Santa 2.0

In the mid 80’s, when my dad got fed up with horrible rabbit ear reception for Cleveland Browns games, we got cable television. Glorious cable television! And after we smacked the side of the TV to make it display in colors other than shades of green, a whole world of video entertainment opened up to me. This included all three movies that were aired over and over and over again on HBO. One of which was the classic War Games. In the movie, Matthew Broderick’s character finds a backdoor into a military computer allowing him to hack in and play a game called Global Thermonuclear War. However, the game isn’t what he thinks. It really leads military monitors at NORAD to believe the United States is actually going to war with the Soviet Union.

While the film provides us with a somewhat happy non-apocalyptic ending, it does play on the Cold War tropes of the end of the world through nuclear war and genius child hackers using computer technology that looks like a Commodore 64 attached to a 8-track tape player. It was also my first experience with the idea of NORAD and the utilization of emerging technology. Fortunately for us today, our experiences with NORAD and computers are significantly more positive than the impending doom portrayed in that classic film.

Unless you are living under a rock, or maybe under an old Motorola Razr, you are probably aware of NORAD’s annual Santa Tracker which provides up-to-the-minute updates on Santa’s trek around the globe to deliver presents. I suspect there is a GPS unit inside Rudolph’s nose, but that’s probably a conspiracy best left undiscussed like Area 51. The Santa Tracker idea started in 1955 with a fortuitous accident. A local newspaper ran a Sears ad with a phone number to call Santa, except it was off by a digit leading children to dial up military personal expecting to hear about an attack on America and not an attack on holiday gift giving. For more information about this wonderful story, I highly recommend Daniel Terdiman’s CNET article, Behind the scenes: NORAD’s Santa tracker.

From phone calls in the 1950’s to the digital communication of today, the Santa tracking program has exploded to include www.noradsanta.org with video and Google Maps integration, a NORAD Facebook page which caused me to lose at least fifteen minutes of work productivity (sorry boss), a Smartphone app, and of course in my wheelhouse @NoradSanta on Twitter. All that’s missing is the API integration allowing Santa to check in to Foursquare all over the world, but only at “nice” locations.

My wife and I don’t have children, so our Christmas morning revolves around sipping coffee with Bailey’s, wrangling the cat into an elf costume, and pelting her with catnip filled mice until she gets worked up enough to attack the tree (my wife, not the cat). So pretty normal behavior for a couple of adults during the holiday season. While we won’t be glued to the computer getting updates on Santa’s location, this doesn’t mean that the tracker isn’t the coolest thing since sliced cheese. If you have little ones, I highly recommend you spend some time interacting with NORAD’s Santa tracker because at minimum it will help you get them nestled in their beds at a reasonable hour.

It’s interesting that in 1955 no one would have thought to call this a viral campaign. But in reality, no matter what your online interactions are, you never know how an accident can turn into something truly successful and positive, like bringing in nearly two thousand volunteers to work with the people who spend their days at one of the most important military installations in the United States.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a dial-up modem so I can play a game of chess.

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One Response to “Santa 2.0”

  1. I never knew that Santa tracker started with a wrong number! Who would have thought it would turn into what it is today. Great story!

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