Tomme Arthur from Port Brewing sent me, and a few other brewers, a link to a San Francisco Chronicle article entitled “Food bloggers dish up plates of spicy criticism, Formerly formal discipline of reviewing becomes a free-for-all for online amateurs” by staff writers Stacy Finz and Justin Berton. Now given the internet’s erosion of traditional media like newspapers, it’s not terribly surprising that the Chronicle article, while somewhat balanced, does lean a little on the side of traditional critics like those employed by the San Francisco newspaper. Obviously, this particular story is about food but it’s just as applicable to beer blogs and ratings websites, too. A lively e-mail debate ensued, with many expressing their positive and negative feelings about beer writing on the internet. And that got me thinking once more about this question, which comes up from time to time, about whether blogging is a good or bad thing for the beer industry.
Brewers, quite understandably, view beer bloggers and ratings websites like Beer Advocate and Rate Beer as a double-edged sword. On the positive side, there are thousands (millions?) of passionate fans in the cybersphere talking about, discussing and tasting their products, helping to spread the word about good beer generally and certain breweries specifically. You literally can’t buy that kind of publicity. Of course, you can’t control it either. It’s very organic nature also has hidden dangers, some of which are not always fair. Not every passionate fan is an expert or has a consistent, developed palate for tasting. As a result, no single review can carry much weight without knowing more about the reviewer. Add them all together, and there’s no guarantee that the results are accurate, fair or consistent. The bigger sites with more reviews and more experienced reviewers do often at least seem present a consistent pattern of what’s good and not so good, but there are and always will be problems with how the overall score is effected by the inevitable bad reviewer who may still be learning or has a personal axe to grind. With individual bloggers, unless you know the reviewer’s experience level, knowledge, etc. it’s hard to know how seriously to take what they say about the beer they’re reviewing. It takes a long time to get to know another person’s tastes to the point where you can predict how they’ll rate a beer accurately. That’s true of any critic, be it a movie reviewer, music critic or what have you. And while a good review can be good for a business, a bad one can be devastating and I imagine quite frustrating if it appears mean-spirited, uninformed or inconsistent with other more positive reviews.
I have run across quite a few intelligent, seemingly normal, people who dismiss all blogging and in some cases everything on the internet as completely worthless. I’m not sure why they take this position, but no amount of persuasion or debate will move them from this position. There are few things I can name which have no redeeming value whatsoever, but they seem to take a position that if it isn’t perfect or there is a lot that’s bad they’ve seen personally then everything else is bad, too. Many of these people are media traditionalists who believe newspapers and the print media are the standard to which every other form of media must be held to, which to me seems quite laughable given the state of much newspaper writing I’ve read about beer over the last few years alone. The fact is there is good and bad in every sector of the media, and indeed the world, too. Nothing is all good or all bad. To me such extreme positions are ludicrous and indefensible. I have argued with such people, but have found them intractable and immune to reason, logic or common sense. Which is a shame, because the internet continues to hold much potential and promise. Despite very rapid growth, it’s a very new medium and, as such, is still growing through all the same pains that every media has gone through. There has been much crap on every new media. Not all early television shows were worth saving, nor was everything on early radio a jewel. Were there people who loved newspapers that refused to give radio a chance because some of the shows they listened to were terrible? I suspect there probably were, as many people do not like change no matter what it’s benefit.
If you haven’t read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, I highly recommend you rush right out and buy a copy. Seriously. Although it predates the internet, Postman discusses at length how each new media has changed our society, both for good and bad. How every innovation changes us, as well. It’s quite interesting to learn that before the telegraph, for example, almost all ordinary people read entire newspapers and were generally very up to date on all issues of the day. It was not uncommon for politicians and other famous people of the day to come to town and speak literally for hours on end about complex issues facing people. Ordinary townspeople would know exactly what was being discussed and were not spoken down to or had the subject matter dumbed down for them. Postman relates one typical example where Lincoln was speaking somewhere for something like six hours, excused everyone to go home and eat supper, and then resumed speaking again an hour later. Then the telegraph made the spread of information much, much quicker. But because of all the dots and dashes, information became sound bites overnight. As a result, people’s tolerance for lengthier, meatier writing began to wane. And newspapers at the time who began getting their news from far away over the telegraph began writing shorter and shorter stories.
His point — and mine — is that no one can say that the internet or blogging is all bad. We can say it will change how we view the world, even if we can’t say how. But to ignore it and pretend it is completely unworthy of our time is sticking one’s head in the sand, or nose in the air. Are there problems with how beer is reviewed by bloggers and other internet sites? Of course, nothing is perfect. Should we therefore dismiss everything in the blogosphere? Only at our peril, because like it or not the ease of creating a blog pretty much insures anyone with access to the ether can voice his or her opinion. That may not always be a good thing all the time, but like every media before it, those with something to say will find readers and the shrill cacophony of others will eventually fall by the wayside.
There are some who feel traditional journalists are better suited to report the news because they supposedly have standards and ethics whereas “a blog can lie outright, and there are no consequences” making it little better than “mob rule.” But many of my colleagues, all of whom make at least a partial living writing about beer, have blogs in addition to participating in traditional journalism, as well. If any of us out and out lied about something or someone, I can guarantee there’d be consequences. We may not be as famous as an H.L. Mencken or even Michael Jackson, but in such an insular and incestuous little industry like craft beer people know who we are and would hold us accountable if we libeled one of our own. We’re obviously not all “just some guy” and if that’s true then this argument that all blogging is bad simply doesn’t work. I know that doesn’t change the fact that some of the blogs that write about beer do not do the industry any favors. But I am growing weary of having to defend myself every time someone makes a blanket statement that all blogging or internet writing is inherently bad.
Perhaps I shouldn’t take it so personally or feel that it’s me who’s being attacked. Certainly many people have said good things about what I’ve written and there is much that my colleagues write that I find admirable. It’s not my job to defend this medium, but I do find it hard to keep my mouth shut when someone says something that even inadvertently insults me and my confederates in this rarified trade we call beer writing. Last year, I was discussing the state of beer blogging with a friend who suggested that wine and food blogs were generally better than beer blogs in many respects, due in part to their having been around considerably longer (in internet time, at least). And I think he was onto something, because I’ve watched the quality of beer blogging rise over the last year and there are many more worthy beer blogs today than even one year ago. So it seems to me at least that already the state of beer writing on the internet is improving. Not to mention I’ve seen many more colleagues add their voices to the chorus, making the song all the sweeter.
I think absent some new paradigm shift on the internet, beer bloggers, ratings websites and other beer sites online are here to stay. Like the macrocosm outside, there is both good and bad to be found in a wide range of efforts. Find what and who you like, and support those writers, blogs and websites. Ignore or avoid the ones you don’t, and they will undoubtedly not be here in the near future. Nobody likes talking only to themselves for very long. But please don’t read one bad review, post or article and assume that everything else out there is not worthy of your time. Many of us work very hard at what we do and though you may not always agree with what we have to say, that doesn’t make what we’re saying meaningless or unimportant. Welcome to microjournalism and the 21st century. Word. Or make that words.