Monday, November 2, 2009

100 Year Old Griefing

Susan Douglas (one of my PhD advisors), in her 1987 book Inventing American Broadcasting, detailed a 1907 New York Times story about a young man who used wireless. Although the precursor to modern radio, it was not at all like today's radio. There were no stations playing music, it was Morse code, and it was all individuals sending and receiving messages. These individuals could be some young guy in New Jersey, or the radio man on a ship, or a commercial "station" of sort (such as a newspaper contacting ships at sea for news), or the navy.

For the most part (probably exclusively), it was young and technologically-savvy men. But, it was also anonymous, since there was no automatic way to identify people. And, when you have a communication technology and anonymity, you have griefing. Douglas wrote how, in about 1910, “deliberate interference... began to get out of control, and to the military, in particular, it ceased to be in any way innocent or amusing.” (p. 207) Congestion of the airwaves, and general interference, was increasing, but so was “malicious interference” (p. 208)

Some amateurs deliberately sent false or obscene messages, especially to the navy. The temptation to indulge in such practical joking was enhanced by the fact that detection was virtually impossible. Amateurs would pretend to be military officials or commercial operators, and they dispatched ships on all sorts of fabricated missions. Navy operators would receive emergency messages about a ship that was sinking off the coast. After hours of searching in vain, the navy would hear the truth: the “foundering” ship had just arrived safely in port. (p. 208)

Sending navy operators “profane messages” was something else that the amateurs did. The navy, trying to assert some control over the airwaves, would issue “statements about the grave danger posed by the amateurs, and cited many instances of unpatriotic interference.” (p. 210)

Much like today, anonymity played a large part in people’s behavior. “The anonymity made possible by wireless had a leveling effect on the status and power of naval officials: in the airwaves, rank was irrelevant; only technical strength mattered.” (p. 210)