Philippine Amateur Radio Association (PARA), Inc.

Philippine Amateur Radio Association (PARA), Inc.

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Parallels Between Ham Radio and Social Media: Lessons Learned

By: J. Angelo Racoma (@N2RAC / DW1ZDK)

I’ve recently rekindled an interest in amateur radio, so far securing amateur operator licenses from two jurisdictions (superfluous, I agree, but an accomplishment nonetheless). In the course of my involvement in the amateur radio community, I have had some interesting observations into parallels between ham radio and social media.

Signal vs. Noise

Both mediums will require that you determine the signal from noise, and that you can adequately filter out the latter. In terms of ham radio, I’m not only talking about noise such as RF interference, but also noise coming from other users.

Where I come from, the radio bands are awash with pirates, meaning people who modulate even without licenses. This is true on both commercial and the ever-so-limited amateur bands. I’m not saying that unlicensed users are necessarily bad people. But if you listen to the discussions, it’s mostly full of nonsense and even foul language (which is prohibited in the amateur bands, by the way).

Worse, even discussions among licensed users aren’t always prim and proper. I’m not against ragchew, but I think there are more productive uses of limited resources like time, electricity and radio spectrum than useless talk.

It’s the same with social networks. Sure, most people use it to connect, and you may want to catch up with what your friends, relatives and family members are doing across the globe. But the next thing you know, you’re wasting precious hours clicking through useless clickbait and watching nonsense videos that don’t really add value to your life.

Both mediums are extremely useful, although they are also being abused in many ways.

Trolls are Everywhere

If there’s one bad effect of social media’s mainstreaming is that it also reflects the negative aspects of human nature.

I’m talking about trolls here. For every decent user on social networks, there are probably dozens, hundreds or more out there who have nothing better to with their time than intentionally ruin everyone else’s day through trolling.

The parallel in the ham radio world would be jammers or “QRM” (the Q-code word for interference). Radio communications are, by nature, open to all, and when you introduce interference from another station, then it would often be close to impossible to communicate clearly in some modes like FM. (On modes like SSB, they can be ignored, although it can be annoying.)

In most cases, the best way to address jammers is to simply not acknowledge their presence at all (don’t feed the trolls, so they say). It’s somewhat difficult if they have a stronger station than yours, and if they succeed at making it hard for valid conversations to take place.

It Can be Addicting

Amateur radio is a hobby, which means it’s something you spend time, energy and even money on. The problem is just that: you spend time, energy and money on something that may or may not add value to your life outside of the hobby. It can be draining on your resources, especially with all the equipment you might end up acquiring.

By nature, amateur radio precludes messages of a commercial nature, which means it’s not something you can directly earn from. I know some people who had gained a lot from ham radio, however — including business connections, practical engineering skills and more. And it’s a parallel with how you can find good business connections even on friends-focused social networks, and not just professional networks like LinkedIn.

Still, I have also observed that some enthusiasts are bordering on the extreme when it comes to fulfilling their passions, often spending ridiculous sums of money that could perhaps be spent elsewhere more productive.

Ham radio is by no means an inexpensive hobby. You start out with a $30 (or cheaper) China-made VHF/UHF handheld, but that’s not enough. You then progress to more expensive Japanese or American-made handheld or mobile/fixed radios. Plus you need to buy cables, connectors, antennas, meters, mounts/masts, and more. You then salivate for more expensive HF setups, which can run into the thousands of dollars.

Beyond spending money on hardware, there’s also the time aspect. To some, the hobby already becomes a lifestyle, encroaching on other, supposedly more important, activities like professional pursuits or spending time with one’s family.

Isn’t it the same with social media? For example, you might spend inordinate amounts of time in your day incessantly refreshing your feeds for something new. Or, you might find yourself spending lots of money so you can better share your updates (new smartphone for better selfies, for instance).

It’s Public

As mentioned earlier, radio communications in the amateur band are open by nature, and anyone can listen in to your conversations if they are within range (or if the propagation conditions are favorable). It’s the same with social media. Even if you are posting something meant for limited consumption, you can assume that it can probably leak out.

This means you should be careful of the information you share, both in the course of actively transmitting a message or posting an update, or in the public profile that you maintain.

You Should Learn to Listen

Amateur radio, as with most two-way radio setups, is essentially half-duplex communications. A user can either transmit or receive, but cannot do so simultaneously.

Before you talk, you must learn to listen. Has the other end completed his/her message? Do you understand the message? Do you have enough information to send a viable response to that message?

Social media has tapped into our basic desires to be seen and heard, hence the plethora of attention-seeking and attention-grabbing posts out there. Sure, it’s nice to have a medium for self-expression, but do take the time to listen, evaluate, and think before you hit “post.” Otherwise, mindless, thoughtless and sometimes trolling activity might just contribute to noise (see signal vs. noise above, as well as trolling).

Conclusion

This is by no means a comprehensive list of parallels between ham radio and social media. And I do realize that such parallels exist in other forms of communication, as well. The lesson I’d like to impart is that we should use these communications media more responsibly and contribute to productive and enjoyable interactions, rather than useless trolling and noise.