Monday, May 17, 2010

Ham Radio Versus ChatRoulette

There has been an endless stream of commentary about the explosion of popularity for ChatRoulette - a service which allows you to make brief, random connections with strangers all over the world. At first, it seemed likesomething wholly unique to this age of the internet but then I had a flash of recognition - ChatRoulette is really just a modern-day equivalent to amateur, or "ham" radio.

In the dark days before the internet shined its bright light into all of our lives, my cousin was an avid ham radio user.

Here is how Wikipedia describes "ham radio" -

Amateur radio, often called ham radio, is both a hobby and a service in which participants, called "hams," use various types of radio communications equipment to communicate with other radio amateurs for public services, recreation and self-training

In the early-1980's, when my cousin was in his teens I would watch in awe as he would send and receive morse code with people around the world. He had just passed his big license test - yes, you had to be licensed and prove your morse code ability - and had made up his own postcards which he would trade with other hams. Before long he had advanced to the level of actual voice communications and to this day I remember the call-sign since he would broadcast it in that special phonetic code - "Kilowatt Alpha Two Indigo Tango Sierra" or KA2-ITS.

All night he would sit at his massive rig and try to reach further and further around the globe, tweaking the dial to cut through the white noise and sonic glitches. Sometimes, if the sun-spots were just right he could reach all the was to Australia and beyond. Strange voices would crackle out of a tiny speaker (or over headphones if it was late) and call-signs would be exchanged. These conversations rarely lasted longer than a couple of minutes - it was all about making new contacts, seeing how far you could reach.

Sure, ChatRoulette has upped the ante with images (and appearance of male genitalia) but in many ways, the impulses driving users are not so different from what drove my cousin and his fellow hams.

The biggest difference, in fact, was that the bar for entry was much higher for hams - you needed special, often expensive, equipment and you needed to be fluent in morse code. This kept out the casual user and made for a more intense sense of community.

Ham radio persists even today and while ChatRoulette can offer you a 1-in-a-1,000,000 chance to see a topless girl, nothing can beat the mystical enchantment of a strange voice reaching out over the radio waves.

(this is a guest post from David Title)


At 4:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The analogy is a stretch, but you're right that cost is much less. If ham radio were as easily accessible as the internet, maybe it would have grown beyond hobby status.


Post a Comment

<< Home