Insight A Tentative Critique of the Post-Pandemic Watch Culture

I’m going to speculate quite broadly about the so-called watch industry, scene, or culture. I want to state right up front that I am feeling personally disillusioned with the horological world we enthusiasts and collectors willingly spend quite a bit of our time, talent and treasures in. My disillusionment may well be borne of the kind of burn out that a journalist covering any narrow field is inevitably going to experience; we purposefully over saturate ourselves with our topic, digesting unthinkable amounts of press releases, watch-related social media, as well as the videos, podcasts and writing of our colleagues. Burn out happens, and this essay may be nothing more than me exploring mine.

With that said, I am either seeing more clearly aspects of the watch space that have always been there, or I am seeing that something has shifted. Likely, this is a mixture of both. The cultural shifts I’m seeing may be hastening my burn out, or perhaps my burn out is hastening my perception of the shifts I want to speculatively address here. Either way, I’m going to give a speculative assessment of the whole watch scene a try.

Specifically, I am seeing what I can only call a shift toward ostentation and fashionableness. I am seeing and hearing less of what I love about watches, which is a nerdy historical and mechanical indulgence, and more of what I’ve always had a more troubled relationship to, which is said ostentation and fashionableness. Whether a real shift or merely a perceived one, this is the shift I want to talk about.

The COVID Pandemic & The Rise of Watches

Everyone I speak to in the watch industry – from journalists to brand representatives to vintage and pre-owned dealers – has told me that 2021 was their “best year yet.” By “best” they mean more traffic to their content and more sales of watches. They’ve all told me that 2022 – the year when COVID restrictions have eased considerably – is showing mild signs of slowing down, but not much. As anecdotal as this all may be, as a journalist I do feel that I have my finger somewhere near the pulse of the watch industry. That pulse quickened in 2021, and it has leveled a bit in 2022 but remained steady.

The COVID Pandemic has certainly altered the world more generally, and the watch industry along with it. Our behavior shifted to accommodate lockdown, and that behavior was, in a nutshell, an unprecedented retreat from physical social life to digital life, and especially social media.

It’s not that the watch culture hadn’t already heavily occupied the realm of social media, but with lockdowns internationally we saw watch culture go almost exclusively online, and we saw a huge increase in the number of people joining the watch culture. In and of itself, this was innocent enough, and it even looks inevitable in hindsight. People were bored, many had extra cash from stimulus checks and unspent travel and restaurant money, and watches became something to do for folks who were bereft of something to do. I know so many people who got into watches during lockdown, and there’s no question the watch culture expanded.

What this has meant is a simultaneous increase in watch-related digital behavior and an influx of neophytes. Because these neophytes had money to spend and were online all day and night, those who sell watches and watch-related content had to move toward these less knowledgeable people. If the “best year yet” phenomenon tells us anything, it is that attempts to serve the influx of new people via digital channels were quite successful. Growth was off the charts. 

Most of that growth, including sales, appears to have taken place via social media. The result, in my estimation, has been a remarkable expansion of the shallow end of the pool, and my worst fear is that it has emptied the deep end a bit. The rise of ostentation and fashionableness I perceive in the watch space couldn’t have happened so quickly without social media.

Who Are You?

Social media is incapable of replicating physical socializing, but it certainly is capable of standing in for it. Digital interaction is an entirely different animal from physical interaction, largely devoid of myriad social cues that have taken eons to evolve and which are essential to full human communication and the formation of a social Self. Social media reconstitutes the fully physical social Self as a highly curated, image-centric representation of something that stands in for a Self. This is a well understood and fairly thoroughly studied aspect of social life in the 21st century, but its broader cultural impact is less understood.

When it comes to interacting around watches – and especially during lockdown of 2021 – the role of the digital Self has become dominant. The image-centric, highly curated Self we project into the digital space is prone to a reductive shallowness that arises from flash presentations and a lack of extended physical interaction. Long conversations in which we explore in detail our ideas and fascinations about watches have been truncated through digitization. We simply don’t have long and explorative conversations in the social media space, but instead enable our digital Self to perform digital micro-soliloquies devoid of meaningful dialog. In summation, I’d say that social media isn’t all that social. It’s highly performative and only minorly interactive. 

In this scenario, the performance of our Self becomes increasingly about presenting images – quite literally as photographs and videos, but also in the socio-philosophical sense of constructing an image of Self. Watches have, accordingly, become more and more of a vehicle for this construction of Self. Whether in the disembodied images of our watches, a semi-embodied wrist shot, or an image of our whole self with a watch, we are constructing a digital image of our Self and presenting it to a suspiciously manipulative platform. Over time, we give shape to an enduring impression of Self, and for some of us watches play what most would consider an outsized role in creating that enduring image.

I Am A Brand

Through all of this construction of our digital Self, we all begin to behave as brands. This language of branding has permeated our ideas of what we do on social media, not just for actual incorporated businesses, and not just for so-called influencers who monetize their social media channels, but for everyone. We are all not only behaving like brands through the curation of media we published in order to construct a public image, but many people are doing this with full awareness – and even with studied strategies – of branding.

It’s impossible to avoid becoming a brand because the mechanisms of branding are structural features of social media platforms. Social media platforms, as they’re currently designed to support advertising, can even be thought of as branding platforms. We make logos for our channels, we name them cleverly, and we promote our Self through these channels while submitting ourselves to algorithmic feedback loops now known to have been designed to create addiction.

Add in watches, and we can see how images of watches have become integral to the construction of our digital branded Selves. I don’t just own and enjoy my new Zodiac; I am presenting this watch as part of my branded Self. I may mask my posting a watch as just an expression of my enthusiasm, but it is naive and delusional to believe that such a mask isn’t just another facet of my branded Self. Again, this endless branding arises from structural features of social media platforms. Whatever you post – no matter how unfashionable or obtuse or unadorned – that’s now part of your brand.

This is the scenario into which all watch companies, dealers and publications must now operate. It’s inevitable and perfectly normal for these enterprises to have steered themselves to succeed in this digitized realm of interacting branded Selves. Businesses go where the consumers are and adapt to their behavior. But there have been some unintended results, and for me personally those results have been unsatisfying.

The Inevitable Dumbing Down

I don’t mean to suggest that any person or company is acting unintelligently. To the contrary, we are all getting very smart and savvy when it comes to the digitized social realm. The great adaptation to the digital environment indicates great intelligence, and in some cases a huge investment of time, talent and treasures into cracking the codes of digital behavior for maximum exposure.

However smart and savvy we all may be in the social media space, the dumbing down I’m talking about is the result of the medium’s structure, which we’ve tentatively outlined above. In a nutshell, digital social interaction is shallower – intellectually, socially, humanly – than actual social life, and digital life is rife with addictive feedback loops that train us to keep it shallow. Write for the 2-minute read. Don’t make long posts on Instagram, because people don’t read them. The 5000-word essay is dead. News has become bullet points. Clickability trounces quality. Make it pop, and so on.

In other words, our behavior has been channeled to be as successful as possible vis-a-vis the scrolling behavior of consumers of social media content. What does it take to succeed in a scrolling environment? Basically, whatever is as immediately impactful as possible and, alas, not much else. Push your brand boldly and quickly, get the immediate engagement, rinse and repeat. Extending or deepening the interaction has no value in social media spaces which are meticulously designed to drive repetitive, fast, compulsive consumption.

I consider these structural aspects of social media to be the root source of the increase in ostentation and fashionableness in the watch scene, because the platforms reward ostentation and fashionableness. And this helps explain why more in-depth engagement around watches appears to be on the wane.

What To Do About It

I don’t really have a solution, nor do I necessarily think one is warranted. If people are happy, then fine. I don’t see any indication that true satisfaction is arising from all this, and have read countless articles citing that depression and anxiety linked to social media are on the rise. But, it’s not my place to fix anything, and maybe it’s not really broken. However, I’m not super happy about all this, and I find that the quality of my watch experience isn’t quite what it used to be.

I consider Beyond The Dial to be an experiment to see what offering in-depth engagement around watches amounts to. This experiment is, doubtless, detrimental to any fast growth of the Beyond The Dial brand, and we can see that crawl in the traffic reports from our podcast and our website. Both grow steadily, but very slowly. We are the tortoise, not the hare.

As an example, some of you may already be aware that Beyond The Dial doesn’t “do the news.” We don’t report on novelties from brands (unless it’s a hands-on review), and we tend not to kowtow to brands by repeating their branded narratives as much as we try to tell our own watch-related stories. Further, we often focus on those narrower knowledge areas which we are genuinely and personally passionate about, not so much as a kind of self-indulgence (though it is that), but because we believe that passion drives interest, interest drives research, research builds knowledge, and knowledge helps us create quality content.

My passion for vintage Vacheron Constantin dress watches stems from nothing more than a deeply personal love, but the result is that I am naturally driven to go deep, learn as much as possible, and to document what I’ve learned about vintage Vacheron Constantin. David Flett’s passion for all things Seiko energizes him to repeatedly and consistently expand and deepen his expertise and knowledge about Seiko.

None of what we do really adds up to something that’s going to succeed in a scrolling environment, nor does it lend itself to a concerted effort to hone and promote our digital branded Selves. Our mission at Beyond The Dial is ill-designed to indulge ostentation and fashionableness. I say this neither as an assertion of some higher calling nor as some denial that we too participate in the game of digital Self promotion. Such assertions would be absurd. I say it more as a recognition that we’re just not particularly trying to be good at any of that, and that what we put our efforts toward is just not terribly popular – at least not right now.

And yet I believe in this experiment we call Beyond The Dial. The name itself suggests going beyond the surface of things, into the inner workings, the minutiae, the details, the esoteric, perhaps even the unknown. That might be a mechanical exploration, or it might be a cultural investigation (which this essay is, more or less), or it might be to catalog some niche knowledge area, or it might be just to explore an idea for the sake of wandering aimlessly, to see where one ends up. That’s why we mostly just write essays, and essays are often long, wandering, and entirely unsuited to the current media.

The word essay comes from the French verb essayer, meaning to try. The point of an essay is not necessarily to arrive at some conclusive destination, but rather to try out a set of ideas and see where they lead. We hope that our trying leads to new questions or deeper understanding, and we hope that, at the very least, our trying might spur others to wander. The essay is our core format at Beyond The Dial, and we try to only publish essays that will be evergreen. By this we simply mean that it will have lasting relevance. We ask ourselves whether what we’re writing will be relevant in 100 years, and if we think it will be fairly durable, we proceed.

This approach to watches is entirely antithetical to the current trend toward ostentation and fashionableness. This approach is decidedly uncool. It is emphatically nerdy. And, unfortunately, it’s unavoidably a little supercilious and even ridiculous in light of the fact that watches themselves are fashion accessories around which most behavior is appropriately not super deep. Ostentation and fashionableness are, perhaps, a better fit for watches than our intellectualizing – and yet we persist.

My goal in this essay has not been so much to disapprove of the current trend toward ostentation and fashionableness in the watch culture as much as to explore what I think I’m seeing – and what I am most certainly feeling – in the watch culture since the COVID lockdowns. Maybe I’m just going through a wave of burn-out, but burn-out, I’ve learned, is an opportunity to take stock, to reevaluate, and perhaps to recalibrate along refreshed goals. That’s a topic for another essay, to be sure, but I can say that I am emboldened to keep the wandering experiment of Beyond The Dial going. I want to keep trying.

The Aesthetic Revolution Will Be Beautiful – Allen, Hudson Valley NY