James Harkin: Wake up to the future of our society – it smells of coffee

As mainstream, high street retail crumbles, the net gives us the chance to bunch around the stuff we really enjoy by congregating in enthusiast communities

Related Topics

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 ScooterCaffè, 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 west London roasting 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 with 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 Howard Becker published a paper in which he interviewed 50 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 don't usually get high the first time, or even enjoy the experience. Novices really only 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 have been difficult to overestimate 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 past half-century, for example, has seen a 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.

The writer is Director of the social trends agency Flockwatching. His book 'Niche: Why the Market No Longer Favours the Mainstream' is newly published by Little, Brown

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Business Development Manager / Sales

£30 - 40k (£65k Y1 OTE Uncapped): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Business Deve...

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Day In a Page

Read Next
IDF soldiers and vehicles in an image provided by campaign group Breaking the Silence  

'Any person you see – shoot to kill': The IDF doctrine which causes the death of innocent Palestinians

Ron Zaidel

If I were Prime Minister: I'd give tax cuts to the rich, keep Trident, and get my football team wrong

Frankie Boyle
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before