09 March 2020
As our forum reaches its 15th birthday, we have a chat with the man behind it, BRM's own Andy York.
BRM: How did RMweb come about?
Andy York: Way back in 2005, most of the content relating to the hobby in the UK on the internet was almost solely text-based; Pat Hammond's MRE mag, a few e-lists, Yahoo groups, BRM's forum and a smattering of personal sites.
Most of these had little in the way of imagery and it was that which was the motivation behind RMweb; Ours is very much a visual hobby, we make things to be looked at and we need to look at things to learn, so the idea was to create a forum that facilitated the uploading of images directly to the site.
BRM: Was it an immediate success?
AY: We quickly signed up a number of users and the community started to grow. Social networking was in its infancy at that stage, Facebook was merely a year old and used by a few American colleges. After a year, we'd established the sort of sub-forums you see today. Model railways aren't a single big topic, people have the areas that interest them and RMweb allowed groups to form around a particular subject.
BRM: Did growth cause any problems?
AY: Technically, we quickly discovered the limitations of the Snitz forums software I was using. This has been a recurring theme with several changes in both software and hosting companies. Now with over 38,000 signed up users, 3.7 million posts and over 2 million user images, we need a huge amount of bandwidth and storage space. Fortunately, our current hosts are pretty good at helping with technical matters.
I always have to keep an eye that things are working from first thing in the morning to last thing at night; fifteen years is nearly 5,500 days on the trot so it’s not surprising I get a bit grumpy some days.
BRM: What about the users. Do they all behave?
AY: Of course. We never have any problem with them...
Seriously though, when we started, RMweb was considered by many to be a bit like the Wild West, with endless arguments and fights. These are pretty uncommon today, but everyone seems to spot them rather than the huge numbers of helpful postings and quiet discussions that make up most of the site. We do try to keep arguments to a minimum. Unlike a lot of forums, there are moderators who will try to put out any fires. Any user can lodge a complaint about a post and we'll investigate it.
BRM: The forum has expanded into real life with the member's days. What are those about?
AY: We held our first member's day back in 2007. The first was in Derby, but now it's a very laid back one-day show in Taunton where members bring their layouts, stand around, chat and eat pasties. We raise hundreds of pounds for charity each year and generally have a good time. You see some terrific models, often for the first time in the flesh. Jamie Warne’s Sandy Shores is a good example, we watched it being built online but when it turned up in 2019, we were all blown away.
There are also RMweb meet-ups at exhibitions. People enjoy putting faces to the names they see on the screen. For many people, there's real friendship to be found on the forum and we help bring them together.
BRM: How has the forum changed over the years?
AY: I keep having to rearrange the list of sub-categories as the number of posts grow and some areas prove so popular that they need to be split up.
However, the biggest change was when RMweb became part of the Warners family in 2012. Costs had been rising for some time and although members did dip into their pockets to help, it became obvious that something more serious was required, otherwise, it would have ceased to be sustainable. I was approached to see if I'd be interested in joining the team and after a lot of heart-searching, I agreed.
BRM: So, what does the future look like for RMweb?
AY: Like all media organisations, we have the challenge to make online content pay its way. Membership of RMweb is free, but there are a limited number of adverts on the site that help offset some of the costs. We've introduced RMweb Gold membership, which brings with it extra content in the form of BRM back-numbers as well as the ability to advertise items for sale on the forum. This will grow – it's the model railway equivalent of subscribing to Spotify or a video streaming service.
Longer-term, the forum will change with the hobby. We offer an unrivalled repository of information. Unlike Facebook, you can dig back through the threads and see how people build their models, or discuss the prototype. Every time someone contributes, it adds to that pool of information.