Wine, social media and the power of the internet

Originally published in Off Licence News

Clay Shirky may sound like the sort of moniker people come up with when they combine their first pet with their mother’s maiden name to create a fictional porn star, but the American academic, writer and commentator is real enough and nothing to do with Debbie Does Dallas. Indeed, I think he’s one of the most stimulating thinkers of our time, a man who has important things to say about the internet and social media and their impact on our lives.

I’ve just been reading his second book, “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age”, which, despite the jargon-heavy title, is every bit as good as his first, “Here Comes Everybody”. I can’t do justice to the full complexity of his arguments here, but I’d like to focus on a couple of points.

Shirky argues that, thanks to the internet, we are “becoming one another’s infrastructure”. We are also free to “participate in the public conversation” at the click of a mouse. Unlike television, the new media provide people with ample opportunities to “comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate, or rank it, and of course, to discuss it with other viewers around the world”.

Facebook, Twitter and the like may look “trivial and frivolous”, he adds, but social media give people the capacity to connect, communicate and, if necessary, take action. He cites the example of the lifting of the ban on US beef imports in South Korea, a decision that was reversed because of popular, internet-driven protest, and forced President Lee to sack his cabinet. Not so trivial after all.

How many people are part of this global community? An exact figure is difficult to arrive at, partly because of shared computers and cyber cafés, but Shirky estimates that two billion people have access to the internet, while three billion have a mobile phone. We live, for the first time in human history, in a world where “being part of a globally interconnected group is the normal case for most citizens”.

What does this have to do with wine? Quite a bit, as it happens. As in is so many other fields, the way that wine is sold, described, criticised and presented is changing for ever. The surprising thing is that many of the people who work in and around wine haven’t noticed or are in denial about the power and scope of the revolution.

If you disagree with what I’ve just said, I suggest you take a look at a few winery and generic websites. How many of them connect with their audience? How many present information in new, interesting and visually-appealing ways? How many of them ask for feedback or seek to create communities of fans and aficionados? How many of them are on Facebook and Twitter, conducting tutored tastings or telling people about their latest releases, winemaker dinners and so on? Surprisingly few.

Wine writers have adapted faster to change than the wine trade. There are two reasons for this. First, we’re in the communication business, so are supposed to be good as using words. And second, we’ve all seen the dwindling number of wine publications and the truncated space allocated to the subject by many national newspapers. If we want to present our opinions to a wide audience, and engage with them as individuals and groups, then increasingly we have to do so on-line.

As a comparatively late convert myself (whose website will be relaunched and redesigned later this year) I raise my spittoon in admiration to wine writers such as Jamie Goode, Tom Cannavan, Jancis Robinson MW, Neal Martin and Tyler Colman (aka Dr Vino) who saw the potential of the new media at an early stage. Good wine writing doesn’t have to be marginalised any more. Indeed, it has a greater opportunity than ever to connect and communicate with real consumers.

The same applies to the wine business. One of the most remarkable things about the internet, typified by Wikipedia but apparent everywhere, is that people are happy to share their opinions for nothing. Some of these opinions are worth more than others, but they are freely and often rapidly expressed. If you want feedback on a new wine, label, brand or concept, what better way to get it? Using new communications tools, punters readily exchange views, news and tasting tips on a worldwide scale.

Lobbying and, where necessary, direct action are part of this too. At a time when wine is under threat from health and religious lobbies, the internet is the place to tell the other side of the story: to promote the diversity of wine, its role in a balanced diet, its suitability with food. A global coalition of wine lovers would be a very powerful group of consumers, capable of influencing the way wine is made, taxed and sold. To people who argue it that it could never happen, I say this. The brave new world created by the internet and social media is the present and the future; it’s time we embraced it.

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