Hey, Web 2.0 Fans: Social Networks Weren't Born Yesterday!

With all the hype around YouTube, MySpace Facebook and other social-networking Web sites, I thought it would be sobering to go back in time and pay tribute to a once-thriving social-networking platform. Amazingly, it's over 100 years old and it's called amateur radio, or "ham radio." It should be crowned the grandfather of today's online social networks, and, yes, I'm serious!

In the very early 1900s--even before transistors, let alone the Internet--ham radio emerged to enable a plethora of virtual, real-time social networks that broke down geographic barriers and united like-minded individuals. Strikingly similar to members of social-networking Web sites, amateur radio operators, also known as hams, still participate in the hobby to connect with other hams for public service, recreation and self-training. (See Wikipedia entry for ham radio here.)

To see how previous generations have embraced social networks, long before the Internet, I turned to my 92-year old grandfather, who started building radio receivers when he was in middle school and has been a licensed ham-radio operator since 1957. We'll refer to him by his nickname, Nib. Here are experts from a discussion with him this week:



Max: How do you define ham radio, and what are its benefits?

Nib: It's a hobby of radio-interested people who are anxious to learn and enjoy the ability to communicate with other people around the world with their own equipment. There are many benefits of ham radio, including making new friends locally in the U.S. and around the world. You can transmit messages to handle emergency communications when telephones or the Internet are not available. You also can hold nets, which are groups of other similarly-interested people, who come together at regularly programmed times. We keep in touch with each other and learn new things of common interest.

Max: How did you get started? How long have you been doing it?

Nib: I got started when I was a boy, in the sixth grade in 1927, when I built my first radio receiver. I got into ham radio to broadcast in 1957. The licensing requirement was to learn Morse code at 13 words a minute, the hardest thing I've ever done.

Max: Why do you do it? Why is it important to you?

Nib: I've always been interested in electronics, and I studied engineering. I've used it for a number of different purposes. For example, I used to communicate with my family who lived far away. For a number of years, I also used it to speak with friends in order to avoid falling asleep during my 70-mile commute everyday. I've used it during my travels around the world to communicate with all sorts of people along the way. You meet all these neat people who've done a lot.

These days, I get together with a bunch of guys six days a week for Bathrobe net, a group which has been around for about 15 years. I also check into Maritime Mobile, which is the net that monitors maritime traffic in numerous places around the world. I can talk with numerous yachtsmen if I want to, and they can talk to people here. I also participate in Flying Boat net, which is for enthusiasts of flying boats and seaplanes.

Max: How do you compare it to your experience with the Internet?

Nib: I talk to my friends on radio, and if for any reason we have difficulty, I'll often follow it up with an e-mail. But it's more fun to have control over your situation completely, with no connection to wires.

Max: How do you search for other people or discover interest groups?

Nib: Searching is easy: we have many radio bands or frequencies which we may use, and each has its own characteristics. You first make the contact, and it goes on from there. You already have a common interest, so each person knows there's probably something interesting to talk about--it could be anything. The only challenge is changing atmospheric conditions which bar transmission. It's a competition with mother nature, and that's what makes it fun. With radio, you don't know if you'll get through, so it's a sport.

Max: Is ham radio a thriving hobby?

Nib: People aren't very much interested in ham radio any more because they're computer-oriented, and the operator license is a hindrance to many. Our radio club does outreach with various youth organizations to prolong the hobby, though.

Max: Is it true that social networks--including ham radio--are beneficial for isolated people, which often include the elderly?

Nib: Yes. I can be completely disabled and sit here and have a wonderful time with my friends--I don't even have to be able to see. There are not even many bills, save for a little electricity--less than is required for a light bulb. I'll have to renew my license in ten years, when I'm 102.

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