Over the course of the pandemic, I know I have, like so many others, been cooped up in the house with the internet being my primary mechanism for social interaction. As terrifying as that sounds, it has given me some time to reflect on our little forum here and how we've gone about updating the site over the years, and even what role our little site plays within the larger community of people who want to talk about transforming robots.
Now, it's important to understand that the Archive has been around at this point for 25 years. In the internet wild-west of the late 90s, it was the transformers site that came up first in search results since it hosted a lot of media (clips of cartoons, comics scans) that weren't readily available otherwise at that point (given the ubiquity of streaming services and comixology nowadays, this seems rather quaint). Now, that obviously didn't last, so the site moved toward the format of discussion forum and hosted, written reviews of toys and comics by members in the early 2000s. That was about twenty years ago, and... we've never really had a tune up since then. That, among other factors such as members getting older, having less time, and less enthusiasm for the same old thing, has led to the site suffering from atrophy over the last ten years or so.
But, it doesn't need to be this way. Currently, the two largest fan sites are a discussion forum that's so massive as to be unwieldy, and a wiki that doesn't host discussion at all. Surely we can find a happy medium?
I think that we can. After a lot of discussion with other staff members, we realized that the current style of hosted content functions best as curios of a time capsule. Which is to say that it exists in an antiseptic way that's completely walled off from discussion. Now, that's all well and good for being an archive, but it's terrible for driving a discussion community. So, we had the idea of review content that is deliberately thought provoking, building to a discussion point. Here's a rough example from Stonecold Skywarp:
Allow me to introduce to you Mastermind Creations (MMC) Sphinx. To those of you of a younger persuasion, this is G1 Mirage. Who this character is isn't really important but there is something very specific about this toy that bring up an interesting point and something that we take for granted as a transformers fan. How seamlessly alien robots are able to disguise themselves and hide amongst us without evident blemish in their disguise. So, why Sphinx? What was it about that figure brought up this topic? Having picked up the figure I also added some reprolabels from toyhax to add a few extra flourishes to the appearance of the toy and add real world aesthetics to a toy based on a cartoon. The tyres of the figure are rubber are come with a tampographed logo already - great! However they aren't quite as real world as they look; they should read "GOOD YEAR" per the popular and expensive tyre brand but they actually read "GOOO YEAR" an easy enough fix with a touch of paint.
Whilst discussing this with Clay he raised an interesting literary point that dissuaded me from making the change. Loosely told, in The Man Whole Fell to Earth, there is a piece of evidence that finally convinces the authorities of the deception in front of them. An imperfect aspirin tin, missing details that would be impossible to replicate using the technology available at the time. So what if that third o in GOOO year is the giveaway, the reminder that a toy line that spans 40 years are alien robots from another planet. Whilst writing this piece it also made me think of the Transformers movie from 2007 and the various "hidden in plain sight, but strikingly poorly" and more specifically the character Barricade. The introduced Decepticon style police car, at first glance passing by it would be easy to spot as a generic police cruiser, look closer however and you start to spot the imperfections spoken about in this piece. The police badge with clear decepticon insignia and even more subtle the replacement of "to protect and serve" with "to punish and enslave" a clever piece of movie writing but could be seen as that imperfection and replacement with the closest understanding an alien could contemplate. Beyond things like design choices there are even cases where alternate modes do not match their real world equivalents quite perfectly. From the 1984 cartoon Cliffjumper's Porsche vehicle mode is a severely condensed. Yes, we could argue that it matches the size of the character but given the show makes no secret that its not concerned with relative size of characters you could conceivably suggest that there is "more than meets the eye" going on.
Now, nothing about the form is finalized, but it's a great example of how a toy review (or comic, or cartoon, or movie) can be used to create a prompt to drive discussion. Therefore, content updates drive discussion, and from those discussions we can develop new content. It's so obvious that it's physically painful that we didn't think of it years ago! Under this revision, think of the site as becoming a blog of many voices buttressed by its forum instead of content filed away and a disconnected forum left to atrophy. Another reason this is idea is attractive is that it frees us from having to constantly chase new media or new toys. It leans into the idea of an “archive” differently: rather than filing away reviews into some sort of static record that's never amended, the content of the site is concerned with interesting ideas in a dialogue with its members without worrying so much about the shiny new thing at every moment. Things from the past can be just as topical as the bleeding edge of new stuff as long as someone has a neat idea about it to discuss.
So, if that seems like a reasonable idea to rethink content and how it can used to drive a feedback loop on the discussion forum, it leads to the next question. Where are the people that want that? Are there people that want that?
The very short answer is yes. Over the course of the pandemic, I've been sitting in and sometimes participating in discussion groups that aren't hosted on websites or through forum software, like twitter and facebook. In my purely anecdotal experience and observations, these groups pop up not because of an aversion to registering on a forum, but mostly because of the prevalent attitudes of existing forums. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the forums that have maintained critical mass over the past fifteen years have done so with the participation of old geezers like us who, more or less, have the same entry point of the original series from the 1980s. Now, that's important because the franchise has been chugging along and kicking out new iterations every few years ever since, and you know what? It works! Out in the wilds of twitter and facebook, younger fans who don't default to G1 seem quite hungry for discussion and community. Basically, they get turned off from the bigger forums because of the general attitude that, if G1 isn't the universal starting point, then it must be the inevitable conclusion. One of the things that have led me to this conclusion is the use of groups with fairly narrow focus (meme sharing, or shitposting as it were) for broader community building like seeking advice or sharing opinions. This is different from all the other meme groups I'm part of (entememology, paleontological coprolite-posting, etc.) which all stick to the point much more closely (though granted that I'm not a part of other fan-oriented meme groups). Another thing that's lead me to this is that they're explicit about older/original fans not welcoming them.
So, to pull these different threads together into some sort of cohesion, it seems to me that we have both a reasonable structure of a content-feedback loop that can drive and grow the community again, and also a community of younger fans that's in want of the kind of discussions and connections that we were having fifteen and twenty years ago if we're willing to re-brand the archive as a kind of “non-denominational” transformers site. Yes, there really are fans who default to Animated, Prime, the Bay Movies, and even the Unicron trilogy as their default conception of what transformers are. Fans whose holy grail figures include Animated Blackout, not G1 Soundblaster.
I find that fascinating. And I find myself missing the vibrant discussion community we used to have. That's not to say that I lament the Archive not being able to become what those sites are now, as I find them so large as to be useless for actually engaging with people. So I know I don't want that. But I would like to redevelop the archive into the kind of the community that I want to participate in with guided, smart content.
So, please regard this post as trying to find the balance between speaking to those you still about in a "we are going to give this a shot, you want in?" and speaking to those we're trying to attract in a "we are mostly harmless and open to a good conversation regardless of preferred generation." Plans are nebulous and fuzzy at this point, so don't expect dramatic changes in the short term. But if people are interested and positive about the idea, I can start to share some of the ideas and concepts we've been kicking around intermittently for the past six months and see what people think.
I should like to add that the goal is not to displace other online communities based on social media as social media does do some things better: ease of image sharing, for example. But what it's bad at is longer, text based discussion that spans over days or weeks instead of hours. I'm interested in building that kind of community with people that otherwise don't participate in this kind of environment.
But also facebook is the devil. The less influence it has generally, the better.