In the latest series of the cult American TV series Breaking Bad, in which a brilliant but failed chemist turns to producing crystal meth to support his family, there’s a telling moment in the underground drugs laboratory which has become his second home. Gale, one of his colleagues, casually introduces him to a side project he’s been working on, a complex chicane of tubes, pumps and condensers through which, it turns out, he’s planning to produce the purest, most perfect cup of coffee known to man.
Until recently I’d have taken Gale for a loser. Getting to be a connoisseur of anything and talking about it incessantly, I’ve always thought, is one of the least attractive features of pompous, joyless middle age. That was before I turned into Gale myself. First there was the discovery of Scootercaffé, a motorcycle repair shop turned coffee shop in Waterloo whose owner really seemed to care about good espresso. Then I found out where it gets its beans, a tiny roasting West London house called Londinium whose Kiwi owner makes coffee sound every bit as delicate as fine wine. But that was only the beginning of it. To produce a decent shot of espresso, it turns out, requires more than just good beans – you need a heavy duty grinder and a hulking great espresso machine, and working out which combination works best would try the patience of even the most talkative barista. That’s where CoffeeGeek.com comes in. Coffee Geek is where aficionados go to discuss coffee making in more detail than anyone else would want to know. Storing, grinding, tamping, and brewing – you can while away whole evenings reading through all this stuff, and for several months I did.
This kind of food and drink fetishism is becoming central to our culture. Go to London’s Borough Market any Friday or Saturday and you’ll find legions of foodie automatons queuing up for an overpriced organic sausage and a plastic glass of biodynamic wine. Just like illegal drugs it’s the occasion itself that draws them in, and central to that is the people they do it around. Take dope smokers. In 1953 the American sociologist called Howard Becker published a paper in which he interviewed fifty marijuana users about their habit and how they’d come to enjoy it. Dope is not usually thought to be addictive, and so Becker was interested in how people become habitual users, especially since – just like cigarette smokers – new users doesn’t usually get high the first time, or even enjoy the experience. Novices only really grow to find marijuana pleasurable, found Becker, when they learn from more experienced users how to smoke it properly and recognise its effects – rubbery legs, for example, or a sudden craving for crunchy snacks. Sociability is the key, without which the novice wouldn’t bother to persevere.
This sort of sociability is worth thinking about, because the places where we meet to talk about the things we like are increasingly online. As mainstream, high street retail crumbles and the net gives us the chance to bunch around the stuff we really enjoy, many of us are congregating in enthusiast communities around everything from coffee to quilt-making. Let loose in places like Coffee Geek, our initial curiosity is massaged by other enthusiasts into something approaching fandom – just like a drug habit, there’s something about spending time with other enthusiasts which draws us in. The result is quietly demolishing the voodoo science of audience demographics. Instead of stereotyping demographic groups who might like to drink good coffee (men in their late thirties with too much time on their hands), smart operators can now approach an existing group of coffee nuts – people who don’t just like coffee, but who love it, and love talking to each other about it. It’s also a more promising way to grow audiences. A core group of fervent enthusiasts, after all, is much more likely to spread the word, and to want to be involved in making the product better.
Perhaps the best thing about enthusiast communities, however, is that they only bother to flock around stuff that they really, really love – which means that the whole heap of stuff in the middle that no-one is really mad about, everything from bog-standard Hollywood films to bog-standard coffee shops, is coming under threat. Starbucks, for example, is losing ground to small independent coffee shops on both sides of the Atlantic and is trying to do something about it. So are middle-of-the-road Hollywood films like The Tourist that no one can be bothered to tweet about. Something very similar is happening in politics, too. In the early stages of Barack Obama’s campaign for the Presidency, it would be difficult to over-estimate the extent to which his team circumvented the traditional structures of the American Democratic party in favour of cultivating a core group of followers who really believed in his message. By spending time talking to each other around a website, so-called ‘Obamamaniacs’ were able to reinforce each other’s loyalty to the campaign and motivate themselves to grow the flock. Then came the Tea Party, another mediated interest group wreaking the same kind of havoc in the upper echelons of the Republican Party.
None of this could have happened were it not for the fraying of the middle ground. The last half-century, for example, has seen q steady, painful decline in the membership of British political parties. When Ed Miliband recently offered membership of the Labour party for a penny to anyone under the age of 27, he was implicitly recognising that mainstream political parties have become cheap and generic – the political equivalent of a supermarket own brand.
But the growth of enthusiast groups operating outside the mainstream poses problems, too. Our urge to wear the T-shirt for everything from good coffee to Barack Obama has much to do with the decline of traditional ways of identifying ourselves, within community organisations and mainstream religion, and without which we feel lost and alone. Many of these online meeting places rise and fall very quickly, while others are much flakier than they look. At their worst they become echo chambers, where people show up only to have their existing view of the world fed back to them. No matter – anyone in authority needs to understand them because, as the middle gives way, this is where much of their future lies.
This will appear in the comment pages of The Independent (and as lead column in the ‘i’ newspaper) on Monday 25 April. The writer is Director of Flockwatching. His book Niche: Why the market no longer favours the mainstream is newly published by Little, Brown.