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The first tweeters

New Year can be a time for reflection, and partly promoted by an excellent post from Dan Slee about radio and content without boundaries I thought my first post of the year might be one of introspection and a look back at the history of one aspect of communication.

Long before Twitter, long before the internet, there existed a publicly available, worldwide network of transient conversation between people around the world. These former day "tweeters" were Amateur Radio (sometimes called ham radio) enthusiasts, or radio amateurs as they're known.

During my childhood my dad was (and still is) a radio amateur and this played no small part in forging my interest in communications and techno geekery. As a kid, I spent time with my dad in a room not dissimilar to the picture above, listening to crackly voices being broadcast through the ether.

In these pre-internet days there was something incredible about being able to listen to radio broadcasts or even better, strangers talking, from other countries in the comfort of one's own home. If you had a licence like my dad, you could even join in the conversation.

Eerie chimes, repetitive number stations and the way single-side band distorts voices also added to the atmospheric nature of the experience and probably explains why I love electronic music too.

There are many parallels with social media. Like Snapchat, messages are over in an instant. Like Twitter, one can initiate or join in an open conversation with one or more people. Like Facebook, users "friend" others, in the form of QSL cards through the post.

Another similarity is that radio amateurs often use amateur radio to talk about amateur radio with other radio amateurs, given this is the only interest they know they have in common. Likewise there are chats and tweeters who's output largely consists of telling everyone how great social media is and discussing its use.

Of course there are limiting factors that don't affect social media, including the need to acquire enough technical knowledge to pass an exam. Citizens Band radio attempted to overcome this, but the range is limited to tens of miles rather than worldwide.

Amateur radio still exists today. Public services maintain a list of radio amateurs for civil emergencies; should all state run communication suffer catastrophic failure they're still there as the backup. There's also innova,tive stuff like WSPR going on that uses open source software and very low power transmissions.

So next time someone tells you the concept of social media is new, remind them that instant, open, worldwide communication between individuals has been around for over 100 years.

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