Sound & Fury, Signifying Nothing – The Downward Spiral of Online Beer Discourse

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I’m feeling so burned out.

And I don’t really think I’m alone in feeling that way. It seems that in the past year or so there’s been a significant poisoning of the well in the days of productivity and advancement. And after a bit of introspection and discussions with fellow hollowed-eyed burnout friends, a good part of it seems to be our daily interaction with social media.

Don’t lie, you’re probably nodding wearily right now as you read this. And it’s true, it seems that somewhere along the way the very aspect of how we communicate with others online has become so broken and fractured that it just wears us out. Not just with the amount of trolls and way too much ad space in our faces all the time, but our compliance with it, the tired acceptance of the thing despite our bitching because this is just the way things are.

Now, this is definitely happening over a wider scope, so seeing it through the lens of the online beer-loving world offers no refuge, despite how often we like to pat our own backs to say that everything is fine and we’re a decent bunch. And while there is some obvious exceptions to be found on the information superhighway regarding beer, I’ve felt more and more like they were specks of gold in the sand and not a rich vein in the mountain like it should be. Reddit is a dumpster fire, many forums have turned into gossip and bottle bragging centres, and Twitter is…well, we’ll get to that in the post.

And from a beer writer’s perspective I’m not just seeing it in the general public discourse. I’m also sensing it among fellow beer writers and critics, who often seem to deal with the temptation to make use of the short character limits to produce criticisms that overgeneralize or, in several cases, are just plain mean. Such comments are retroactively branded as “just trying to start a conversation”, but in my experience it’s more just a game of getting likes, retweets, and followers than it is talking about a subject. It’s not what you say, it’s how loud you say it.

So what contributed to this and what can we do? Well, I do have some ideas about that, which are both pretty general about society and pretty specific to the beer aspect. I should add a disclaimer to say that I’m not a sociologist or social media expert, these are just observations based on my own experiences. Also, I’ll be talking a bit about the average reader and the writer. Hopefully I made the transitions between the two obvious.

The World Sucks Right Now
I think a more general yet still contributing factor is that the world really seems to be doing shitty this past year and a bit. With BREXIT, Trump, Doug Ford, the constant unrest in the Middle East, the rise of white supremacists into the public discourse, and…well, anything that happens in the news on an almost minute by minute basis. It’s not hard to get that people are being hit with all that and feeling not okay. Among my friends and in the overall tone of my day to day interactions with people, the fact that the bad guys seem to be winning the long game right now is a hard thing to shake and there’s a blanketed cynicism, anger, and defeated attitude that didn’t exist before. While it’s by no means the only cause, the state of the world is definitely added fuel to the fire.

Online Beer Criticism Can Lack Balance and in Some Cases Good Intention
Right about now this probably sounds rich coming from someone who co-authored two editions of a beer guide, and I’m going to once again stress the disclaimer of personal opinion and note that this doesn’t apply to a majority of writers out there, but hear me out. This less stands as an overall description of what is mostly like out there and more of a guideline on what not to do.

Following the release of both of the books Jordan and I were on the road a lot and we always met up with a great number of fellow writers and beer critics. One of the more rewarding parts of these meetings was to discuss the process we went through in writing the guide and learning about all the different goings-on in Ontario. However, when we got to the Top 10 Best Breweries list in the guide (A section we originally didn’t want, but ended up being the most commented-on part) there have been some who wanted to know about who the top 10 WORST breweries were. In several cases they would ask that with the smile of someone who loved gossip and really wanted to know for no other reason, I suspect, than the pleasure that comes with saying something is bad.

And when faced with that I would always be put out for a day or two. I didn’t feel they were asking as a way to inform the public (despite their justifications saying so, though I note I haven’t seen many put the information to use), which is something I could understand. Instead this was coming from a place that wanted negativity for its own sake. I’ll admit working in the industry you end up developing a pretty dark sense of humour over things, and that especially goes to writers who have to expose themselves to a wealth of information, both good and bad, in order to keep up. And I even know that overly harsh negativity can be fun to write and read. But personally I’ve never felt good at being a Tricoteuse, one of the folks who sat beside the guillotine knitting during public executions. It’s a form of entertainment that delights in the suffering of someone else, regardless of the context of that suffering.

Now, don’t mistake me for being against negative criticism. I think THAT’S a very healthy thing to have and something that should be put to use when talking about beer. Taste may very well be subjective, but flaws are not. An infection, a flavour profile that doesn’t stand out, an imbalance in flavours, what the branding promises v.s. what’s actually in the glass…all of those things are very worthy of criticism. And if you care about a brewery’s practices or methods of interacting with the outside world than that’s worthy to. The POINT of criticism is to underline both good aspects and flaws, and if one is pointing out flaws I feel that it should be backed up with what improvements can be done. That’s informing the public and helping the overall industry and community.

Saying a beer is shit and leaving it at that, however, isn’t being critical. It’s just saying a beer is shit. Likewise saying a beer is shit to a room full of people who have already agreed that the beer is shit isn’t a great way to actually progress things. And if you like to say that you’re trying to progress things, well, maybe reexamine why you’re calling the beer shit and extrapolate on your thesis a little. That particularly goes out to industry folks and public I mentioned earlier who engage online.

In terms of balance, this one is a bit more straightforward and something I tend to prefer when I’m writing: provide readers with context. What I mean by this is, Toronto or city readers won’t really care about a single pale ale coming from a new brewery in some former mining town over 400 miles away if you’re just focusing on the beer and doing a review on that. But they will think it’s pretty damn neat if you talk about what a big deal this is for the small mining town and underline the possibilities they’d like to explore. As a writer telling a brewery’s story is important.

Also, have fun! Ratebeer is great for tasting notes and Untappd is good for badges, but beer is such an amazing drink in that it can fit into the background and be applied to an almost limitless number of things. It’s possible to celebrate the beer while still bringing something new and interesting into sea of articles about beer!

Twitter Is Broken
I think there’s a few elements at play here as to why I feel this way. First is the obvious, which is that twitter no longer feels like the grand convention hall filled with like-minded individuals discussing ideas and collaborating, but is now more of shouting arena inundated with ads in our face every second. It became that a long time ago and the increase in character limit really didn’t change that. What also didn’t help is that somewhere along the line the scales between going on twitter for fun and going on twitter for work really started shifting towards the latter, where “social engagement” became more important than ACTUAL SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT.

That’s not to say that there is no meaningful conversations and interactions to be had over twitter, but I no longer get a daily sense of fulfillment over an interaction, glad to have logged on that day. Instead it just feels like good jokes, memes, ads, and arguments.

And hey, fair cop, I’ve contributed to that atmosphere myself. I’ve entered the fray of a pointless argument more times than I care to admit and my use of animated GIFs in lieu of responses has been noted. The only thing I can really say to that is that there’s a level of fatigue that comes with being online now where a conversation over whether a particular beer style seeing some popularity should exist in the first place feels fucking dumb to me. And in most cases when met with the immovable absurd, I tend to respond in kind to outline its absurdity.

But the fatigue is something I’d like to address and in fact, I’m reminded by the words of media theorist and culture critic Neil Postman, who offered an incredibly insightful comparison to George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.”

And that’s something that really resonates with how I feel about twitter as a whole nowadays. It’s no longer a wealth of information and a connection to great minds (at least, not in the way it used to be), but is now a constant feed of information, both relevant and not, that we’re all plugged in to. Hell, it’s become a necessity for many to stay hooked up to it. And the long term effects of being so connected to a platform where information fatigue and need for distraction from a shitty world prevents a much-needed societal change to it, is terrifying to think about.

So What Now?
Thankfully, in terms of information there’s no shortage of good, good content in the form of blogs, books, instagram feeds, and articles. Even videos! One person in particular that I’ve been watching more of lately is Hamilton’s Drunk Polkaroo, who has a wonderfully self-reflective blog as well as a healthy instagram account. Though its his YouTube channel, updated daily with constant reviews, that is always a fun thing to watch, never ceasing to put an optimistic smile on even the most cynical of beer folks.

But beyond that, moving into actual discussions, it’s a little less clear.

I feel that a growing trend in online engagements has been shifting to how things were before prominent social platforms, when MSN and ICQ were the tools among friends. No longer content with the arena of people shouting at once, I find most conversations are being held privately or less-public, in chat rooms, emails, group DMs, and private DMs (An admittedly good feature of both Facebook and Twitter). This has been opening things up to more frank discussions and well thought-out answers, free of character limits, time restrictions in a constant stream, and the pressure to keep up an online persona.

After that, there’s the really great option of just going out.

Seriously, if you have a regular craft beer bar or or brewery tap room you like to go to, and know others who go there as well, connect and meet up with them there. Even a couple of hours of conversation in that setting can cover more ground (both about beer and beyond), be more informative, and be significantly more fulfilling than an entire week on Twitter.

And if getting people together sounds like too much of a hassle, look around to see if there are any meetups in your local communities. Here in Toronto, Dave Lee is putting together Beer Socials in bars throughout the city, bringing breweries in as sponsors. The latest one is on April 26th at 7pm at Hotmess Tex Mex (one of my favourite places for food and good can selection) and is enlisting the help of Toronto favourite Godspeed Brewery to bring in some beer. And you know what? I intend on going.

For what it is, social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, have positioned themselves so it’s impossible for many to unhook from it. It’s meant to feel necessary for freelancers, brands, and general users to stay constantly hooked in.

But as users we can always choose if our social media interaction is worth the cost of our time. We can also choose to focus on the important things, namely the human connections we make and, of course, a damned fine beer in your hand.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. JPN says:

    Wow. Just wow. Thanks for this. Made my day.

  2. seatoskybeerguy says:

    I’ve recently discovered the positivity of the “Polk” myself. And now you. Cheers!

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