How a Phone Glitch Sparked a Teenage Riot

When kids turned a state-owned telecom system into a proto-Internet, police cracked down with brutal force

Illustrations: Nicole Xu

On a Friday night in September 1982, teenagers poured out of the Fridhemsplan metro station. First just a few dozen, then hundreds, and soon more than a thousand of them filled the station’s hall, the sidewalk, and the road outside. Eventually, they walked three blocks south to Rålambshovsparken, entering the grassy Stockholm park via a concrete pedestrian bridge.

“They were everywhere,” said police superintendent Kjell Andersson. “They were on top of the bus shelter, in the trees, on the roofs of the polling huts, and on the electrical poles.” The teenagers had come from all over Stockholm and its surrounding towns. They weren’t drunk or stoned. They didn’t have placards or a cause. They weren’t protesting or demonstrating. They were there simply because they’d agreed to go there. And many of them had come to Rålambshovsparken to see people they knew but had never met in person.

The teenagers didn’t have long to find each other. After an hour or so, the police arrived, not exactly sure what to do with a group of a thousand teenagers who had suddenly appeared, with no clear reason to be there. Sweden’s constitution included the right to peaceful assembly, but the country was an orderly, regulated society where it was believed that most of young people’s needs could and should be met by the state. If you wanted to play sports, you could do so at a designated sports club. If you wanted to socialize with other youths, you could do so at a prescribed school or a youth center. The gathering at the park that night was unstructured and impulsive, built by word of mouth; it was the opposite of what Swedish society was prepared for.

More than 50 police officers were sent to the park, at least some of them from the Piketstyrka, similar to American SWAT teams. They wore riot helmets, carried batons, and brought police dogs. “They were a bit scared,” said Olle Lindgren, one of the teenagers who had gathered that day. “They hadn’t seen anything like it before.” When the police dress for a riot, they usually find one. In his book Europe, Europe, German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger describes what happened next:

Within seconds the peaceful scene was transformed into a threatening confrontation. The officers in charge were determined to disperse the young people. The police hit a few with their truncheons, the dogs became restless, there were bruises and torn clothes.

The police drew the teenagers back onto the elevated pedestrian bridge; some of the teens, angry about the breakup of their gathering, first booed and then started throwing rocks and beer bottles at the police and elsewhere. “The youth could not be calmed down,” said the police superintendent. “Cans and rocks were whizzing around everywhere.” The police hid behind cars and trees to protect themselves. Four police officers were injured, with one suffering a broken collarbone. Reports vary, but about 10 of the teens were arrested. Newspapers the next day called it a “youth riot.” The police superintendent called what happened that night masspsykos — mass psychosis.

One teen said the hotline was like a drug for him. Every day after school, he’d head home, get on the phone, and stay there for hours, talking to teenagers living outside his industrial town.

Since it all began with a group of ingenious teenagers who took advantage of a flaw in the design of the Swedish national telephone system in order to create an unofficial hotline, the chaos at the park became known as the heta linjen-upploppet: the hotline riot. Decades before the popularization of the internet as a decentralized place for people to connect and ideas to proliferate, the Swedish hotline did the same, and in so doing marked a change in the country’s direction. For the teens involved in this forgotten slice of history, it was just a small rebellion. But today it’s early proof that the seams of the public square were ready to burst, even in 1982, as soon as young people figured out that technology would allow it.

It’s not clear exactly when the hotline started, or by whom, but it was probably sometime in 1981 when Swedish teenagers discovered they could hack Televerket, the monopolistic state-run telecommunications company that ran the national phone service. When a phone subscriber moved addresses or just ended a subscription, Televerket allowed the old number to remain out of use for a while so when a new subscriber was given that number, they wouldn’t have to deal with calls meant for the previous subscriber. During that interim period, when someone called the unassigned number, they’d hear a recorded message — something like “please dial 90120 for information” — followed by four beeps. The message would repeat automatically, but there would be a silent gap between them.

Somehow, someone figured out that if you called one of these unassigned numbers — or one of a series of connected unassigned numbers, maybe from a disbanded company with multiple lines — at the same time as someone else, they could speak to each other during the gaps between the automated messages. At the time, most calls were charged per minute, but these calls to unassigned lines were free. So you could speak with friends, or strangers, for hours. And it wasn’t limited to two people. Some of the numbers could accommodate up dozens of callers at once.

Once discovered, wrote Enzensberger, “The numbers spread through the Stockholm schools like wildfire, and an enormous, spontaneous conference circuit came into being, a new mass medium: the ‘hot line.’ It’s hardly possible to use modern communications technology more intelligently.” An article in an internal magazine published by Televerket said, “The youth have shown an unparalleled resourcefulness.”

“I wanted to meet new people and tried to get away from that small town I grew up in. That was probably one of the main reasons I got into the hotline.”

The hotline was made possible by a design flaw that emerged as the phone system was in a transition period between electromagnetic and digital technology, according to Ralph Arnestig, who was head of customer relations at Televerket in 1982. When a line turned from active to vacant, a single number could accommodate two to five callers at once. They callers weren’t meant to hear each other, only the automated message. But since each caller connected to the same transformer, they could also hear each other. Arnestig said groups of vacant numbers that belonged to a private branch exchange, or PBX — an internal phone system that might be used by a private company, for example — could accommodate as many as 49 people at once.

With that many people trying to speak over each other, it could be a bit messy. You had to shout if you wanted anyone to hear you. “It was everybody going, ‘Hello, hello, hello, hello,’” Patrik Olofsson said. “It was crazy.” When Olfosson was 15 and living in the small town of Finspång, about 100 miles west of Stockholm, he was obsessed with the heta linjen. He said it was like a drug for him. Every day after school, he’d head directly home, get on the phone, and stay there for hours, talking to teenagers living outside his industrial town. I asked him what he spoke about, and his answer basically described my (and most people’s) time spent on the internet. “About everything,” he said. “Nothing, and everything.”

One of the people Olofsson met on the hotline was Carina Hilmersson, now an accountant living in Stockholm. When she was 15, Hilmersson would get together with her friends and call the hotline together. She kept long lists of hotline numbers, which were constantly changing when lines became too busy with callers or when Televerket put a number back into official use. “Every time you got on the line, you got more tips,” she said. “Someone told you about another number you could call to get to know more people.”

Olle Lindgren, who hails from the island town of Vaxholm, said he spent a lot of time searching for new numbers. “Some of the lines were very noisy. It was extremely difficult to pick out a particular person from the multitude,” he told me. “It sounded like if you walk into a really busy party and try to talk to someone across the room.” The recurring automated recording was louder on some numbers than others. Hotliners would search for numbers where the message was softer and easier to speak above to be heard by the other callers.

“Eventually, you got into a ‘club,’ if you like, where you had access to numbers where not many people dialed in, and you started to get to know people,” Lindgren said. When a line got too busy, you’d tell your hotline friends, “We’re switching,” and then give the nickname of the new line, which only insiders knew. Then you could talk in a more private setting. Lindgren kept a small phone book with the most common numbers. But the numbers you used often, he said, “you knew them by heart.”

Lindgren spent a lot of time searching for new hotline numbers. He said old company lines were the best, because they would usually include a whole series of connected numbers. “You tried to find how far the series of numbers went,” he said, describing the process. “You start with something ending in 00, and then you went 01, 02, 03, and eventually you could hear that it was a different kind of answering machine or the sound was higher or lower. So you knew that you were out of the rain. You could get a range of 10 to 20 phone numbers and start handing those out to friends and hopefully get a line started.”

But searching for new numbers was time consuming, because in 1982, most people had rotary phones with slow circular dials. Every time you dialed a digit, you had to wait for the dial to slowly work its way back before dialing the next one. Lindgren took his phone apart and trimmed a spring so the dial would roll back quicker. Regular landline telephones then didn’t have a speakerphone option, either, so Lindgren and a friend connected a radio transmitter to the phone so he could listen to the hotline on the radio and even record conversations. (Sadly, he no longer has the tapes.)

When she first started calling the hotline, Carina Hilmersson kept it a secret from her parents, but soon she had to fess up when the line was always busy and nobody could ever call the house. Eventually, her mother got used to it. One day, she didn’t know where her daughter was, so she called a hotline number that Hilmersson had written down, and asked for “Cina,” her daughter’s hotline nickname. Hilmersson was at a friend’s house—on the hotline, of course—and her mother found her and told her to go home. “I was so shocked and embarrassed,” Hilmersson said.

Like today’s social networks, and the internet in general, the hotline offered a chance to connect to groups of people outside your immediate physical space. With all these teenagers speaking via the hotline, it only made sense that they would eventually want to get together in person. Rålambshovsparken was not the first time people from the hotline had gotten together. Olle Lindgren from Vaxholm said he would learn about parties in Stockholm through the hotline. He’d call in late during the school week to make plans for meeting at a certain place and time on the weekend, sometimes for small gatherings, sometimes for big. And in this magical time of landlines, you had to plan in advance. “We were kids—we wanted to meet, we wanted to hang out,” he said. “Rumors got along that someone’s parents were out of town, so there would be a party at the house. Everybody went there. It was just kids having fun.”

The hotline was also, like the internet, a godsend for bored or isolated kids in remote places. “I come from a small town outside Stockholm,” Lindgren said. “A bit isolated. And when I was coming up to my early teenage years, I started to realize that my friends from school were dating my little sister’s friends. To me, that was kind of local incest. I wanted to meet new people and tried to get away from that small town I grew up in. That was probably one of the main reasons I got into the hotline.”

And once the hotline friendships left the phone lines and found their way into real life, that’s when the newspapers, and soon the authorities, began to take note of this weird, spontaneous phenomenon.

Swedish sociologist and internet activist Magnus Eriksson has theorized that the hotline riot was an inflection point for Swedish society. In a 2012 blog post recognizing the 30-year anniversary of the event, Eriksson wrote: “The hotline riot marks the exact transition from the discipline society to the control society in Sweden.” Citing French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (himself building upon Michel Foucault), Eriksson described the discipline society as one where citizens are passed from one closed environment to another — the family home to school to the factory, for example. The community is planned and society is structured so that an individual is always within the institutional framework. The control society, on the other hand, gives people an illusion of freedom by letting them out of these structures, while maintaining control by tracking of citizens’ performance, location, acquisitions, licenses, and other personal information.

Televerket, a national phone system with no competitors, was a structure built on the discipline society. But when Swedish teenagers began using it in ways that were unexpected, they broke the rules of the discipline society, where each medium has its place. The phones were for calling family or alerting the police, not for group social calls or finding dates. (The hotline was “an excellent place to pick up girls,” Lindgren said.) It was “unthinkable,” Eriksson wrote, that the phones were bringing teenagers to an unstructured gathering in a park. “The Swedish welfare society has had this idea that you are supposed to provide for everyone’s needs. No one should be left behind,” Eriksson told me. “The mirror of that is that no one is allowed to be left behind or left on their own.”

Olle Lindgren downplayed the idea that the hotline riot was even a riot. He doesn’t think it’s a fair description, as very few teenagers threw anything or showed any sort of aggression against the police. “Looking back at the state of this country at that time, I suppose they considered it a riot,” Lindgren told me. He believes the police were just confused by the unexpected. When they came, Lindgren started walking back to the metro as directed and was bitten by one of the police dogs anyway. “We weren’t shouting. We weren’t screaming. We weren’t doing anything. We were basically just walking back. But they had him on a long leash, and it jumped up and bit me in my arm. Ruined my jacket.”

But after Lindgren — and Hilmersson, who also doesn’t remember seeing any violence — left the park, a few kids threw stuff at police, and that’s what grabbed headlines like “Hotline Fans Fight with Police” and “Youth Riots in Rålambshovsparken.” As to be expected in a structured society, the riots led to immediate change. Televerket immediately vowed to shut down the hotline. While Televerket cited the riot as a reason, it also said that the hunt for new hotline numbers was slowing the service and caused a nuisance to actual phone subscribers.

“Televerket is crap for trying to take all the fun from us. They are threatening to stop these group calls. Why can’t anyone allow us youth to have fun? Do we have to start fighting before someone starts caring about what we think?” said one hotliner from Ekerö. Others started a petition to keep the hotline running.

The hotline was used for selling drugs, stolen goods, and bootleg music. Two men who met on the hotline ended up in a fight to the death.

Torkel Odéen, a young sound engineer, even recorded a song about the hotline and about how it needed to stay open, with a music video and everything. “We saw it as a sort statement for free speech,” said Odéen, who described himself as a “submarine”—someone who used the hotline but didn’t speak. The vocalist for the song was Johanna Lundberg, then a teenager, who would go on to become a voiceover artist and the voice of the Swedish phone system. (She would also become, unofficially, Ms. Clock. Swedes could call a certain number and hear Lundberg’s voice telling them the time.) The lyrics of “Heta Linjen” included:

The hotline, you always get the answer

Hotline, you make new friends

The hotline, we want you to stay

We have found a way to meet that no one has ever thought of

But they say stop, we cannot be left trying to throw us out

Oh, Alexander Graham Bell, we thank you for every minute!

But the protests were for nought. Soon after the riot, Televerket called in 20 experts to shut down all the hotline numbers. As a sign of the control society to come, Televerket arranged a meeting with some of the hotliners — including Lindgren and his friends — and asked their opinions on how to start an official hotline. “We realize that there is a need,” said a director at Televerket. “We are investigating if there is a way to arrange more legitimate group calls.” They swore they could create an authorized hotline in a matter of weeks; two months later, it was up and running. Of course, the new hotline had stricter rules, such as limiting calls to five minutes and five participants. It had lost its rebellious luster, and original hotliners didn’t use it. “It was boring,” Carina Hilmersson said.

Still, Televerket’s hotline was massively popular, spreading to more than 60 towns and cities in Sweden, and it became a staple of Swedish society for many years. By the mid-1980s, the new hotline took 3 million calls a month. The Gothenburg region alone took 18 million calls in a year. At one point, it was so popular in Stockholm that three out of every four calls couldn’t even get through.

After the official hotline started, Ralph Arnestig of Televerket was approached by a mother who had seen him on TV talking about the hotline. She told Arnestig how important the hotline was for her daughter. The girl had a physical deformity, the mother said, and because of this, she never had any friends and was very isolated. “However, the girl had a very beautiful voice. And when Televerket started the hotline, she got an opportunity to make friends and to talk to people who did not know what she looked like,” Arnestig said. “The mother said that the girl has become a completely different person and found a purpose in life because she had lots of friends.”

But as with any large social network offering frictionless connection between strangers — like we see with Facebook and Twitter today — the bad came with the good. An episode of the Swedish radio show P3 Dokumentär written by Marcus Hanssen detailed some of the craziness that came out of the new hotline: In the summer of 1986, an escapee from a psychiatric hospital went on the hotline pretending to be a surgical assistant. He met a young woman, who invited him to her home, where he stabbed her in the neck with a kitchen knife. An old man took pornographic images of abused young girls he met on the hotline. A mentally disabled woman announced her phone number and was raped by two men she met on the hotline. The hotline was used for selling drugs, stolen goods, and bootleg music. Two men who met on the hotline ended up in a fight to the death.

Conservative politicians started calling for the hotline to be shut down. In 1995, in Gothenburg, it was, and Arnestig received a call from the mother of the daughter with the beautiful voice and physical deformity. The daughter had by then committed suicide. “Her worth fell apart when she lost all her friends. The mother said she did not in any way blame this on Televerket. Instead, she wanted to thank us for struggling to maintain the line for so long and giving her daughter the happiest years of her life.”

“You can never relinquish some responsibility. But that people meet on the hotline and that this then leads to something else,” Arnestig said on P3 Dokumentär. “People meet on the tram in Gothenburg, but no one ever thinks about closing down the tram system in Gothenburg just because two people have met there who then end up in trouble.”

Olle Lindgren told me the original unofficial hotline, before it was shut down, offered a similar sanctuary for the downtrodden. One of the friends he met on the hotline had been born with phocomelia—with missing and deformed limbs. “It was actually a refuge for people that were bullied in school, because no one knew you,” Lindgren said. That’s why a lot of people used fake names or code names — like Little Red Riding Hood, Road Warrior, Maja Cream-Nose (from a Swedish children’s book), and Lindgren’s own: Bumblebee. “No one knew who you were. You could be anonymous.”

Despite living in different areas of Sweden, Carina Hilmersson and Patrik Olofsson have remained friends ever since meeting on the heta linjen. They attended each other’s weddings and still go on vacation together with their families. Olofsson told me they might be the only people who met on the hotline and remain friends more than 35 years later. “I don’t think anybody else in all of Sweden can say that,” he said. But in researching this story, I spent a lot of time on the current official hotline — Facebook — searching names from old Swedish newspaper articles. Many didn’t answer me, but I noticed that some were still connected to each other in 2018.

In 1987, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the German writer, first published an essay about 1,000 teenagers getting together at Rålambshovsparken “without forming itself into any kind of order, without slogans, without any preconceived plan.” The original hotline had already been closed for five years, and the authorized one had taken over to meet a demand that nobody knew existed until Swedish teens created it.

“No one knew where they had come from or what they wanted. They didn’t want to demonstrate for or against anything. They were simply there,” Enzensberger wrote. “Their crime was simply that they had not called upon any of the responsible institutions available for this purpose. If they had applied to the appropriate office with a request to organize a meeting place for aimless, weakly motivated, anomic young people, they would have been met with subsidies instead of police truncheons. Crowds of social workers, youth workers, and community art workers would have descended on them to help them achieve socially desirable forms of communication.”

Freelance journalist based in Atlanta.

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