Social media has all but ruined the “open” web I once knew. And what’s that got to do with R/C? Well the web once included an interesting network of independent R/C websites, where enthusiasts would share their collections and knowledge. And I miss that.
Most of those websites are now gone – replaced by Facebook pages and groups that require Facebook membership. But the new Netflix documentary released this week called “The Social Dilemma“, is an eye opener about the true impact of Facebook and other social media – both on the web, and the world. As told by high-level, ex-employees of the social media companies themselves. People who now deeply regret their own creations.
When I first began collecting and enjoying vintage R/C model cars, it was in the pre-Internet dark age of the early 1990s. Somehow, even by then, I was cognizant of the fact that many of the creative, realistic, interesting early R/C models of the R/C “boom” era of the 1980s were being discontinued and replaced by less interesting, more generic models.
In those days, mere information about this hobby (and it’s history) was incredibly scarce. About the only literature you could ever hope to find were old R/C magazines and catalogues. I remember a time when I had no clue what the first 20 R/C models released by Tamiya actually looked like. Unless you managed to dig around at old hobby stores and were lucky enough to find early Tamiya catalogues or enthusiast magazines, all of it was effectively lost history. It wasn’t like you could find out anything about it at a library – after all, it’s a pretty niche hobby about a certain type of toy. It was really only known to those who’d owned early models, and remembered details about them (of whom, I knew no-one). At one point in 1989, I traded a worn-out R/C magazine with many pages missing, for a worn-out Tamiya catalogue (with many pages missing) from a kid at school – just so I could see some pictures (for the first time) of certain discontinued Tamiya models.
When the Internet arrived (in about 1995 for me), it was a revelation. A new world of information and trade opened up. Suddenly, it was possible to share this hobby with other like-minded collectors around the globe. Home-made websites began to spring up everywhere – England, Italy, Japan, Germany and more. People created these basic “home pages” to feature their interests and collections, and even offer items for trade. Many were goofy and overloaded with GIFs and things. But all were built with the sincerest intentions of simply sharing a passionate interest, with others.
Such sites existed for every possible interest. And the first email I ever sent someone on the web, was to the owner a Pink Floyd fan website in about 1995. But some of the earliest R/C websites I remember from the late 1990s or early 2000s were the likes of:
- Blazer Frazer’s R/C page (England),
- Roby’s Old Tamiya (Italy),
- Hiro’s R/C site (Japan),
- Darryn’s Retro R/C (Australia),
- Alex’s Tamiya R/C Collector Site (USA)
…all of which blew my mind with their photos and information about the history of R/C car models.
In the 2000s, blogging platforms arrived. Now, it was easier than ever to create your own homepage (even if you didn’t understand HTML), and share your knowledge, adventures and interests with others. Meanwhile, trading sites like eBay matured and exploded in popularity, enabling the collecting of hitherto unimaginable treasures – like new in box vintage R/C kits. Around this time, the Internet was generally a wonderful place for enthusiasts. Trade was like a big trash & treasure marketplace, a lot of old stock was being unearthed, and the websites and resources were simply fan pages. Nobody was beholden to any sort of corporate platform. Thriving communities began springing up on various privately-hosted chat boards and forums. It was all run by enthusiasts, for enthusiasts.
Today however, that Internet feels like a memory. Apart from a few exceptions, I barely recognize the Web anymore, when it comes to the R/C hobby.
There are several reasons for this. One factor is the commercialization of the web. Search for a particular car now, and the first results you will see are likely to be 20 retailers where you can buy it. Whereas, back in the 2000s, ecommerce was in it’s infancy. And privately owned websites with information were just as likely to appear near the top of the search results. I am flattered that, to this day, some of my articles and pages still somehow appear in the first page of Google results for search terms such as “Tamiya Frog” – because unlike many companies out there, I haven’t paid money to Google or employed Search Engine experts to make my pages appear higher.
But I’d like to highlight another reason: Social media. An industry which didn’t even exist prior to about 2008. But which has sought to monetize web usage and social interaction like never before, and which now seems to dominate the online lives of many (or most) Internet users. Did you know that due to Facebook apps being preloaded on mobile phones, there are now countries in the world whose citizens believe that the Internet itself IS social media – i.e. that there is no “web” at all – only Facebook.
Despite being an avid R/C collector, and fairly prolific participant/waffler in hobby forums between 2000 and 2010, I procrastinated about creating my own website for too long. I first started tinkering with ideas as early as 2006. “R/C Toy Memories” finally went online 2012, partly in response to my (then) mild disinterest and apprehension about social media networks. But mostly because I just wanted to write content longer than a “post” or “tweet”.
In the years that followed, traffic to this website steadily increased, and I met and traded with hundreds of people from around the world. To date, there have been over 1 million visitors here. However, in more recent years, I have seen traffic decline.
The reason for the decline is partly my own fault. A tectonic shift in my personal life limited my ability to post new articles from about 2016 onward. And since then, I have struggled to quite regain the frequency of writing that I achieved, between 2012 and 2016.
But I have also seen so much traffic and R/C enthusiast activity shift away from the “open web” altogether. And toward the gated-community of sites like Facebook, where you can’t really participate unless you join and surrender as much detail about yourself as Facebook can extract. And this has made me question the very future of independent websites.
In recent years, the new articles I have written and posted here have still attracted readers, but only a fraction of the comments they used to. Comments, as you can appreciate, are the only feedback mechanism I have. So if I spend several days researching and writing a lengthy piece, it’s nice to hear if someone else merely found it interesting – or didn’t. Whatever the case may be. But at least I know someone did me the honour of reading it.
Alas, almost everyone these days (it seems) uses Facebook or other social media platforms for their R/C discussion. Hardly anybody seems to think “I’ll create my own homepage” – it’s far easier to just start yet another Facebook page or group.
Sometimes, R/C Toy Memories will get an influx of traffic from Facebook.com – hundreds of hits per day to a particular article. And this tells me someone has shared an article there. And you might think “well that’s good, right?”. But here’s the funny thing: I can see that Facebook is a “referrer” in my website statistics. But because Facebook willfully wants to break the normal HTTP behaviour of pages on the web, it actually conceals and obfuscates the referring URL where my content was shared. Meaning – I can’t see where my link was shared, or see what people are saying. So in effect, my content is being discussed… but I am wholly excluded from that discussion. And even if I was a Facebook member, this would still be the case due to Facebook’s jealous concealment of referring URLs.
When bloggers and their readers become “detached” like that, writing or blogging becomes a much lonelier activity. You are essentially writing content for yourself. I get little sense of “community” on the open web anymore. The only contact I have with others, is when visitors take the time to send me a message via the Contact page here – to let me know they enjoyed something, would like to join the site, or just to say Hi and talk about things they like or that they’re collecting. And to all those who take the time to do so, I am grateful.
Consider also, the case of a friend and fellow R/C blogger, the author of the once incredible Vintage Dirt Burners website (http://vintage.dirt-burners.com/), Tom Erik Gunderson. His website once delved into the amazing history of vintage R/C racing around the world, with its immensely detailed articles and photos. His content and detail was so incredible, I printed it out just to keep a copy of it.
But as of a few months ago, Tom Erik’s site has been shut down, and replaced by this alert message – http://www.dirt-burners.com/
I will let Tom Erik’s explanation speak for itself. But essentially, some goober on Instagram began ripping off his immaculately researched articles and re-posting them on social media without credit or reference – thereby harvesting attention (read: “likes” and corporate sponsorships) – for himself in the process.
Is this what the web has become? A dog-eat-dog world of attention-seeking “influencers” trying to spin for profit on social media? And what’s more, they do so free of consequence. Instagram never cared about Tom Erik or his blog being plagiarized. These systems are just “free” social media platforms. Whose own creators famously absolve themselves of responsibility for the content their users post (or read), using the excuse that “we created it, but we are not responsible for what users do with it!”.
So, to what end, our rampant use of Facebook? Unlike the open web, which has no owner, Facebook is a company that exists purely to run a “web within the web”. An ecosystem of information, through which it can extract profit from it’s user’s information, preferences and behavior. One author dubbed this, the “attention economy”.
Well, my parents told me long ago that nothing in this world is “free”.
Think Facebook is free and fun? The truth is that if you’re not paying for an Internet service (like social media, chat, email, or anything else)… then you – your personal data and your personal behaviour – are the product that is being sold. To advertisers. To third parties. To anyone.
Every few months, friends and contacts I have in the R/C world will write to me and say “Why don’t you join our R/C group on Facebook? Why don’t you start a Youtube channel? Why don’t you follow me on Instagram?”. And my answer is always, with respect, “no”. The truth is, when they first began I tried them all – even Twitter. But once I came to truly understand them, I quit them all.
Having worked in Website Development for over 20 years now, I’ve seen a lot change on the web. And I routinely have my ear to the ground on issues such as the ethics of the web, the misuse of user data, and the security problems contained within various online platforms or software. I work in these fields. And I advise the clients I work for, on these very matters.
In the last 10 years, but particularly the last 5 years, I have been dismayed at the direction of the social media industry and it’s effect on it’s users, and even our society at large. The web has become a more fractured, more polarized place – socially and politically. And the algorithm-derived feeds of information (or misinformation) delivered to social media users who spend all their time within these platforms, is clearly a contributing factor.
Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Pinterest, Twitter… all have been engaged in a systematic race to the bottom, monetizing user behavior by keeping people glued to their platforms. “Likes”, “Tags”, “Recommendations”, “Infinite scroll” – these are all techniques conceived to keep users engaged. Such a singular focus not only limits our freedom of thought and experience, it harms the very spirit of the “open web” – as envisaged by those involved at it’s inception, such as Tim Berner’s Lee and Vint Cerf.
Have you seen the new Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma” yet? Perhaps you should.
Here you go:
- https://www.netflix.com/au/title/81254224 <– there is a video trailer on this page
And while you’re at it, I’d also recommend Carole Cadwalladr’s coverage. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/26/with-facebook-we-are-already-through-the-looking-glass
Look, there’s no doubt Facebook is a great way to connect with like-minded R/C fans. Just as it is a way to connect with all your relatives, past lovers, school friends, and ex-colleagues, if that’s what you really want to do. But at what cost, your participation? Because every user of social media, is a vote for social media.
Facebook lives and dies by it’s user content. It generates almost no meaningful content of it’s own. It’s only considered “great” because there are a lot of people using it, i.e. a lot of people congregate there.
But the reality is, social media users have been led toward a certain type of addiction with these platforms, thanks to their clever design. Is that bad? Well, how comfortable are you with the notion that teams of user interface designers, coders, data scientists, and even psychologists are specifically and intentionally designing social media platforms to be as addictive as possible – in order to extract more screen time from you and drive ad revenue (and profit) for themselves?
If you’re OK with that, then enjoy Facebook. I’m not OK with that.
So as I’ve said. I miss the early web. When it was geeky and imperfect. But relatively innocent and wonderful. And I miss the time when online R/C collecting wasn’t mostly holed up inside member’s only “gated communities”, run by some of the richest and most powerful companies that have ever existed in human history.
So my advice to the R/C community (if anyone will listen) is: Quit Facebook. Quit all social media.
Go start your own little blog or website about your interests. Connect with others. But be independent. Write something meaningful. Join a privateer R/C forum instead – like http://www.tamiyaclub.com or http://www.rc10talk.com. Whatever you do, please consider not feeding the social media machine anymore. Watch “The Social Dilemma”, or any similar documentary about the type of web we are currently heading for… and you will start to understand why this is a problem. And why we all need to help turn this trajectory around.
In the meantime, I’ll still be here. Collecting, restoring, building. And occasionally sharing my vintage R/C views and info on this website, via over-long, slightly opinionated posts like this one.
You’re welcome to visit here – or not. Either way, I track no data about you. I know absolutely nothing about you. I make (or lose) no money from you – regardless of whether you visit here or not.
My only goal, since the beginning, has been to share the fun of old R/C models. Somehow, this still results in quite a few thousand visitors per year. But it’s nice to still get a comment now and then, and have it appear here on this website – not on Facebook.com. Where the only beneficiaries are Mark Zuckerberg, his associates, and the data mining machine they are running.
Sorry for the rant. Thanks for reading this far!
Here’s a bonus random photo of my hobby desk. What a Tamiya nerd I am.