. On the app’s welcome page, images of telephone poles imply a bit of that lost materiality the calls seek to resurface. A “create line” button with a squiggly icon evokes a memory of a touch-tone telephone cord. A “calls” button lets you see all your upcoming conversations for the week.

Screenshots of the Dialup app in use.
Screenshots of the Dialup app in use. (Courtesy of Dorothy Santos)

As for sound effects, Baskin and Hawkins chose hold music that had a calming effect (“Floating Synth Melody” by Lemoncreme). “We’re looking for a few composers and musicians to build out more of the soundscape for Dialup,” Baskin says. “We might weave the dial tone into the new soundscape as a reference to the nostalgic sounds of the telephone, but we still want the app to feel like a new technology, different from the landline or cell phone.”

Worried about a creepy or trouble conversation partner? Baskin and Hawkins created a special function that enables a user to notify the creators of abuse with a “report partner” button.

To date, I’ve had calls about weekend projects, being your own boss and the full moon. I spoke with someone looking to practice their English; I had an engrossing conversation around film projects. One of my most memorable calls, although brief, was with a woman living in Texas. We connected through the “Full Moon” line in June (the month of the “Strawberry Moon”). She marveled at the color and glow of her Texas moon, asking me if I could see it too. I told her the moon’s light hadn’t reached me in California yet. “I'm throwing it your way and I hope you enjoy it when it arrives,” she said. It was a beautiful and poetic moment; it felt like a call from the future.

In the times when I’m unable to answer calls from Dialup, I feel extreme disappointment. They have become a lovely reminder of human connection, no matter how awkward or strange the resulting conversations might be (someone once pitched me on their tech start-up idea, and even though I couldn’t get behind their business plan, we talked for 2.5 hours).

Before voicemail, before we stopped picking up and started screening our calls, old-fashioned telephone etiquette decreed, as Madrigal writes, that if a phone rang, we had to pick it. In this way, the person calling held all the cards, single-handedly determining when you entered into a conversation with them. “When Dialup connects you with someone else there’s also a more equalized balance of power in the conversation,” Baskin says. “On traditional phone calls, the person placing the call is demanding the attention of the person they’re calling. We try to remove that imbalance.”

“When people pick up,” she explains, “they enter the conversation with mutual curiosity instead of needing something specific.”

Dialup offers a path to re-learning how to communicate with strangers. In an age where connectivity is instantaneous—we have the ability to check our email, text and even order food through our devices—conversation is used only when necessary. And even when it does happen, it’s often obligatory or unwanted (like work calls or the unknown robocall). But remembering the long-ago pleasures of landline conversations with the help of Dialup, answering the phone might become something we engage in reclaiming a bit of personal connection in a disconnected world. Using our words, using our voices, we become less alone.

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