Before There Was the Like Button, There Was ... the 'Radiovota'

In the 1930s, an engineer tried to bring two-way communication to mass media.
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Radio-Craft magazine via Gizmodo

The Like button is older than you think. Well, sort of. 

Back in the 1930s, Dr. Nevil Monroe Hopkins, a research engineer at NYU, had an idea: He wanted to allow consumers of the mass medium of the time—the radio—to offer feedback about the stuff they were hearing on their newfangled machines. He wanted people to be able to do what the average user of Facebook or Pandora or Instagram takes for granted today: to express pleasure at something. Or dissatisfaction, for that matter. Hopkins was looking for a way for people to vote about the stuff on their radios. Using their radios.

And thus was born … the "radiovota." 

Gizmodo's Matt Novak discovered the ahead-of-its-time device in a 1934 issue of Radio-Craft magazine. It was essentially a primitive form of a Nielsen box—a box, literally, that you attached to your radio. Except: It didn't just passively register consumption habits. It allowed people to vote—actively, if primitively—on what they were hearing. The radiovota contained three buttons (Present, No, and Yes) with which people could register their reactions to songs. And possibly to more than just songs, the thinking went. As Novak notes, a 1937 edition of the Laurens Sun newspaper in Iowa eagerly awaited the day when the "president of the United States may step before a microphone, ask a question of his radio listeners concerning some question of public policy and receive an immediate reply from millions."

The insta-poll! For the radio! Which was a revolutionary idea at the time ... and one that was, given the technological affordances Hopkins was working with, sadly ahead of its time. The image above suggests why the thing didn't take off: Once a user pressed a button on the radiovota, it would take nearly 7 hours for that vote to register at a monitoring station. The information had too far to travel, over too complex a path. The idea was a good one; it would take a different technology, however, to make it take off. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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