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

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

Recruitment Genius: Service and Installation Engineer

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: SEO / Outreach Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is a global marketin...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Estimator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Negotiator - OTE £24,000

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An enthusiastic individual is r...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore

People drink to shut out pain and stress – arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?