Sunday 8 January 2017

The emotional cost of social media

I've had numerous compliments for my previous post regarding my doubts about the future. It does seem to me that my best writing comes from an honest and open description of difficulties, even if risking wider damage to overall public's perception. Indeed, BBC Radio Cumbria was in the brewery on Friday to record an interview as a result of that post. I didn't want to do it live, normally I do, as I was certain I'd say something I'd later regret. Hopefully it will go out next week, if I get to know when I'll post on twitter.

So, with the bit between my teeth, and the potential risk associated with a runaway creature, I feel it is time for me to explore writing about a deep angst I now experience and has possibly taken me close to mental illness. Yes, 2016 was that tough, I hope this post will turn into therapy.

I've built a lot of my business through the internet. Back in 2008 I had been exploring various ways of making my business do better. I was advised, amongst other things, to write a blog. Engaging Facebook was also seen by various business mentors to be a thing, although I continue to have my doubts about how useful that is. Applying SEOto tempt Google to rank higher is a thing I studied courses on.

I started to write a blog about my business, and searched for other blogs to see what people were saying about pubs and beer. That was over 8 years ago. I became engrossed into the whole discussion about beer and pubs, cask and keg, sparklers and CAMRA and numerous subjects. I even won an award with the Guild of Beer Writers, which gave me immense pleasure and even briefly made me think that I could do it for a living.

In 2009 a thing called Twitter started to gather momentum and I joined in. It can be great fun and I've met a lot of people via that medium and reached customers I'd have never achieved to with any other form of communications. We pushed out our message and continued to work to promote Hardknott beers through our move away from a brewpub to stand alone brewery.

Broadly it has worked. I have very little doubt in my mind that I would not have progressed Hardknott anywhere near as far as we have without interactions on social media. I haven't always got it right, and certainly have made some mistakes. There have been good natured discussion on many occasions, and equally some flame-wars at other times. When it goes well the feeling of success, of acceptance by the wider community as a person of knowledge and wise words, it is an incredibly useful motivator by way of emotionally uplifting feelings. Money almost doesn't matter in the grand scheme of thingswhen it goes right.

When it doesn't go right, things can go very wrong indeed. After the euphoria of success of the early days there comes the realisation that staying on top becomes more difficult as more and more people enter the game. I am now realising the huge buzz of success can be replaced with a downer so large as to create withdrawal cravings similar to what I imagine a drug addict may experience. It does make me ponder the damage that might be done to emotions as a result of attempting to promote a business on the internet.

I do like a good discussion. I like to think I can consider a point of view that might differ to mine and put across an analysis of the situation in a calm and collected way, providing the other person is trying to do the same and not just being antagonistic. However, when I am arguing for my very existence, when I know that for several years I've been making fairly substantial losses and I am fighting through my blog, or twitter, or whatever to keep alive the passion in my heart it becomes very difficult to not see some commentators as just being deliberately disruptive. I like a sensible discussion, but not an all out argument, and definitely not anything that resembles being flamed, or where I feel the need to flame someone else because they appear to me to just poking a pointy stick for the sake of being nasty. I feel it is especially difficult when it seems to me to be for the sole purpose of undermining my own convictions.

I truly believe in what I am doing. I do have a passion to brew great beer, to make a difference in the beer world and try to realign the drinkers view of beer. I think to some extent over the last 11 years of brewing I have done that. But the passion can sometimes manifest itself as great hurt when I feel I care more than those that I interact with and when those people I feel ought to be my friends. Indeed moreover, when to me they would actually benefit by my attempts to improve the lot of the general micro-brewing scene should they allow me my point. It is difficult not to just see it as being malicious.

I don't know if it is me, struggling to make my own business work. Perhaps it is the desperation of others who feel the need to attack anything I do that is aiming to big up my own beers, or justify something I'm doing. Of course on some occasions it could be my own paranoia creating an imaginary enemy, which is an explanation I oft considered3. It is highly likely that it is a combination of all of these. However I have felt lately that in most forms of on-line interaction an incredible increase of tension and uncomfortable situations.

My main form of promotion for my brewery has been, and probably still is via the internet. I have felt an increasing sense of discomfort recently to the extent that I feel I have developed a level of depression, a form of adversity and reluctance to engage. Perhaps I am too needy, perhaps I am not as cut out for on-line engagement as I thought I was, perhaps I am just too sensitive and if that is so then perhaps this is another reason to consider more carefully my future.

There seems to be significant information suggesting that social media is creating mental illness in young people. I can't find a really great link that is not just sensationalist news items that say we should be watching out for our kids. Why just young people? Can old people like me not suffer too?

It has drawn me to consider the risks of promoting a business via social media. I notice one eminent brewery owner reduce his on-line activity stating it is due to feeling uncomfortable with some of the interactions. It also makes me consider that perhaps all writers who take themselves seriously find themselves needing to gain sufficient praise and acceptance and that perhaps only a small dose of cruel critique may send them into a spiral of unhappiness.

It is important for me to try and get the balance right. The purpose behind this blog has changed, to some extent. Moving from being a brewing pub-owner to being a brewer has certainly changed my perspective. It is essential for me to work at promoting my beers and the best way in my mind to do that is via my blog. It is obviously not helpful to my own state of mind or for the promotion of my beers if I continue to try to manage, with carefully constructed arguments, comments that appear to be trolling.

I know I haven't always engaged appropriately when dealing with comments on here, or discussions on twitter. Indeed, sometimes I have felt huge stress and even anger, which is incredibly unhelpful to everyone, and may in fact make me look a little like an internet troll myself. So, time to fully engage comment moderation and be selective about the comments I permit to be posted. I can normally tell when a thread is likely to drag me into a difficult situation. I also think it is important to try to avoid starting to respond, or even look at the comments elsewhere that are likely to create a situation.

Besides, I want to feel happy, and want to be able to write and engage. I can't do that if I'm scared to be here.

There might be a wider issue here; I know many brewers are struggling at the moment. Since our New Year post I've been contacted by several brewers saying their lot this last 12 months has gotten worse. This is in addition to the already strong indication that all is not well in the industry. Perhaps we are all feeling the pinch and taking it out on each other, I can't imagine that is a good thing. Let us focus on fighting those outside our own impassioned group of dedicated brewers, rather than appearing to tear each other apart.

Over 90% of the total beer brewed in the UK is made by less than 2% of the breweries. They are the true enemy.

Less than 1% of the total beer is made by over 90% of the breweries (those under under 5000hl), which includes me and many very great breweries. Will simply must stop pissing each other off.


1SEO = Search Engine Optimisation

2If I were honest I don't care about money as such. I do like new toys, I like to live in a nice house and it would be nice to get way on holiday, but to me money is a way of measuring success, but only one of them.

3Although, when casual observers say to me "I thought <insert name> was your friend" I have to conclude it is not just paranoia and generally reply "So did I"


Unknown said...

The Internet is often frustrating because you cannot just smack someone upside the head with a bar stool to shut them up.

More seriously - I think it is a problem. I think it'll take decades to measure the impact on the human psyche of this new toy we all have... it is probably a net positive, but like alcohol comes with social harm as well as social good and who know's where the balance lies?

Booze is a problem I think many in this industry overlook. It's a depressant... and some argue that Social Media may have psychologically depressant impacts too. Put the two together...

"Young people" are probably considered more susceptible just because it is more integrated into their lives and they're on average less emotionally robust to start with. But I doubt "old people" who've dived into it immersively could be immune... most adult "emotional robustness" is merely a thin veneer of culturally enforced emotional internalisation.

As for the beer industry. There's a lot of doom and gloom of late, and unfortunately it seems appropriate to the times. Closures to seem to have happening at a greater rate but it'll be months before we know if that is a trend. On one hand it widens the volume available to those who weather it... on the other hand I still see dozens of new breweries opening with cash to burn who'll just cause the existing problem to persist.

It seems nice to hope that that 1% of the total market could become 2% - or whatever factor. That some % of "big beer" sales in any format can go over to micros/indies. But that sort of change is slow... if it does happen it won't be overnight and it won't save many who are struggling now. And alas this means that in your primary volume market your primary competition *are* your microbrewing peers and that cannot be avoided. (It doesn't mean people can be excused for being arseholes to each other, but the fact is that for your daily bread they are the competition.)

Yes - we should strive to expand the volumes for the sector as a whole, but it doesn't change much about today, next week, next month maybe not even next year.

Hardknott has a fairly good reputation across a fairly wide area. So you're a step ahead of many already (who mostly have no reputation either way whatsoever). The hard part, which I haven't an easy answer for I'm afraid, is building on that from here in a market that is constantly seeking out the new and with beer tastes seeming to be a moving target. (Advice: dry hop everything to buggery and back...? For keg product at any rate. Bugger increasing cask recipe costs.)

I think the vague plan of relocating slightly and building in some greater capacity for retail sales is a good one. I consider my local market to be sparse and far distributed... but you've got it far worse, as beautiful a location as it is up there it doesn't help you get to people, or for them to get to you.

On the blog/social-media you should write a bit more about the beers perhaps... don't stop with the pithy stuff about the industry and running the business... but do add in some more enthusiasm for the product as well as the Cumbrian scenery. [Right, after sinking 30 minutes into a blog comment I'd better go have my coffee and try to be more productive... that's the other measure here to wonder about: the overall impact on productivity of titting around on the Internet like an ass.]

Unknown said...

I'd like to add: without your social media use we would never have discovered the Woolpack back in 2007 (or it would have been much less likely).

And would never have re-discovered you a bit later with more of an interest in the beer than the hills.

There is value in the social media. You get to be hounded by loonies like me.

Phil said...

I think social media, and Twitter in particular, sometimes stir up a lot more emotions than we realise; we could probably all do with cutting down. I had a weird experience myself the other morning - I suddenly found I was breathing quickly and had an overwhelming sense of wanting to be somewhere else. I was on Twitter, but I'd been "on Twitter" for the previous 45 minutes. What had changed was that I'd just started writing a reply to somebody - and this is someone (not a beer person btw) who I respect highly but disagree with about many things, and who has a tendency to keep arguments going until he's said everything he thinks needs to be said. So my conscious mind was saying "he's made an interesting point, why don't I leave a comment?" and my unconscious was saying "OH MY GOOD GOD PLEASE NOT THAT AGAIN!".

HardknottDave said...

Phil, I think this is exactly how I'm feeling about various forms of on-line discussions. I've realised that I have to screen to some extent what I respond to. On here I'm having to avoid displaying comments that would distract from the main point of a post and would require me to be involved in a carefully worded reply should I avoid it ending up as an argument.

This happened earlier today. I displayed a comment, then started to respond and realised I couldn't do it without feeling bad about it. I deleted the comment in the end as the easiest solution.

It's not what I want to do, I'd prefer to allow free-speech, but I also have to look after my sanity and my livelihood alike.

Rob said...

As you know Dave I work at Mordue. Our entire history has been about being top of the world (like in 1996) to being the one left behind, administration then coming back again then we're left behind again. So I understand thexactly narrative.

I also get how too much social media can do more harm than good. My verdict has come to cutting back on it and just staying focused on the game and the things you can control. Best way in my opinion.