Information Rift, Philately, and Young Collectors

By Don Denman

I think a significant number of younger people are turned off from our hobby due to our legacy of limiting access to information: I call this the ‘information rift’.

Our hobby, and many in it, have had the legacy of paying for access to philatelic information. Catalogs, albums, magazines, reference books, clubs, organizations, and shows all traditionally have had paid access. This has lead many of our generation to form the opinion, ‘I had to pay for philatelic information and paid my dues so new hobbyists should expect to pay too’.

But younger people today have grown up with different expectations about access to information; they are the first generation to have always lived with internet access. (The internet penetration rate in the US is now over 85% and over 90% in the EU.) So while many will comment about the time kids spend with their smart phone they are missing the impact this has had on the younger generation's perspective regarding information access.

If a younger person has a passing interest in our hobby what happens when they try to find information? Are they greeted with obstacles that charge for further access or are they able to find a wealth of online, captivating resources which further encourages further involvement? In other words, how well does philately compete with other interests in offering information to younger people? But many in our hobby prefer to speculate that philately cannot compete for a younger person’s time.  

I think younger people are simply turned off when they see they have to pay for information access. Moving forward no hobby will be able to survive unless the basic information like catalogs are freely accessible online without cost. And unless philatelic organizations figure out how to generate income other than with membership dues they are doomed to hemorrhage memberships as the demographics grey. Younger people are simply not willing to spend more to join a club that delivers information they expect to get for free.

Trying to close the ‘information rift’ neither easy or without risk. On the individual level it requires us to put aside our own history and understand that access to information has drastically changed. Evidence of our own ignorance on this topic is reveled any time we discuss the health of the hobby; over and over we hear that our hobby is dying. This viewpoint is only justified by using metrics from the 1960s such as the declining number of brick and mortar dealers, declining memberships in clubs, and declining stamp show attendance. But the truth is that no one has any kind of understanding on how the hobby has transitioned to being online. We have to stop thinking that we are living in 1960.

And organizations or companies that previously published paid philatelic information is staring at a very scary and harsh reality. They can sit back, not change, and ride the sinking ship down or they can bring in staff people who have the vision and understanding of how to generate income in new ways. They have to have leaders who understand that spending $100,000 on a new website is meaningless if the budget does not cover the significant cost of constantly generating new monthly content and online resources. It isn’t the initial development that counts, it is the investment in content and tools that will generate online traffic week in and week out. A website is not like publishing a book, it is like publishing a magazine.

How do you know if a company or organization is missing the ‘information rift’ boat? When it tries to outsource its core competency of delivering philatelic information. These organizations and companies need leaders who have this vision and are willing to drive it. These organizations and companies need staffers who are web-enabled and technically inclined. But most of all, these organizations and companies need the courage to walk away from their legacy profit centers and embrace new ways of generating income. 

Unfortunately much time has already been lost and our hobby is far behind, it will take even deeper pockets and more risk for catch up now. I am unsure of how many will be able to survive moving forward at this point. The hobby will survive, but the future of those who cling to the traditional publishing and selling models will not.

How large the ‘information rift’ grows will impact our hobby but I am pleased that there has been grass roots online efforts. Communities like SCF (Stamp Community Family forum) are thriving and websites like Stamp Smarter continue to grow and generate large amounts of traffic. It is online resources like these which are attracting younger hobbyists because they have not erected costly obstacles for accessing philatelic information.