Whisky and the Web 2.0 – A Clash of Cultures?

by Oliver Klimek on February 9, 2010

This is a topic that has been simmering in the back of my head for quite a while now. There have been some discussions on the German The Whisky Store Forum that have raised interesting questions that I decided to tackle here.

The spark for finally putting it all together was John Hansell’s decision to give the 2010 Malt Advocate “Pioneer of the Year” Award to us whisky bloggers. Some of the comments on his blog showed a bit of concern that the blogging phenomenon as a whole was not very helpful for the whisky industry because it allowed each and everyone to trumpet out their views into the world, whether they may be well-thought and accurate or not.

Being part of the so-called blogosphere, my opinion differs from this view, of course. I believe that this view voiced in the comments is at least partly caused by an incomplete knowledge about blogs and other modern features of the internet.

From Web 1.0 to Web 2.0

In the beginning, the World Wide Web – commonly mistaken for the internet as a whole, by the way – was nothing more than a means to display information in a decentralised way, allowing hyperlinks between documents to connect the information sources.

As time moved on, more and more companies and private persons wanted to be present on the web in order to feature themselves to the public, with reasons ranging from advertising and marketing over “missionarism” to plain personal narcissism.

This early phase – now called Web 1.0 – way basically a one-way road in terms of communication, especially on the commercial level between companies and their customers. It was classic push marketing that had been transferred from the classic media to the internet. The basic principle of Web 1.0 was that content was created by only a few active participants. The vast majority of internet users were passive consumers of this content.

Over the years, more and more websites invented ways how the formerly passive users could participate in creating content. In many startups, user participation was the core of the business model. Let me just mention one big example: eBay.

This trend was followed by social media and social networks that gave internet users the opportunity to create informational content on their own and allowed them to build virtual groups and networks based on their interests. Blogs are just one of these new forms of communication and content creation. Discussion forums, wikis, networks like Facebook, mircoblogs like Twitter, bookmarking sites like Digg or Stumbleupon – all have in common the concept of decentralised distribution of information paired with elaborate concepts of communication.

And this is the present Web 2.0 that we sort of live in.

What’s this all got to do with Whisky?

Of course, whisky stuff is just a tiny fraction of the massive amount of information on the internet. But the number of whisky related blogs, Twitter users, Facebook pages and whatnots is constantly growing, and it would already require a full time job, should you want to stay up to date with all that’s new on the Whisky Web.

And this is part of the problem that some have with this whole new concept. The amount of information is so huge that it has to be sifted and skimmed. And they also seem to fear that inaccurate informations propagated on the net could have a negative effect on the whisky industry.

Of course this problem is real, and I don’t want to talk it down. A great example is the recent Taiwan vs Scotch stunt where the result of a contest between apples and oranges so to speak was thoughtlessly repeated without taking a closer look at what actually happened.

But this very incident also shows that this is not not just an internet problem. This news was also printed by many newspapers and probably reached more readers on paper than on screen. Information overflow takes its toll on all media, nut just on he internet.

The signal to noise ratio on the internet is certainly lower than in peer reviewed print publications, but I honestly think that it is not very difficult to recognize rubbish as rubbish and gems as gems. And I also believe that the impact of unqualified drivel form disinformed bloggers on the whisky industry will be largely outweighed by the good things the Web 2.0 has to offer.

Why is the Web 2.0 Good for Whisky?

The objections about blogs in particular are rooted in the Web 1.0 view of things. A blog is viewed solely as a manifestation of one person’s opinion. And if his opinion is wrong, then he’d better shut up.

But there is much more to blogging. Blogs are interconnected by links. Modern blog platforms inform the author when another blog has linked to them. This creates a very tight network – the blogosphere – , as most bloggers will be interested who linked to them and what they have to say. In addition to that, comments open up the opportunity for discussions between readers and bloggers and also among the readers themselves.

Now let’s take a look at the whisky industry. Blog articles, Twitter messages, Facebook pages etc. supply the industry with a wealth of feedback to their products that would have been impossible only a few years ago. It would be foolish for them not to take a look at the opinions the buyers have about their products.

And then there are those industry members who turn around the table. All of a sudden, they are starting their own blogs, begin tweeting on Twitter and invite people to become friends of their Facebook pages. A clever move indeed. Because they have learned what Web 2.0 is all about.

It’s about turning the informational one-way street of Web 1.0 into a bidirectional highway network where producers, journalists, dealers and customers can exchange information at an amazing speed.

Let me give you just one real world example of the power that Web 2.0 can have. It’s the story of the Macallan 18yo sherry cask bottlings that you might remember from a recent article.

German whisky online retailer The Whisky Store reported they had learned from Macallan representatives that there won’t be any more sherry cask bottlings of the 18yo and older expressions. As Macallan just recently had joined, I took the liberty to ask them via Twitter, if this indeed was true. They replied within 20 minutes stating that in fact this rumor was wrong, and later they even published a post on their own blog dispelling that false rumor.

So within just a few hours, a disturbing rumor could be dispelled that otherwise could have caused The Macallan distillery a serious image problem.

To conclude,  the recently developed internet features labelled as Web 2.0 have the potential to create a much closer relationship between the industry and its customers than ever before. And provided that producers honestly listen to their customers, this will surely translate into even better whisky in the future.  And if that’s not a good thing, then I don’t know what is.

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