So I'm writing again in the Rant and Rave... and because CoffeeGeek's content editor gave me some direction, you're reading this specific article in the oldest column on CoffeeGeek. The plan originally was that this article was going to be the first to launch a new column on CoffeeGeek, but after writing a draft, I was reminded of what Rant and Rave's original column mission was supposed to be:
"This regular column will tackle the world of espresso and coffee, including all the theories, controversies, changes and structures that make up this world. A heavy emphasis is placed on the online coffee community, and one thing this column won't do is pull any punches. Every week we'll feature the ups and downs, a quick yet detailed rundown of things that are good and not so good in the coffee world."
Ironically enough, this is exactly what I wanted the new column (called "State of Coffee") to be. Just too weird - and it shows you how good my memory is regarding some of the things I've written online in the past.
New Column, Same as the Old Column
So why thoughts about creating a new column on CoffeeGeek? The idea came out of a lot of feedback I got about an article I wrote on my personal website, called Fear the Detailed Review. A common theme in the feedback was that something has been missing from CoffeeGeek in the last few years. That thing was me.
I had to think about this a bit, because I felt my participation level on CoffeeGeek was higher than ever. I have over 4,000 posts in the forums, and a very rough query shows that just in forums alone I have 1,816,000 words written... that's over 2 million words! (I never was good at math). If I throw in the articles on this website, it jacks up to over 3,000,000 words written, and I don't even want to attempt to count the photographs published.
But if you look at my history of articles, especially opinion articles, there's not many to speak of in the last two or three years. Detailed Reviews? Last one was in 2005. Guides? Well, I published one recently, but prior to that, there was an almost three year gap.
Geez. I am missing from this site.
And it's not like I don't have an opinion or two to share... far from it. I've managed to anger probably half of the high end professional coffee community over on Coffeed in the past couple of years with my opinions and commentary. (thankfully for me, I guess, it's a small community.) I do a bit less so in our own forums because I'm more guarded with what I say here on CoffeeGeek. And of course, there's other people's blogs and website forums, where I'll happily go on about how this sucks, and that's wrong, and this is flawed, and how that could be fixed.
Why haven't I been doing that here on CoffeeGeek? Well, part of the reason is reach. Coffeed has a wildly passionate, dedicated, and hardcore group of select and invite-only members. What I say over there may be read by around 500 or more people eventually (I'm guessing), but fewer than 300 can actually comment, and maybe only 50 or 100 comment regularly. Comments I leave on blogs garner even fewer reads and views. I mention all these assumed numbers because when I go off on a rant, I do it a bit calculated - I have an idea what the audience is (including size, though I could very well be wrong on that), so if I spew off, there are the "cool kids" who will read it and either dislike me more, nod their heads in agreement, or just plain ignore the commentary, but it's really a small group that tends to know everyone and everything already "in the biz". By and large, opinions and judgements about people, including me, are already set.
The Big Picture
Here on CoffeeGeek though, the reach is very wide. For every post made in the forums each day, there are over 150 lurkers on the website. That reach alone scares the crap out of me, but I also respect it like almost nothing else in my life. I have so much respect for the reach and audience of CoffeeGeek (along with the potential impact) that many times I'm afraid to say what I really feel about this and that in coffee or to discuss contentious issues. I'm afraid of having my opinion misconstrued as "fact" on some subjects, and possibly hurting people and their business lives, when all I wanted to do in the first place was create discussion.
The reach of this website also cautions me to temper many of the things I say in articles that get on the front page. For example, if I used CoffeeGeek as a sounding board to warn you about a company I felt was particularly disreputable, or a particularly dishonest situation, no matter how true the words may be, I think of that as an abuse of this website's reach and achieved status. Not only that, it creates a catch-22 effect - using CoffeeGeek to warn readers anytime I think people "should know about something" would erode the trust and confidence people have in reading this website, because it would be perceived as simply a rumour and speculation website and lose credibility. That's a personal fear I have, and it's probably one of the reasons that I forgot (or perhaps blocked memory of) this particular column's mission statement over time.
This fear manifests itself in different ways. One of my biggest gripes involving CoffeeGeek is when some people in the industry confuse this website with me and my own opinions. If they read something authored by me, then fine - that's my opinion, and blast away if you don't like it. But many people have read something on CoffeeGeek written by others and automatically attribute it to me... be it in an article, comments in our forums, or criticisms written by you in our Consumer Reviews section.
Or worse, they read something elsewhere online - either a comment made by me or (much worse) comments made by others, and again attribute it to CoffeeGeek, because, after all, in their mind, anything I say is automatically the CoffeeGeek Community's stance, and anything said on CoffeeGeek is Mark Prince's stance. And, demonstrating that with some people you can never win, even things said by people with no association with CoffeeGeek, on completely different websites, somehow become "CoffeeGeek's stance" and de facto Mark Prince's stance. Yep, some battles, you just can't win.
I fully accept the responsibility for my words anywhere online. And I have learned, like many have, that just because I write something on an obscure corner of the Internet, I have to accept that my comments reflect somewhat on this community here, and people's perceptions of this community as a whole. Having my words reflect on this community is something I have to accept and perhaps temper even more; but it doesn't mean I have to like or accept the misattributions that happen.
Fortunately, these misattributions don't happen often; but sometimes happen very publicly (for example, the Portafilter.net podcast criticising the article Susie Spindler wrote about the CoE and SCAA that turned into a general slam against this website and me personally). Sometimes misattributions are made by someone with a lot of power within the industry (for example, a former SCAA board member who confronted me about some bad words she thought I wrote on CoffeeGeek about the WBC and USBC - when, in fact, she was referring to words Jay Caragay wrote over on Coffeed.com). They are still rare, but they are nevertheless potentially damaging.
Because this kind of confusion bothers me so much, I'm very hesitant to add any fuel to the fire. I have sometimes have nightmares that it would steamroll if I started using even one column space on CG as a sounding board against all that is bad, screwed up, dishonest, or otherwise evil about this business. Then people wouldn't be confused, they'd know: CoffeeGeek is "me", Mark Prince, and it sucks...because he exposes dirty laundry. Trust = eroded.
This is my very roundabout way of getting back to the feedback generated by my "Fear the Detailed Review" blog entry on CoffeeKid.com - both the public comments and the private emails indicated the thing missing from CoffeeGeek was me. How do I put more of the "me" back into the website without abusing the reach of CoffeeGeek and using it as my own personal soapbox more and more? Could I write more, but just keep my opinions to myself? That's gonna be hard.
The thing is, situations have changed since 2001 when this website launched. Back then, I didn't know any real "players" in the world of coffee (a very small community by the way, where everyone seems to know everyone else), didn't know about the messy politics that sometimes pervade in various sectors (vendors vs. vendors, SCAA supporters vs. detractors, regions vs. regions, manufacturers vs. manufacturers, one type of ethical coffee vs. other types of ethical coffee, etc.), so back then, my opinions were pretty much my own, and influenced by little outside stuff. Today, it's a completely different situation for me personally and I find myself in a very wired, very connected tiny uber-serious professional coffee community. I can say one thing on the phone this week, and by next week, everyone knows it (and surprise surprise, they’re usually pissed at me for it).
It's not all bad!
Reading over this article, I think I painted too dire a picture.
It's not just the messy politics, back stabbing, games and shenanigans that are a problem. Frankly, if that were all, I wouldn't be writing this, because there's no way today I'd want the focus of the Rant and Rave to be solely about the underbelly of the industry.
There's plenty of other topics of discussion that are just as dangerous for me to write and talk about here, but for CoffeeGeek readers, I'm betting it's something you'd probably love reading about: industry rumours, deals, moves, inventions, news. It's amazingly interesting stuff, and every week I get a bevy of text messages, emails, voice mails, and phone calls about this or that happening in the industry. Cool stuff. Inventive stuff. Interesting stuff. Things I can't possibly confirm, and things that, if I start posting, may dry up the information well.
Then there's the outright opinion thoughts - if you follow my posts around the Internets, you'll know I'm not afraid to post opinions on things related to coffee and espresso. Well... perhaps I'm not afraid to post them anywhere... except here, on the front page CoffeeGeek. Like how I have near total disdain for single origin espresso (apparently, everything I know is wrong: Jim Hoffmann won the 2007 WBC with SO espressos). Like how I don't think the Clover is the "ultimate expression of what coffee can be" (though I do think it's a great new way to show off some elements in coffee that no other brewing method can). Or like how I think there's a lot of things about barista competitions and the SCAA that aren't working well (wait, I did write about some of that here and it was front page).
Opinion is just that: opinion. But when I make statements like "I've never had a single origin espresso that I've been able to enjoy", somehow, it's interpreted as me making a statement of industry fact, not opinion, and I get panned for it. Called pompous or arrogant. And this happens when I post in a relatively low-reach forum or blog comment! What the heck would happen if I started doing it more regularly here, front page on CoffeeGeek?
With all that said, I still think this is all good stuff. Because this kind of topicality fosters my absolute favourite thing about the Internet: discussion. At least discussion from those willing to discuss - sometimes, people are just so fed up with some of my factoid opinions, there is no discussion after the opinion is stated - and that's not the reason why I state opinions elsewhere online or in person, or why I'd want to do it here.
Finding the balance
Perhaps in the end, it comes down to balance. If I'm going to renew and re-energise this column on CoffeeGeek (and if you haven't already guessed, this is exactly what I want to do), I have to be able to strike a balance on what I'm going to write about. Here's the deal.
- I'm an opinionated person. Never shied away from that elsewhere, but have shied away from it many times when it comes to the front page of CoffeeGeek (though not always).
- On top of being opinionated, I feel very strong about my passions and my beliefs. Translation: I'll argue them to the ends of the earth.
- While I may argue my opinions to the end of the earth, I still remain open to having my opinion changed, when someone presents a well reasoned counter argument or discussion. I've done so in the past (as Andy S. is happy to point out to me at times lol).
- I know a lot of things about this industry. Some good. Some bad. Some "juicy". Some pure speculation and rumour. Some are the rumours themselves being the story, not what the rumours are about.
- There's a lot of things going on in coffee, and my involvement, that I never talk about because, well, people think I'm braggy enough (eg: I tend to privately sponsor a lot of regional events, jams, baristas and their efforts, but rarely publicise this).
- Every week, I discover something new and exciting about coffee or espresso. Sometimes every day. It could be a new product, a new coffee offering that tastes exceptionally well, a new machine discovery, a new device to make coffee better or easier, a new development in the industry that will change the paradigm.
- Every day, I think about coffee. And espresso. And sometimes, my imagination just runs with it. Sometimes I post these thoughts online, most times I don't.
- I find myself more and more frustrated that a near majority of the site's traffic is in the forums. Not that I dislike our forums - far from it - it's just that I think the front page of CoffeeGeek used to mean more to people discovering good coffee, or wanting good coffee. What distinguishes CoffeeGeek from most of the other coffee-driven communities online is the front page of CoffeeGeek - columns, reviews, guides, how-tos, and consumer reviews. This site still maintains that distinction, but I worry that the relevance of the front page is less so today than it was three years ago. And it's all my fault.
Because of this last point in particular, part of the process of bringing more of my voice back to CoffeeGeek has already begun - I have a new, second column on CoffeeGeek that will focus more on guiding people toward the concept of coffee as a culinary thing. This past weekend, the new column was launched, called Coffee at the Moment with its first original article, From the poorest postal code to the most expensive coffee. I've worked out a pretty cool way to quickly gather ideas and concepts for that article so I don't lose them with my horrible memory (Google Docs and Spreadsheets, I love you!) and it already shows some fruition - a bunch of idea articles are already seeded for future publication on CoffeeGeek. I've also moved some former Rant and Rave articles (like the Tamping series (yes, 2 and 3 are still in the works)) over to this new column space just because they fit much better there. So the first step has begun.
But what about The Rant and Rave? To be honest, I'm trying to figure out what I want this column to be, and whether the column's mission statement, written way back in the fall of 2001 is still valid today. Most importantly, I want to hear from you - what do you want this column to be? Do you want it to be a blog-style gossip and outing type article, a la www.tmz.com? (albeit in a weekly / biweekly format). Do you want it to be a straight opinion piece where I just talk about whatever is on my mind regarding coffee and espresso for that given week? Do you want it to be something along the lines of a longform Engadget.com, talking up the latest and newest things in coffee?
Do you want this column to be a combination of all the above? Or more? Or something different? Let me know in the comments what you'd like the Rant and Rave (or perhaps a renamed column, called State of Coffee) to be.