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Is Untappd Killing Craft Beer Culture: A Response

imagesAs a social scientist I am very interested in conversations about culture, what defines a culture, what activities are taboo and why, how actions and words signal status, and how one can use the technologies of a culture to advance ideas. The recent tête-à-tête-à-tête on the Hoosier Beer Geek blog started by Jake hits on several of these points so I thought I would take a minute to share my thoughts on the subject. Jake asks the question and later admits to contending that Untappd is killing craft beer culture. A fellow Hoosier Beer Geek, Matt agrees; another, Jason, does not, and neither do I. Jason disagrees because he thinks that all the claims that Jake makes about Untappd could equally be applied to the Hoosier Beer Geeks, it’s method of operating, and their blog. That sounds like an internal dispute I’d rather not participate in, although I will say that I love that kind of debate tactic, and I think Jason’s observations are astute.

Before venturing too deeply, I thought I would take a second to parse Jake’s headline and its implication for the conversation that follows from it. The question is, “Is Untappd killing craft beer culture?” but we have to know what craft beer culture is—or was before it was “murdered.” (One of these days I will put together a post on how metaphorical thinking and anthropomorphism tends to dilute the quality of certain kinds of conversations.) If I set down to write an entire explication of the craft beer culture it would far exceed the bounds of a palatable post so let’s settle on two things briefly; this post is sure to be quite long enough already. First let us agree that culture is a very complicated thing to define. This site, which provides a very good definition of the term for its own use, provides ten, all of which are good, and none of which are sufficiently dynamic for my own tastes. So let me take my favorite off that page, and one from a book I think apropos the current discussion:

Culture is the shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them (Lederach, J.P. 1995. Preparing for peace: Conflict transformation across cultures. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 9)

I am reminded of an article that has been recently passed around Twitter and Facebook about the “11 nations of America.” In the original Tufts Magazine article the author says:

Before I describe the nations, I should underscore that my observations refer to the dominant culture, not the individual inhabitants, of each region. In every town, city, and state you’ll likely find a full range of political opinions and social preferences. Even in the reddest of red counties and bluest of blue ones, twenty to forty percent of voters cast ballots for the “wrong” team.

Which is to say that within a culture disagreements abound; however, different cultures will have different mechanisms for handling them. In some cultures, victors of violent contests are the winners in a clash of ideas; in others compromise is the norm, in still others, shunning is appropriate, etc. Obviously since I disagree with Jake and Matt, pointing out that disagreements over what constitutes “craft beer culture” is a part of craft beer culture itself—as is the method by which we are discussing it—through blog posts on our respective beer blogs. If we were in the same city, perhaps we would have started or continued this conversation over beers. Over shared beers or across the digital space, these are very different methods and neither is unique to beer culture (this could be a political discussion, or a business meeting) but these two discussion formats are definitely accepted as standard within craft beer culture.

To the definition I quoted above and to every definition on CLARA’s page linked before that, I would add that theses patterns, behaviors, schemes, artifacts, etc change over time. The mechanisms of change are varied and are almost always met by some level of resistance. CAMRA in Britain hates forced carbonation, some talk about the disappearance of “session ales,” others don’t like mergers of craft brew operations. We have never totally agreed on the role, purpose, effect, or legitimacy of “extreme ales.” We can’t even agree on whether some beers are beers. The intensity of these discussions and the conventional conclusions change over time. So, at the risk of being too pedantic, is Untappd killing craft beer culture? No. Provided there is still a group of people willing to indulge in this debate, it is clear that craft beer culture is still present, still “alive.” The one thing that stays consistent through all of these debates, is that there are people in the world that will engage in them –or consciously choose not to. These people are the individual participants in the “craft beer culture.” We must always remember that there are countless millions of people who don’t even know—couldn’t even imagine—we are talking about Untappd; they are not “us.” Culture is the series of changing patterns of behavior, conceptualizations, decision-making process, and artifacts the use of which reifies the status of group members and non-members.

Although I put a disclaimer on it, I know that the above is actually pedantic. Clearly Jake is less concerned that people will stop participating in craft beer culture and more concerned that the culture is evolving into something that he does not enjoy. And I want to cage it that way because there is an element in the conversation at HBG that sounds like we’re talking about something objective. We are not. This is very much about Jake’s, Matt’s, Jason’s, mine and everybody else’s emotional assessment of the craft beer culture—something all of us are passionate about. Take Jake’s description of the mad rush to check in some obscure beer after sampling a mere 2 oz of it:

You’re taking it easy on a Friday night and scanning twitter when the same rare beer gets checked-in by a number of accounts. It is bad enough that I can visualize everyone on their phone racing to check-in, but the back-to-back check-in from a person using multiple accounts is just atrocious. [emphasis added-dc]

The emotion that undergirds those words is disgust. This is an important point. What Jake has just described is a group of people who are excited about sitting together and trying a rare beer, excited about racing each other to tick it on their electronic ticking devise in the hopes of signaling something to their peers not in the room. That’s a cultural activity. But it isn’t Jake’s culture. It’s not something he recognizes or identifies with, and he is responding emotionally to what he sees as shallow status seeking.

I fully understand this lament. I have never been a status-seeker. But status-seeking behavior was not introduced by Untappd. I don’t believe it is exacerbated by Untappd. Humans are social creatures and status-seeking behavior is woven into every one of our activities. Even those that make a big deal about not being status seekers are hoping to be perceived and lauded for their high-minded avoidance of status-seeking behavior. To say that another way, there are groups of people who look down on shallow status seekers. One of the dominant characteristics of “American culture” is “iconoclasm,” the tearing down and disregard of  icons, heroes, “sacred cows,” elitist power brokers, etc. Which is to say, that there are some times when metaphorical language is illuminating. My friends are largely the kinds of people that choose not to hang out with status seekers, which means that we provide them a lower status in our private in-group/out-group dynamic, namely, we make them out-groupers. Jake’s post is mostly intended to redefine “craft beer culture” in a way that excludes those that would participate in the behavior he describes—or, to use Matt’s phrase, have them identified as “douches.”

As an Untappd user, I think my habits are such that I wouldn’t necessarily be ostracized if the culture moved in the direction that Jake and Matt advocate for. I think Untappd is a pretty quick check in and there are always lulls in conversations, bathroom breaks, waiting in line at the bar…that is, opportunities for a quick check in that don’t interrupt the flow of conversation. I’m not saying that my checking in is invisible—only that’s it’s mostly unintrusive. I have broadcasted a few rare beers but those are mostly to let the person that obtained that beer for me know that I appreciate what they’ve done. I don’t live in Indianapolis anymore, so when a beer makes me think of someone I no longer live near, I like to let them know that I’m thinking of them. It’s beer as conversation, beer as community…made digital. That means that I’m not the people that Jake and Matt are complaining about.

But it means something more than that. For every infographic lamenting how social media is killing off community and pointing out episodes of nocializing, there is someone like Ezra Klein who connected with the woman that would later become his wife because of Facebook. There are lots of people like me out there using Untappd. There are probably even more who don’t ever broadcast the beers they’re drinking outside the app. There are almost certainly people out there who are using Untappd to toast check ins, leave comments for friends etc. They’re being more social than me and less douchey too. Which is to say that, as with all things there are trade-offs. I mentioned earlier that I’m introverted. My early experimentation with alcohol was self-medication for my social anxiety. Although this role has grown less important as I’ve grown older, alcohol still, no doubt, plays a role in helping me start conversations with strangers—or more often, with people I know but not too well. How many people out there would never get too play an active role in any subculture without the aid of social media? How many people would not be able to “add something new to the conversation” (as Matt exhorts) without the aid of Untappd or something like it? (Where did you go Red Pint and Beerly?)  So the trade-off is we are more aware of some people’s beer ticking braggadacio but the rest of us—probably the majority of us—have expanded engagement in an already supportive and fun subculture. We also get to engage like this—in metaconversations. Is Untappd a better or worse method for beer ticking than Beer Advocate where ticking is rewarded, or than Rate Beer where the ratings of others tend to be more like my own? How effective was that GABF app and will other beer ratings apps take their lead in some ways? Without Untappd, we wouldn’t be able to …talk about Untappd. I know that sounds circular; Untappd becomes some sort of Hitchcockian MacGuffin, just an excuse to engage with other people about….something, anything. But that’s all almost any conversation is…an excuse to plumb the depths of someone else’s mind. It’s less about knowing what they think about Untappd than how they formed those thoughts. What values went into their assessment? How clear was their thinking? That’s getting to know someone. That’s conversation. That’s community. I think Untappd’s effect has been mostly positive—with trade-offs, sure—but mostly positive.

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Posted in The Drinking Class.