A Shift in the Question of Authority: A Response to Steve Heimoff
In his blog post yesterday, “What Today’s Social Media Means for Tomorrow’s Wine Industry,” Steve Heimoff follows a meandering trail to ultimately claim we cannot predict the impact that social media today will have on wine purchasing tomorrow. Having stated the future is unpredictable (he does not argue for this though he makes a lot of oblique references to splash zone moments of history along the way), Heimoff then claims wineries should be skeptical. I take it Heimoff means to direct his recommended skepticism at the ultimate persuasive power of social media, and at its projected longevity.
The comments’ section of the post furthers the exploration, with one of the more interesting aspects being responses from Paul Mabray, the Chief Strategy Officer and founder of VinTank, a social media tracking application for wineries and wine professionals. Mabray engages with Heimoff, challenging him to recognize the power that the internet has had in shutting down brick-and-mortar businesses unable to adjust to new demand. Examples named include book, movie, music, and electronics retailers, and (more poignantly for someone like me) a plethora of newspapers and magazines.
A later comment from Mabray points out that VinTank tracks an impressive number of online conversations daily–around two million–and through those digital instances VinTank calculates trends, and tracks their changes over time. In fact, it is possible right now to stop reading this blog post and instead go to VinTank’s site to read their Social Media Index for today’s most discussed wineries and wine labels. Via this information, VinTank follows which wines or wine types are hottest right now, which were hot but are now cooling, which are increasing in hotness, and who the hell is spreading this hotness around. The point is, VinTank tracks the peaks, valleys, and hikes between on the wine trail of the social media landscape.
Why Heimoff’s Response Matters
Heimoff however resists this point and offers one of two interesting moments from the post as a whole. (I’ll give you the second interesting moment later.) Here’s how Heimoff responds: “Paul: Two million conversations a day sound to me like babble.” That is NOT the interesting part. That is him simply refusing to admit that VInTank uses smart algorithms. This is: “What is to break through and make sense? Authority. Where does authority come from? That is the question.”
In asking where authority comes from, Heimoff has inadvertently opened the door to considering the effects of our society’s moves from print to online media. Considering the answer also happens to be precisely what undermines Heimoff’s resistance to Mabray’s point, as well as the skepticism he recommends to wineries.
In order to answer Heimoff’s question about authority we have to look at the contrast between the world of print media and the diversification of influence.
The Print Media Authority Model
In the print media model, wine critics released reviews of wines, and consumers received those scores via print publications. Reviews came out once a week, for example, in newspapers, or once a month in wine magazines. The conversation was primarily uni-directional. It was possible, surely, to write a letter to the editor in response, and a few of those letters were even reprinted a handful at a time in most publications.
However, even allowing for letters to the editor, in print media, critics essentially announced their views, and then the next week or month announced their views on newer wines. There were a limited number of positions for wine critic open throughout the world. Leaders of the industry were eventually known by name, and celebrated for their influence not only on consumer perception but economic reality. They were not only named authorities in wine, they were deemed so by consumer pocket books. That meant that importers and distributors were also influenced by such figures.
Authority as Singular
The point is, within the print media model, sources of authority were singular and easily identifiable. Under the Robert Parker hey-day it was possible to track direct correlations between announcements of 100-point scores, and increase in wine sales for those 100-point wines.
The advantages of the old print media model of authority are clear. It’s easy to know exactly who the influencers are. No one questions if Robert Parker sold wine. They argue about whether or not they like the effect it had on the world of wine.
So how’s it work now?
The Blindness of a Stuck Schema
Well, the truth is, it’s hard for a lot of us to see that authority models even work at all now.
The trouble with social media is it doesn’t fit the old model of authority, which really comes down to a question of influence. Figures like Robert Parker influenced people’s spending habits on wine. Because such authority figures were so few, their social influence could be tracked easily via spike (or not) in wine sales after the release of any particular person’s review.
The trouble is the old model was so damned easy to track — it was clear who the influencers were — that many of us are still hooked on that way of thinking. When we believe that what influence amounts to is something as straightforward as an obvious and immediate or singular spike in wine sales, then its hard for us to even recognize other forms of influence as they happen. So hard in fact that we can even be standing in the midst of two million examples, and still not see them. This is what psychologists call having a stuck schema.
The Diversified Model of Authority
I take it that Mabray’s point was that the two million conversations a day that VinTank tracks show people really are talking about and drinking wine. Part of the reason this matters is because these people are engaging with each other.
The print media world has essentially caved in from fifteen years ago. People aren’t looking to such publications today, and instead more often track a diversified range of sources online. The print media sources that have survived, have mostly done so by integrating an online engagement component. So, print media, and a new tradition of online news sources do exist, and have influence, however, in a wholly new expression from before. The further truth is many people are not reading traditional online news sources at all, as much as just following Twitter, or reading some blogs, or keeping up on Instagram.
So, what’s another thing that has changed in the last fifteen years? The volume of wine sales in the United States. The numbers have greatly increased. However, people are making buying decisions differently now.
And that’s where Heimoff’s second interesting moment comes in.
Within Heimoff’s hand waving of ideas, he references (though not by proper citation) a recent interview of Jancis Robinson done by David White in which she celebrates the “democratization of wine.”
In the interview, Robinson emphasizes the positive force of consumers having their own voice and ability to engage with overt wine critics directly. The implied contrast she draws is with the days of print media when there was little to no interaction with wine critics.
Heimoff reveals his resistance to recognizing the new model of authority here in his response to Robinson’s comment. He describes her appreciation of the democratic shift as “a critic… going over to that side of the fence.” In doing so, Heimoff relies upon a false dichotomy as if critics sit on one side, and those they influence on the other–a set-up that (1) sounds a lot like a rigid version of the old Print Model of Authority, and (2) denies the reality that someone like Heimoff, or Robinson are also influenced.
But what is the democratization of wine? Let’s look first just at democracy.
A Short Point About Democracy
Democracy, to put it simply, comes from the Greek meaning “people power.” Sources of authority are generated by the people, usually with certain people having stronger leadership roles than others. Some of these leaders are elected through what we think of as traditional voting mechanisms, but other times it’s just that a person has charisma and a lot of folks listen to their opinion. In other words, the democratization of power moves authority from a few persistent leaders that pronounce the rules, to a more dynamic engagement of people with each other and their leaders both.
Democracy in Wine: There Are Still Influencers
VinTank has something to teach us about what democracy in wine looks like.
VinTank is able to track various wine’s social media index, as I mentioned before, which is an analysis of a winery’s level of engagement with others online. The thing is, for a wine’s social media index to be high it can’t just be online popular people talking about the wine. More engagement is reflective of interaction with more people, not a few pre-chosen ones.
When you’re signed into VinTank itself you can also check-in on particular social media users to see how regularly they’re engaged with online. Bloggers like 1WineDude regularly pop up as one of the most engaged with figures in wine writing online. Wine critics like Jancis Robinson juggles influence via print and online media with widely respected wine books, but also a pretty good social media index as well.
But wine conversation in social media is about far more than wine writers. Thanks to social media, winemakers and wineries are able to speak for themselves. Winemaker celebrity Randall Grahm has more followers than the city of Anchorage, Alaska has residents. Labels like Dirty & Rowdy launched to the pages of The New York Times within a year of their first release thanks in no small part to the cherubic liveliness and charm of their winemaker, Hardy Wallace, online. Their releases have instantaneously sold out, however, largely thanks to the D&R teams work on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and their blog.
Greater than these examples of lead influencers in wine, however, more pedestrian examples show what diversifying influence really amounts to.
I posted on Facebook earlier today that I was eating oysters and in short order someone asked what wine I drank with them. A friend of mine is traveling soon to Denver and hopes to find champagne there, so I messaged three friends of mine on Facebook about wine shops in Denver. The next thing I knew two tweets had gone out to people I’ve never heard of asking their recommendation. When I hear back, and tell my friend, she’s going to shop there. These sorts of lightning fast conversations happen two million a day online and they move wine.
The old model expects that when one person speaks, that is, the right person, cases of wine fly out the door and a wine sells out. In this perspective, “breaking through” two million voices is necessary because one voice is wanted as a clear beckon of authority. The thing is, in the old model, those two million voices had little opportunity to speak.
The diversified model, however, recognizes that no one person has such singular, consistent influence today. Instead, influence is spread like a grassroots movement through the communication and action of a large number of individual people. When any one person speaks with people that value their opinion, some wine will sell, and that with two million conversations a day how much and what might not be predictable, but it’s still certain.
The democratization of wine is a diversification of influence, and also of our choices. Wineries should be skeptical but skeptical of their own practices. Through social media they’ve been invited to engage.
To read Steve Heimoff’s post: http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2013/11/11/what-todays-social-media-means-for-tomorrows-wine-industry/
To read David White’s interview with Jancis Robinson: http://www.terroirist.com/2013/10/a-conversation-with-jancis-robinson/
To read David White’s account of the implications of his interview with Jancis Robinson: http://palatepress.com/2013/10/wine/a-consumer-revolution-in-wine/
To check out VinTank: http://www.vintank.com/
Post-edit: 1WineDude has since delivered a response to this general discussion. You can read it here: http://www.1winedude.com/why-social-media-advice-from-traditional-wine-media-is-almost-always-wrong/
Thank you to Katherine Yelle and Dan Fredman.
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