Recently, I was invited to make an online presentation to the Royal Philatelic Society of Canada, and I chose to talk on the topic of ‘Online Philately’.
It was an overview of the internet’s impact on stamp collecting, concentrating on some more recent expressions online. I don’t think every collector needs to run out and get a TikTok account, but I did want to reassure my audience that, while ‘traditional philately’ is often seen to be declining in popularity, there remains a vibrant interest in stamp collecting. It’s just showing up in areas with which we might not all be familiar.
The talk was fun (well, at my end, anyway). It’s online now at the RPSC website, but you’ll need to be a member to be able to log in and watch it. Afterwards, there was an engaging Q&A about the net and the future of philately. I promised I would supply a list of the sites that I had referred to in my talk, and after about a week and a half, I finally have it ready. And I figured, why not publish that list here as well?
Bear in mind that this was aimed at people who perhaps DON’T live online 24/7, so if you’re a regular user of the internet/social media, you can probably skip some of my descriptions below. I want to state in advance that these references don’t represent an exhaustive list, nor a ‘best of’ or a list of favourites. I just picked a few examples to represent each platform where relevant. (I’ve added a few more on this pass.)
But I’ll start this recap where I finished my talk: you don’t need this page if you bookmark The Digital Philatelist. James Gavin does an incredible job of keeping track of HEAPS of stuff happening online – blogs, dealers, podcasts, YouTube channels, social media, you name it. And they’re conveniently filed by country, theme, or collecting interest. It’s a superb endeavour, and I am ashamed to realise just now that I haven’t given it a bigger plug on my blog before this. Get on board.
A similar service is provided at StampOnTheWeb, albeit with a more traditional focus and somewhat straighter presentation. This site is run (in several different languages!) by the Italian Association of Military Mail Collectors. I’ve only recently found it, and it’s full of links to useful stuff. (Though, interestingly, not this blog. I choose to take that as a personal insult. Vendetta!)
Anyway, if you’re still reading, here’s a dot-point form of my chat.
The early World Wide Web era
As the net went mainstream, anyone who was anyone gradually realised that they needed a website. They included:
- Postal authorities: just for fun, here is a very early capture of Canada Post’s website from 1998. And here’s how it looks now.
(That’s the end of the ancient history. All the website links from now on are the current versions.)
- Dealers and auction houses, like Stanley Gibbons
- Stamp magazines, like Canadian Stamp News
- Museums, like the Smithsonian’s Postal Museum
- Philatelic societies and clubs, like, the Royal Philatelic Society of Canada
- A more recent arrival mentioned above, StampOnTheWeb’s list of links includes an extensive menu of traditional philatelic exhibits presented online. Find it by clicking ‘4000 Online Exhibits’ in the left-hand menu. Here’s an exhibit looking at the production of the ‘Jenny’, the USA’s first airmail stamp (most famous in its inverted error. Can you spot it?). (In my talk, I mentioned an exhibit on the Finnish Mourning Stamp, but that one doesn’t seem to want to load right now.)
(Nerd side-note: there’s a whole separate conversation going on about online exhibiting. I haven’t written much on my blog about competitive exhibits, but they’re a big part of traditional philately. Essentially, the idea is that you mount your collection on a series of specially sized pages, and display them within supplied frames known as… ‘frames’. Exhibits are referred to by how many frames they fill – an ‘eight-frame exhibit’, for example. Currently, most ‘online exhibits’ comprise entire pages scanned as images. The Q&A after my talk discussed whether traditional collectors might need to move beyond counting exhibits in terms of physical frames, and instead embrace the broad interactive potential that online publication can offer. But that’s a blog entry for a whole other time.)
- Back to the turn-of-the-century internet, and we can’t forget: Ebay. This site was a game-changer for philately. Browsing through Ebay reignited a long-neglected spark in my own brain and lured me back to my childhood hobby. This story was repeated around the world, as suddenly, geographic distance was no longer an impediment to tracking down elusive treasures, and every stamp collector could become a dealer on the side. (It’s also the best place to pick up undeclared forgeries, which is probably a big reason why we’ve flocked to more collector-focussed sites like Delcampe and Hipstamp.)
Meanwhile, the rise of the internet forum (aka message board, chat board, bulletin board) meant that collectors no longer had to find a local stamp club to enjoy philatelic conversation, education, argument, and stamp-swapping arrangements. That could now happen in cyberspace, with strangers on the other side of the world. I’m sure I’ll get into trouble for leaving someone out here, but here’s a bunch that I know of:
Similar to internet forums is Reddit, founded in 2005 as a place to share and discuss news and other links, organised by subtopic. Those sub-topical pages are known as SubReddits, stylised with ‘r/’ appearing before the name. There are at least two general SubReddits worth checking out: r/Philately (for philatelic discussion) and r/AskStampCollectors (which is where you’re sent if you ask r/Philately how much your grandmother’s old stamp collection is worth).
This is where I come in! A blog – short for ‘web log’ – is, in simplest form, an online journal. A series of posts, something like the internet’s answer to a newspaper column, except that anyone can write one. Many blogs retain a sort of ‘dear diary’ feel, but a wealth of available layout options mean that these personal sites can also pretty much function as plain old ‘websites’. Philatelic blogs range from the ignorant but opinionated (hello!) to the extremely informative.
Let’s start with this one! Punk Philatelist began a something of a personal creative challenge to see if it was possible to write about philately and stamp collecting in a vibrant and fun way. I’m not saying that reading about a newly-discovered perforation variety in an 1896 revenue issue isn’t fun, it’s just that so much philatelic writing tends to be a tad, shall we say, dry. Punk Philatelist tries to explain the old, celebrate the new, and offer a few colourful opinions along the way. Punk quickly tapped into an appreciative audience – and it should be noted that they weren’t all young, and many were what you’d call ‘traditional collectors’.
A lengthy (but not exhaustive) list of recommended blogs appears alongside or beneath any article you click on at Punk Philatelist – look for the subheading ‘More Online Philately’. The examples I mentioned in my talk were the detailed and educational The Philatelist, blogs from dealers like CDD Stamps and Norvic Philatelics, the very busy Commonwealth Stamps Opinion, and the US-centric Philately Things (by professional philatelic researcher Casey Jo White). I also mentioned Great Britain Machins, by Robin Harris (‘The Machin Nut’) – perhaps not strictly a ‘blog’, but an extremely useful reference when I’m sorting my Queen’s heads. It’s a great example of the kind of resource that becomes available to all when one collector plonks their knowledge onto the internet.
It’s a term you hear a lot these days, and the Punk Philatelist blog was founded right in the thick of it. Broadly, social media allows the sharing of information and conversation among communities online. There are a bunch of social media platforms, each with its own pros, cons, and culture. They can rise and fall in popularity. They have been a boon to philately, particularly among younger collectors, because they naturally lend themselves to sharing big, colourful, pretty images (like, for example, stamps), and garner instantaneous feedback and advice from others online. What follows is a list of the big players.
At YouTube, anyone can upload their own videos, and viewers can comment. The undisputed philatelic king of YouTube is Graham Beck of the Exploring Stamps channel. His entertaining and elaborate videos have done much to recruit new collectors. (Plug: in earlier days of his channel and this blog, I reviewed Exploring Stamps. Read my review here!)
Some other YouTube channels worth checking out include the informative Ted Talks Stamps and Bob Collects Stamps; Mallard Stamps, which tracks a beginner’s exploration of the hobby; and the now almost endless collection of COVID-era online stamp chats held by the American Philatelic Society which have been recorded and are now archived at the APS YouTube channel.
Another word that you hear a lot these days, but people don’t always stop down to tell you what they are. Basically, a podcast is a radio show, but you don’t need a radio station owner to give you one. Anyone with a computer or smartphone can record episodes themselves, and anyone around the world can listen whenever they like (censorship and internet access permitting). Whatever you’re into, there’s probably a podcast for it. You can listen on a computer, or you can listen on a smartphone by downloading or streaming the podcast. Searching online for a particular podcast by name will usually lead you to it – Listen Notes is a good podcast search engine. Or, head to a podcast aggregator like iTunes to browse the offerings. Most podcasts are totally free!
I mentioned a couple of podcasts in my chat. The US-based Stamp Show Here Today recently passed 300 episodes. Postcard aficionado Frank Roche hosts The Postcardist. Canadian Adrian Speyer hosts the Canada-focussed StampStories (which seems to have taken a break since November 2020). Then there’s Dissecting Philately, hosted by stamp-collecting anatomist Mike Pascoe, plus there’s Bob from YouTube channel Bob Collects Stamps with his own podcast as well! Stamp dealers Charles Epting and Michael Cortese, who began their podcast Conversations with Philatelists in July 2020, have racked up a bunch of episodes at a furious pace, interviewing the glitterati of philately. Their site gives you plenty of options to enjoy the podcast, including in the form of YouTube videos.
Although dominated these days by the news cycle, Twitter is a very conversational social media platform where collectors can share their treasures and banter with one another. The twist: no individual post can run for longer than 280 characters, so this is not generally the place for in-depth detail. But it IS good for showing pictures. Find my Twitter account here –most of my own posts involve me plugging the blog, but I like to interact on other people’s posts too. For other philatelic tweeters, the Digital Philatelist has got you covered.
The dominant social media giant of our time has plenty of philatelic fodder (‘Groups’ or ‘Pages’) hiding within it, from those belonging to specific real-world stamp clubs, societies, and professionals, to groups that have been brought together on Facebook. Facebook users post comments, pictures, videos, links to news articles or other sites – and then sit back and let the conversation kick off. There are also Facebook groups dedicated to buying and selling or swapping material. You can find and follow me there, but for other Facebook pages, once again I will hand you over to the Digital Philatelist. He has so many Facebook pages listed that they are divided into A to K and L to Z. Browse through them and pick the ones that sound up your alley.
In my chat, I mentioned as an example PaleoPhilatelie – it’s actually the Facebook page of yet another blog/website, this one dedicated to Paleontology and Paleoanthropology on stamps! Facebook is frankly a bit dodgy, but browsing the stamp collector options is still a better use of your time than reading another rant from Crazy Cousin Dave on how the deep state rigged the election to implement Bill Gates’s 5G COVID plan and HeRE iS tha PrOof!
I think that in my talk I called Instagram the ‘daddy of them all’ (or words to that effect) in philatelic social media. The reason for that is that Instagram, at its heart, was made for sharing images. In more recent times, videos are involved too, but either way, if you want to pick up a smartphone and just scroll through images of stamps, or display your own collection like an album, this is the place to be. Here’s my page as an example. You can ‘follow’ the feeds of your favourite accounts, or you can search for hashtags, which are the terms that people append to their images to draw eyeballs. So a search for #philately (click that link, I did the work for you) means you can see stamp images from all over Instagram, whether or not you follow those users.
For more of an insight into which Instagram users are worth following, you know by now where I’m going to send you, don’t you. If Digital Philatelist pulls his website down, this article is in big trouble.
Particularly popular with The Young People is TikTok, a social media site built around users submitting short videos. I’m not sure if it will prove to be fertile ground for the future of philately, but there are a couple of heroes in there giving it a go. Watch Noah Trevino (ntrevino96) attempt to impress people with his collection here and here with mixed results; online philatelic joy-bringer Philatelovely’s TikTok channel (philatelovely) entertains its 500+ followers with its Stamp of the Day videos like this one.
I mentioned Discord in my talk, as something a bit different. If you’re new to social media in general, even trying to understand this platform will probably make your head explode. But if you come from the world of online gaming, or if you’ve ever used a chat server like Slack, you’ll get what’s going on. Discord is like an online equivalent of a room full of people chatting. You can usually chat in a main ‘room’, in subject-specific side-discussions, or privately with specific users. And when I say ‘chat’, I mean you can share text, images, videos, or other files. And to be fair, you’ll be a bit lost if you don’t speak fluently in the pictorial languages of emoji text or memes. (Ask your grandkids to explain.) Discord’s philatelic presence is small, but I’ve found at least one room in there, called International Philatelic Promoters. (You may need to download the Discord software to even see this.)
As far as I can tell, the aforementioned Philatelovely is the first philatelic presence on Patreon. It’s not quite social media, more a sales platform, but I included it in my chat as another new way in which the internet might come to affect collecting. At Patreon, you can financially support your favourite creators (and that includes podcasters, bloggers, people doing anything really), usually in return for subscriber-only benefits. Philatelovely’s Patreon page offers six levels of membership, each with increasing benefits in the form of discount codes, stamp giveaways, and competitions. Good on Philatelovely for blazing a trail, and I hope he enjoys the free plug.
Towards the end of my talk, I touched on a few other areas online that might not meet the strictest definition of ‘philately’, but certainly represent more ways in which stamps are finding fans outside of traditional philatelic circles.
A modern twist on penpals. When you sign up to Postcrossing, you’re sent the address of a random stranger somewhere else in the world, and it’s your job to dispatch by old-fashioned snail-mail a postcard, a letter, or other form of written communication. Meanwhile, someone else is given your address, and if you’re lucky, a beautiful article will soon land in your letterbox. From what I’ve seen online, Postcrossing seems addictive. Senders commonly take great care in making their letters beautiful, and if you’re looking for examples, we can use the skills we learned earlier: check out the #postcrossing hashtag on Instagram to see some of the miniature artworks flying around the world.
International Correspondence Writing Month or InCoWriMo challenges participants to hand-write and mail (or deliver) one letter (or card, etc) every day for the month of February each year. (It’s not always about mail. If you run out of people you know, you can leave your letters on a bus or whatever.)
Independently of both of the above efforts, there’s just a big crowd of people (including many younger people) who are enjoy the pure zen that comes with taking the time to write old-fashioned letters (and turn the envelopes into artworks). Once again, Instagram can help us out: here’s the #snailmail hashtag result.
Stamp art is a creative outlet that treats stamps as materials for artworks. Traditionalists might clutch their pearls at the thought, but as I said in my talk, I would rather see a box of unloved, worthless used stamps be put to use in this manner than to watch the same box get eaten by moths in a dealer’s attic. ‘Mail Art’ began as a branch of the Pop Art movement in the 1960s (see my post here for more on that). Modern stamp art drifts a little away from pop art and towards beautiful artefacts. In my chat I highlighted the work of ArtStamped (aka Suzanne Rae, current Chairman of the UK Philatelic Traders’ Society), and Tonia Jillings, who starts with a stamp and imagines the world beyond its borders. Not mentioned in my chat but also well worth checking out is the work of Gary Hogben of Cock Soup Art.
Etsy is basically an online store, but its focus on craft attracts lots of philatelic-themed works. You can buy stamp art, or gifts and other objects made of stamps, like earrings. And guess what? You can also just buy stamps.
So there, that’s my write-up of all the links I used in my chat, and just to reiterate, I don’t intend this list to be exhaustive – it was just a shallow dip into the enormous and growing world of online philately. Thanks to the Royal Philatelic Society of Canada for inviting me to speak, and to those who stuck around to chat further. I hope that next time I might be able to speak in person!
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