Thursday, 22 May 2008

Motors, finding stuff and the web

A thread on the P4Talk forum about Mashima motors has got me thinking again tonight about something that has been on my mind quite a bit of late. As a professional web designer I have no trouble whatsoever finding out just about anything I could ever need to know about any of the multitude of technologies that are spriging up daily in the online world simply by a quick search on Google. Blogs, forums, tutorials, live examples, video demonstrations abound. Just today at work I sifted through another 25 or so websites offering the latest in up-to-the-minute web-related information, deciding which RSS feeds to subscribe to and which to add to my account, in order to stay on top of the latest developments and have the most useful reference sources to hand. Most of these sites are well designed, attractive, easy to use, and packed with relevant and accessible information.

When it comes to railway modelling however, information is much harder to come by. Yes, there are one or two decent resources out there on the web I don't deny. However, the contrast is still pretty huge. I suppose one could argue that it's hardly surprising since many modellers are of the generation that tend not to use computers and the internet so much. Traditionally of course, the hobby has perpetuated itself through clubs and societies meeting in physical venues.

As a young (I like to think of myself that way anyway!) person in what I think is predominantly an older person's hobby these days, I find this situation quite frustrating. To go back to motors - this is still an area of relative mystery to me. Particularly as I read my way through my collection of Model Railway Journal back issues I regularly come across articles where components such as motors are references as if every reader will already know what is being talked about, but I don't. You might as well say "You'll need an R2D2 motor with a C3PO gearbox"! My instinctive reaction when seing a reference to something that I'm unfamiliar with is to open up the laptop and fire off a quick search on Google to see what comes up. In the world of web and computing its only a matter of minutes before everything you ever wanted to know is laid out before you. But this isn't quite so true of model railways!!

I don't know if I'm getting my point across very well. I suppose I'm trying to say several things all at once:

a) One of the biggest hurdles I've found to getting up and running with finescale modelling is knowing what's available and, once that's established, finding out sufficient information about it. Often products are mentioned, listed or referenced without any further supporting information (even many online retailers of model railway components provide little more than a product code and price. It's a rare treat to find a website that actually provides good quality close-up photographs, detailed descriptions, diagrams, or how-to guides.) Also, its very difficult to find out the full range of options available for any given product type. Motors for example - is there actually anywhere at all on the web where I can go and see in one glance all the different types of motors currently available for 4mm model locomotives, where I can buy them from, what applications they're suitable (and not suitable) for, how they differ from each other, what other parts they're compatible with, how to choose the best one for my current needs, etc. etc.??

b) Too much of the information that is available is aimed at those who already have a certain degree of existing knowledge. For example, the 'No. 1 Shop' series of articles back in the early issues of Model Railway Journal, while supposedly intended for the beginner in all things finescale, actually assumed a certain level of pre-existing knowledge about various things. Someone needs to write the book "Finescale Modelling for Dummies"! It can never do any harm to go over old ground time and again. If you never explain the basics then how is anyone new ever going to get started with it in the first place?!

c) I believe that railway modelling could do with a thoroughly good 'facelift' to drag it into the twenty-first century, and that in this so-called digital age, high quality, well designed websites with interesting, relevant, useful and informative content, particularly the kind of information I'm talking about here, could actually serve to give the hobby a much needed boost. Maybe the decline in the hobby is at least in part due to the inaccessibility caused by a failure to see how things look to the outsider.

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