Social media has imposed some indelible changes upon this hobbyist’s world. I have a few other hobbies aside from the big one—plate collecting—and I find that the effects of social media are pretty much universal. Modern-day collecting bears little resemblance to that from thirty years ago.
I’ve been gathering vehicle licence plates avidly for 37 years and counting. In the beginning, I felt like I was the only collector in the world. I added to my collection at the rate of maybe a dozen plates per year. They would come to me during the summer months, when I could go to the junkyard, or find derelict cars sleeping in the woods. Once, in those young days, I tried junkyarding in the winter. Everything was buried under a foot of snow. It was a waste of time, but it’s obvious only in retrospect. There was no way to know how fruitless it would be unless I tried it… I had no one to ask.
I’m nowhere near old enough to be a charter member of ALPCA. I’m not even old enough to have met very many charter members of ALPCA. I joined the club in 1995 immediately upon discovering its existence. It opened the door to a staggering new world. I wrote letters to other collectors, which were eventually delivered in stamped envelopes. I did have an email address, but I knew of nearly no one else who did. So letter-writing was the way things went. And in those first few months, I swapped plates with the Ontarian ALPCA members I would come to know: Joe Sallmen, Jacques Allen, John Hayes, Ernie Wilson, Ros Arnott, Bill Verbakel, and “Sam” Samis, to name a few.
Letter-writing was a slow way to collect, but that’s the way it was done. I remember opening mail from John or Ernie, and reading about what recent additions they made to their collections. My correspondents would include a list of traders, just with the year and condition, and sometimes with the number. I’d write a cheque and enclose it with my reply. A couple of weeks later, a modest package of plates would show up. It’s strange, but the excitement of trading was only heightened by the anticipation of receiving plates that were, as yet, sight-unseen.
The best way to engage in the hobby, at that time, was to go and visit people. ALPCA membership was really important, because I could find other members in my southwestern corner of the province. Within the first few months of joining the club, I had visited Jacques, Bill, Ros, and Sam. I first laid eyes on four- and five-digit Ontario plates at Jacques’ place. I first learned of the existence of the 1984 Papal and Royal event plates while I was visiting Bill. I acquired a really low 1969 passenger plate (#1140) from Ros. When I visited Sam, he showed me the dozen-or-so graphic plates he had ordered with his name on them. Some of the graphic options were previously unknown to me. I had never seen so many of them at once. I made occasional trips to Toronto to visit my girlfriend’s family, and while there, I paid a couple of visits to Joe Sallmen, who lived in Runnymede. It was at Joe’s place that I met Jim Becksted for the first time.
In 1997, I developed The Back Bumper as a way of indulging in my hobby at a faster rate. I used to have a swap list posted, but that became cumbersome, so I cut that out. I simply brought what traders I had to the local meets in Acton and St. Catharines, and let the chips fall where they may. Those meets have been a wonderful way of befriending good people and acquiring some amazing plates for our collections. Between my website, the swap meets, volunteering for ALPCA, and emailing collectors, I had a comfortable amount of on-the-go hobbying that I could do whenever I liked. Some of it was trading, but it was balanced by the social and voluntary aspects. And that was the status quo, for a while.
The plate-collecting hobby began to transform with the explosion of social media. The term “social media” was a good fit, at least in the beginning: It just helped people connect with other people. I could follow my parents’ road trips across Canada, or enjoy incidental pics of my nieces at Halloween. But now, “social media,” as it’s still known, tracks your interests, pushes ad content, sells things to you, pushes political agendas, generates income for self-obsessed influencers, and fills the pockets of the CEOs who own all of its information.
Facebook tapped into a huge resource when it introduced “Groups” and “Marketplace.” It gave users a reason to spend more time on Facebook. So instead of just posting selfies from our latest trips, we’re now telling Facebook exactly what our interests are by joining groups. We’re spending untold hours flipping through pictures of food, or cars, or bikinis. Or—in my case, and possibly yours—licence plates.
The groups come with the obvious benefit of bringing more people into the hobby. Some folks are totally new, and have to learn everything from scratch. Others aren’t so much into collecting, but have hidden gems to dangle for value. Many have collected casually for a few years, and only have a dozen plates on the garage wall. They buy one, or two, or ten plates from other group members. Before they know it, they’re buying enough to cover the garage walls. People see pictures of a floor-to-ceiling collection, and the immediate thought is to do the same. And to do it quickly. And as more new people have posted plates to sell, the demand has skyrocketed. Ontario quarterly truck plates—worth a buck at most to me, even mint—are being snapped up at several times their value. When a rarity crops up, a crowd forms around the seller. The comment threads become flooded with “I PMed you” from people who won’t take no for an answer. Four guys claim they’ll beat all other offers, and naturally, the price goes way up. Building a collection used to take years. But now, if you have the money, you can come out of nowhere, buy your collection quickly, and be revered by those who are new on the scene.
The hobby groups on Facebook continue to swell. The License Plate Collectors group (or LPC for short) is the largest of the plate-related groups. It has probably quadrupled in size since I joined; it has over 11,000 members today. It’s mind-boggling. But when you gather that many people in the same room—many of whom want the same things—there can arise a lot of hostility. Facebook, if nothing else, is a great place for angry people to make other people angry. It spreads like a virus. Threads veer into the realm of disrespect, and from there, they degenerate into hatred and name-calling. It’s too easy. And no one is immune. Not you, and certainly not me.
It’s very easy for Facebook to serve as a conduit for disrespect. As a group moderator, I’ve broken up arguments and shut down threads. I’ve watched people sabotage others’ deals. I’ve heard the screaming when someone misses out on a big prize. I’ve been sworn at by people who can’t follow rules they’ve agreed to. I’ve been told to shut up just by contributing to a civil discussion. I’ve been met with the ambiguous, passive-aggressive “ha-ha” emoji while posting public announcements about the swap meet that I help to organize. People decry drama, yet they create it with their own toxic, ill-conceived keystrokes. When I’m outdoors playing catch with my son, the last thing I want is for my phone to be buzzing because of flames on social media. It’s a waste of time and energy. I reduced my hobby presence on social media a couple of years ago. The result? A healthier love for the hobby, and the people in it who pay unconditional respect to those around them.
Social media applies unrelenting pressure to the user. The more one partakes in social media, the greater the persuasion to buy more things. As hobbies become more and more crowded, there is more potential for unknown treasures to come out of the woodwork. People don’t want to miss out, so they never leave. And thus, social media has turned the hobby world into a 24/7 cut-throat competition. Some days, people can be good sports, and things are OK. But sometimes, it’s so draining that overwhelmed admins feel compelled to step away from the very groups that they’ve cultivated.
Social media is here to stay. There’s no denying that. But there aren’t enough hours in the day to read or respond to the overload. To check the feed on some of these groups is like trying to sip from a fire hose. For every time “$15 plus the ride” flashes across the screen, there will be a moronic pic of a crumpled “find” from the median strip in heavy Interstate traffic…or more bait dangled by a troll… or a new insult thrown by an angry keyboard warrior. There are days when it seems the signal-to-noise ratio has never been lower.
Social media makes the hobby faster, easier, and a lot louder. But it’s not necessarily better. It’s up to each person to decide when to come up for air. Some haven’t resurfaced.