November 2021 14 Min Read

Has Social Media Been a Force For Good in the Watch World?

By Russell Sheldrake

This is a rather big question to tackle – one that attracts strong opinions on either side. In the past, we have addressed very concrete subjects, going into the details of certain references, or exploring the history of a corner of collecting, but this is a far more ephemeral task. Gauging the impact of something so central to today’s collecting community will always generate opinions on both sides, but hopefully we are able to shed some light on a hotly debated area of the watch world.

Digging into what came before social media, we’ve spoken with three veterans of the forums to get a sense of what it was like to go from long discussion chains, to image-led posts with a character limit. We also hope to discover how social media has built up communities and informed people’s tastes over the last decade or so.

The number of those interested in watches has exploded in recent years, and the role of platforms such as Instagram is unmistakable. While it is mainly a place to share images, the ability to buy and sell watches almost instantly, has become a huge part of why collectors have flooded to social media. However, with this deluge of activity there will always be those who look to make fun of it and inevitably take things too far. We will explore these areas, hopefully shedding a little more light on something that can seem fairly trivial, yet has a global impact.

What Came Before Social Media?

Forums were the first spaces that allowed watch collectors from all around the world to connect and share their passions.

Before Mark Zuckerberg dreamt of Facebook in his college dorm, the global watch community connected via several forums – online spaces that allowed each collector, dealer, and enthusiast to sign up for an account, create posts and generate discussions. We covered their origin in a previous article, where we talked about how the very first examples came to be and the role they played in the early days of wristwatch collecting.

William Massena, who would go on to become the Managing Director of Timezone, was one of the very early adopters of the forums. When we asked him about the differences between the forums and social media today, he boiled it down to this: “Forums are more like a fine-dining restaurant, while social media is like fast food. Both will fill you up, but in very different ways.” The text-heavy format of forums is well-suited to a certain type of enthusiast. Full articles were written by some members, leading to discussions in the comments that would last days, and the depth that was reached there can only be matched by some of the most scholarly of published books today.

We also spoke to Sham, who has intimate knowledge of forums, specifically WatchProSite – otherwise known as Purist. He joined the forum in 2014 and has become, in our eyes, one of the more influential voices on the platform. His posts on independent watchmaking have accumulated over the years and generated plenty of interest – one that he published recently, on Laine, even increased the waiting list for the watchmaker. From his perspective, one very important function of the forums has been the promotion of independents. “They really brought them to people’s attention, along with shows such as Salon QP, before it closed down,” Sham tells us. Many of the independent watchmakers would take notice when they were talked about on forums. Sham even had some message him after writing a post, thanking him for the coverage.

The rise of the forums really coincided with the rise of independent watchmaking. Suddenly, there was a way for collectors to share their thoughts on the pieces they had bought with an audience across the world and, more importantly, with an audience that was motivated and capable of ordering the watches themselves. Thanks to the highly qualitative nature of forum posts, collectors were not only getting introduced to these new watchmakers, but they were gaining more depth of knowledge than they would have if they had just seen an image of a piece on Instagram.

Not only were – or, rather, are – the forums places of acquiring and sharing knowledge, they also became very early trading platforms. A popular loophole at the time was being exploited by many forum users, as Mike Wood, a collector and vintage watch shop owner, tells us. “There were significant price differences between different regional markets, and buying or selling from abroad could be lucrative,” he says. “I remember the early days of eBay with great fondness. It was an amazing marketplace for watches and parts, and largely free from scammers and swindlers.”

Seeing the likes rack up on a picture can give instant gratification, but Instagram comments can't compare to forum threads.

Many collectors, too, would post pieces from their personal collection for sale or trade. Sham even tells us that he once sold a watch on Purist and was later contacted by the CEO of the brand, sharing his unhappiness that he decided to part ways with the watch. This shows just how much attention these forums attracted in the early days.

Forum veterans will be aware of the occasional toxic element that they could foster. However, according to Massena, these were kept to a minimum by the moderators. “It was easy for the moderators to keep on top of any trolls, although they still did exist,” he explains. “While there was a humorous side to some of the posts, the jokes were always knowledge-based.” It’s a rather stark contrast to the toxicity that can be found on social media today.

Wood recognises some of the motivations behind these more venomous posts. “[After] a few too many drinks in the evening while trawling the internet, resentful, jealous or just down-right nasty keyboard warriors can make or break a watch-forum community,” he says. “Luckily, most of the established watch forums have fast-acting moderators who can delete abusive or bullying posts. It’s a sad fact of life that there is always someone who wants to spoil a good thing.”

Massena, Sham, and Wood all recognise that there was a drop-off in the number of members and posts once Facebook and Instagram started to become popular. Both offered far bigger audiences for those who wanted to post about watches; however, the quality of the content posted on both has never truly matched that of the forums, which remain a repository of rich information and insights for those willing to search through them.

The visually led format of these new social media platforms lent itself to watches perfectly. The instantly digestible image of tropical dials and chunky bezels triggered the pleasure receptors in enthusiasts’ brains far quicker than a lengthy forum post ever could. Of course, this was not an overnight switch, nor was it a wholesale one. There are still plenty of active users on the forums, and some don’t participate in social media at all. They still enjoy the detailed discussions found there and avoid the instant hype that can be found on Instagram.

In a community sense, Facebook groups were arguably the first stepping stone towards the current social-media landscape that we know today. These often regional-based groups would act as types of forums where people could post images of their watches and organise meet ups or GTGs (get togethers). Again, many of these are still active today and now that many of the COVID-related restrictions are lifting, GTGs are back. Massena argues that there was a clear transition of knowledge from forums to blogs, such as early Hodinkee, that drew a lot of their information from these in-depth community threads. He also notes that these blogs then slowly transformed over the years into less qualitative and more instantly digestible formats that are far better suited to social media.

Building Communities and Knowledge Bases

The rise of more visual based social media has allowed the watch space to become more accessible.

One of the primary functions of social media is to bring people together. For decades now, these platforms have been a way to connect with others with a shared interest – even if they are on the other side of the world. This can certainly be seen in the watch community, as it was suddenly a lot easier to find other enthusiasts to build relationships with and draw knowledge from. However, while many sing the praises of the forums, they could be quite exclusionary, especially for those just getting into the hobby. The depth of some threads would far surpass many people’s understanding, leaving them to merely observe, afraid that if they posted something their ignorance would be exposed for all to see.

However, with the introduction of more visual media such as Facebook and, eventually, Instagram, these knowledge-based barriers were lowered. Anyone can take a picture of a watch and post it, without knowing exactly how the complex mechanism inside worked, or how many left the manufacture in that configuration. No longer were there long threads that would take days to read; they were replaced by posts with a character limit that provided information in bite-sized chunks.

This made the watch space far more accessible and opened it up to those who might have never encountered it before. This is something that Daniel Sum, the founder of the Shanghai Watch Gang, has intimate knowledge of. Started by Sum and two other collectors who came together rather by chance, the Shanghai Watch Gang has amassed an organic following and become known for being one of the few places to get a true insight into the world of Chinese watch collectors.

The Shanghai Watch Gang is just one example of the communities that have formed solely on Instagram and have used the images of rare and desirable watches from their members as a way to promote their group. Despite the barriers that those in China face in accessing platforms such as Instagram, it still proves to be the most popular and trusted place for collectors to interact. From their initial group of three, they have now grown to more than 11,000 followers and have organised multiple large meetups, including the Shanghai Watch Festival.

This can almost be seen as a developed version of the GTGs that first started on the forums three decades ago. Now, we also have brands organising similar events to help launch their new product, sending out invitations to their trusted client list, then broadcasting the whole thing live on Instagram. It has come a long way from a few avid collectors meeting in a café or a bar to discuss their collections and what they plan to buy next.

We also can’t ignore the power of hashtags. Perhaps the most pervasive example is #speedytuesday, which prompted an entire movement and spawned two limited-edition watches. Started by Robert-Jan Broer, founder of Fratello, it truly captured collectors’ attention. It began in 2012, with one post on Facebook by Broer, and it has perhaps had more of an impact on collectors than any other hashtag. To date, it has been used on Instagram more than 300,000 times.

While the wide-reaching nature of social media today has enabled groups to grow far bigger than before, it also means that they can fracture a lot more quickly as well. “People began to split up into more specialised groups within the Shanghai Watch Gang,” says Sum. This was not a terrible thing, as it led to collectors getting more value out of their group. As Sum puts it: “Once you’ve seen so many watches, it’s hard to keep people coming back.”

These specialised groups-within-groups are fantastic for those already deep into their horological journey, but, for many, social media has also represented a gateway into the watch world. The high level of accessibility that Instagram has granted first-time collectors – or those just looking to buy their first watch – is unprecedented. With high-profile figures flexing their latest iced-out Patek Philippe or vintage Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, it has also become a platform that piques the interest of those who might never have considered watches in the past. Amusingly enough, the Head of Instagram himself, Adam Mosseri, can frequently be seen wearing vintage Daytonas and Aquanauts on his profile.

The Uniformisation of Taste

Algorithms, hashtags, and influencers can often create hype around pieces that then snowballs out of control.

While the specialised groups that have formed over the years are fantastic for producing deeper knowledge and appreciation of the small corners of the watch world, broader tastes seem to have been homogenised – in part, thanks to social media’s over-exposure of certain pieces. The trend for stainless-steel sports watches certainly seems to have been fuelled by prevalent hashtags, with influential accounts fanning the flames.

Of course, these trends don’t originate from Instagram – far from it. Many trace it back to early Italian collectors, who were the first to find the beauty in more rugged pieces such as vintage Rolex. However, echo chambers form in all areas of our lives today, including the watch world. Algorithms are now so advanced that once you interact with one image of Nautilus, more will be presented to you, creating a sense of high desirability. Cara Barrett, ex-Hodinkee editor and founder of children’s watch brand Parchie, agrees that Instagram can narrow your field of interest. “[It] will show you more of what you like,” she explains. “But this has helped broaden the base of those who are interested in watches.”

It can be difficult to scroll through your Instagram feed without seeing a fair few Rolex, Nautilus and Royal Oak watches. This has no doubt fuelled the incredibly long waiting lists for these models, which has only further contributed to their exclusivity on social media, creating a vicious cycle. The phenomenon of “watch spotting”, where accounts identify the watches worn by celebrities, has also contributed to the social-media cycle which drives up the desirability of certain models. Over time, it seems that this has contributed to tastes becoming increasingly narrow, with originality becoming more and more rare.

The format that social media has evolved into hasn’t helped this more superficial approach to watch collecting. With our attention spans reportedly getting shorter, the amount of space these platforms give us to express ourselves gets smaller and smaller. Captions have character limits and shorter video clips are prioritised, so it can be hard for in-depth, qualitative information to get through. Striking images and visuals can often take precedence over history, craft, and substance. However, as Sum says, “those who are really passionate about the topic will always do that further reading and dig a little deeper”.

Buying and Selling at New Speeds

Instagram is often the platform of choice now for those seeking to buy or sell watches.

The landscape of buying and selling watches has been revolutionised by the internet and then once more by social media. Watches were being traded regularly on the forums and, from there, online dealers started up their own websites, to give themselves a bit of autonomy from the forum moderators. As Wood told us, the ability to suddenly trade in different markets with ease, opened a world of possibilities to those motivated enough.

Today, Instagram has changed the trading game again. Back in 2018, at the Hodinkee 10th anniversary event, a panel of dealers discussed the fact that there are watches being sold every second on the platform. The instantaneous nature of the app, paired with the high volume of traffic, makes it easier than ever for watches to trade hands. This has not only increased the number of professional dealers on the platform, but also empowered collectors to connect and trade among themselves in ways which were previously impossible. Indeed, we receive more enquiries through our Instagram messages than anywhere else.

However, big brands are yet to take full advantage of social media. Some of them might allow you to buy directly through their Instagram shop, while others only use the platform to promote their silky-smooth graphics, but it is hard to think of a major brand that has made the most of the opportunities that social media offers. If you ask Barrett, though, that’s not such a bad thing. “Generally speaking, Swiss luxury [brands] are slow to do anything,” she says. “That’s just how they operate. But I don’t think that hurts them – it’s almost charming, in a way.” Indeed, Patek Philippe’s approach to image sharing might be unique, but it certainly hasn’t hurt the sales of Nautilus or Aquanaut models.

Public Criticism Is Never Far Away

From memes to trolling, the anonymity that the internet allows can be toxic, but also allows for increasingly open discussions.

It is no secret that the anonymity that the internet provides can bring out some of the worst in humanity, and the watch community is not immune to this either. There are now far more spaces for people to criticise others in the industry; from watchmakers and executives, to journalists and dealers, no one can seemingly escape. Arguably, having a more open discussion can only lead to an objectively better industry, forcing everyone to raise their standards. However, there are examples where those who have hidden behind profile pseudonyms have taken it too far.

This is nothing new. Massena tells us that there were plenty of jokes, made in good and bad taste, being thrown around on the forums, but the moderators were always there to step in should it go too far. Barrett can speak from personal experience on this matter – having had direct access to the Hodinkee DM inbox, she was constantly shocked by the vile nature of some of the messages. “It was always a small minority that were the most vocal and ruined it for the other 90%,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to tell you what any of them said, but they were atrocious. I didn’t know that people could be so horrible. [However], you could never complain as engagement was high and the majority of people we interacted with were great.”

This culture of criticism has manifested itself in the various watch meme accounts that have cropped up. We spoke with one of the more notable examples of these, Horological Dicktionary, about how this phenomenon came to be. “The last thing the community needs is another place to celebrate and admire, that aspect of social media is saturated” he stated. “I wanted to bring to the community something that combined high-brow concepts with very low brow humour.” They agree that there is a risk of crossing the thin line between a well-placed joke and hurtful criticism. “Being anonymous is a great benefit. I think this however is where accounts like mine have to be careful. With no personal identity front and centre it can embolden you to cross the line into abuse. I take that seriously.” Some of those that they mock openly on the account know the person behind it personally, and will know to take anything that comes their way in good jest. But this can also be a good test for how his jibes are being received, as these people will provide feedback to ensure that he hasn’t taken a joke too far. “I think this is the one duty that an account like mine has – to not let a joke turn into abuse.”

There is plenty to make fun of in this world – for Horological Dicktionary he has a particular fondness for highlighting “the laughably unregulated state that watch media finds itself in. The scope for driving the market right into your checkout box is frightening and about as unregulated as anything I’ve seen before.” Of course, humorous critique doesn’t always have to be so deep, “I will just as happily laugh at a watch for its phallic shaped bridge or take an Instagram scammer for a ride and post it to my stories.” Just as there are many different levels of watchmaking, there are similarly multiple strata to watch memes.

Parting Thoughts

Given the highly visual nature of watches, it's likely that social media is here to stay.

Looking back through the history of online spaces and speaking to enthusiasts, collectors and those deeply embedded in the watch world, it’s clear that social media’s role in the industry has been a divisive one. It has changed the way watches are consumed, informed people’s tastes and allowed sales to take place at lightning speeds, while the darker side of these unregulated platforms brings out the worst in some users and an arguable streamlining of tastes.

When we asked a few of the people we spoke to what they thought would happen next, most of them believe that the current trend for picture-based content will continue to grow. As watches are such visual objects, it makes sense that we would be attracted to platforms that cater for this. It’s hard to see a flood of enthusiasts moving to a platform like TikTok, whose lightning speed makes it hard for those who really care about watches to meaningfully engage. What’s certain though, is that social media is very much here to stay.

We would like to thank William Massena, Sham, Mike Wood, Daniel Sum, Cara Barrett, and Horological Dicktionary for lending us their insight into the fast-paced and mercurial role that social media plays in the watch industry.

All illustrations done by Mark Watkinson.