Drinking Games: Have Social Media and Apps like Untapped Changed the Way We Consume Beer?

Feature by | Nov 2015 | Issue #106
Illustration by Joe Waldron

When Tim Mather and Greg Avola created the social networking platform for beer drinkers known as Untappd in 2010, they had no idea how big of an influence it would have on the industry. “At the time of Untappd’s inception, my partner Greg and I were both discovering the world of craft beer as well as trying to come up with a fun new project,” explains Mather, a user experience designer at Disney. “Our love of social media, location based check-ins, and newfound interest in beer all came together in one eureka moment and we never looked back.” Beer drinking hasn’t been the same since.

With the cultural influence of social media increasing every day, apps and social networks like Untappd are changing the way beer enthusiasts enjoy their favorite drink. Apps like BreweryMap, BeerCloud, Next Glass and Brewski Me offer on-demand beer assistance that covers everything from finding local breweries to algorithmically determining your next favorite beer. For many, it’s nearly impossible to imagine life without the instant gratification that comes from posting a status update to social media and watching the envious comments, likes, favorites and retweets roll in. With Untappd for example, users earn virtual badges with names like “Drinking Your Paycheck” and “Bar Explorer” that signal levels of status to the greater community.

In this environment, beer drinkers don’t think twice about pushing pictures of the beer they’re currently drinking to Instagram, checking in at that highly touted beer bar on FourSquare or tracking every bottle and pint they consume on Untappd. By pushing our activities to friends and family, social sharing has created a new level of connection (and occasionally, competition) with those in our networks while simultaneously decreasing our level of real-world interaction with these same people. These activities can influence our purchasing decisions as well. If an app or a social network awards badges for certain types of check-ins, it can nudge our purchases toward those that are more likely to earn these virtual rewards, which in turn deliver real-world chemical rewards in our brains.

For some Untappd users, the ritual of drinking is somehow incomplete when they don’t check-in each and every beer. If you drink a beer, and your friends aren’t instantly notified about it, did it really happen? How are these technologies changing the beer drinking experience for so many enthusiasts, and why are these social drinkers frantically sharing their experiences in the first place? How is social networking affecting our behavior, our drinking habits and our bodies?

The Impulse to Document
Many beer fans start down the social path because they simply want to keep track of what they’re consuming. In a booming industry of seemingly endless options, they see themselves as adventurers exploring a strange new world of flavors, styles and locations. And for the most dedicated of these epicurean explorers, the urge to document a journey into uncharted territory is a natural response with plenty of precedent.

That’s exactly what was going through the mind of Michael Roberts as he and his friend, Brandon Wurtz, quit their jobs to embark on a yearlong road trip in 2014 to 365 breweries in the lower 48 states. They decided early on to embrace social media to track their travels and promote the many independent craft breweries they were visiting. “I had never used Instagram, I had never used Twitter, I had never used Facebook pages … so that was all new to me,” Roberts says. But it wasn’t long before he was posting 10–20 pictures a day and checking in each and every beer they tried over 2 ounces in volume. By the time the epic trip was over, Roberts and Wurtz—who called themselves Brews Travelers 365—had visited 789 breweries, posted over 4,000 pictures on Instagram and accumulated 7,124 unique check-ins on Untappd. What started as a novelty evolved into something more akin to a mission, or even an obsession.

The social aspect of this sort of documentation has a slippery slope. Receiving external validation in the form of likes and favorites leads to a greater desire to post comments and photos, and this mentality eventually encourages us to spend more time seeking validation.

“It feels good. We feel seen, heard, valued, perhaps even envied,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a professor of psychology at California State University Los Angeles. “It may leave us feeling connected with the ‘like-r.’ Physiologically, our bodies are rewarding our brains with mix of dopamine and oxytocin that make us feel excited and comforted.”

The potentially dangerous footnote here is that these chemical reactions are short-lived and leave us wanting more. If this sounds familiar, it’s because you probably heard something similar in a grade school drug education programs. Hyperbolic as it might seem, studies have shown that extended use of social media can lead to addictive traits such as anxious feelings when access to networks is impeded, and a sense of withdrawal when use of social networks stops. “It has replaced that first cigarette in the morning,” notes Dr. Durvasula, “and many people will pick up their phone and scroll through their feeds even before they get out of bed.”

“It definitely became a burden, at times,” admits Roberts. “There were times that I felt like I was on this mission and I couldn’t do my mission so I was anxious. It would bring me down as all I was trying to do was connect to a weak signal.”

Other times though, when checking-in to his preferred apps wasn’t a possibility, Roberts experienced relief over anxiety. “I felt like I could actually enjoy the experience happening around me as opposed the experience happening on my phone,” he adds.

The Risk of Navel-Gazing
It’s a difference epitomized by a scene played out on a daily basis in taprooms and bars all over the country: Friends meet at a drinking establishment, order their beers and start a conversation, but everything comes to a halt when the drinks arrive and someone abruptly stops talking to check-in their beer or spend time composing a “beersie,” the beer equivalent of a selfie. The momentum of the conversation is lost and sometimes dies altogether. It isn’t malicious or even necessarily a conscious decision, but it can derail the mood and detract from the experience. Similar to the Observer Effect, the very act of documenting actually changes the moment itself. Recording the event fundamentally alters the vibe from a friendly and informal gathering to a meeting of appointed significance.

Mather is aware that critics of Untappd claim “that in order to check-in you have to remove yourself from whatever social conversations may be happening and focus on your device, but this has been an isolated complaint and really is up to the user and how they prefer to interact.”

He points out that their network of more than two million beer explorers and their recommendation system provide new possibilities and opportunities for curious beer drinkers. “Someone who may have not liked IPAs may now like them all because they were either recommended one, or in many cases, they were trying to unlock one of our many themed badges,” he explains.

In fact, Mather wasn’t much of a beer lover himself before creating the app. “It was Untappd that helped us—much like our users—discover the world of craft beer,” he says. “Our mantra has always been to connect people with beer and that’s exactly what we’re doing by providing recommendations and connecting users directly with breweries.”

The Impact of Breweries
In fact, as Untappd grew and evolved over time, Mather and Avola decided to give brewery employees the ability to claim and manage their company’s profile page. They’ve also collaborated with a number of larger brewers to create badges for specific beers to promote new releases or highlight seasonal offerings. Examples have included an “Alchemy Ale Gold” badge from Widmer Brothers, a “Soak Up the Solstice” badge from Anderson Valley, a “Sip on Mirror Pond” badge from Deschutes, a “Founders Hop Head” badge and a “Sixpoint Hi-Res” badge. Not only are breweries able to potentially increase brand awareness and educate consumers about styles, pairings and more, they’re also able to influence purchases. And more and more, as market competition increases, breweries are listening and engaging with active social media users, too.

By creating social media accounts, breweries gain the opportunity to interact directly with their fans, wherever they’re consuming beer. “It’s like a bar that never closes, so we’re always around to talk about beer and answer questions,” says Jeremy Danner, Boulevard Brewing Company’s ambassador brewer, referring to Twitter. “Since folks are taking the time to reach out, I feel strongly that it’s my job to provide accurate information as quickly as possible.” This kind of instant access to information is indicative of an era defined by social media and connectivity, and beer drinkers rely upon it to answer a range of questions from the origin of an ingredient to statistics like ABV and IBU, to other tidbits that enrich their overall drinking experience. It can be more personal than that, though. “The cool thing about Instagram is that it’s easy for breweries to see the photos they’re tagged in and give a quick double tap to show that you’ve seen the photo and appreciate that the user is drinking your beer and sharing a picture,” continues Danner.

It’s a small but potent touch. For the many social drinkers broadcasting their choices, knowing that the people who make their beer see (and approve of) their Untappd check-ins, Tweets and Instagram photos is information that can enhance the experience of a beer. While the drink in the glass hasn’t changed, this small level of emotional attachment has the power to turn a good beer into a great beer in the drinker’s mind.

Some breweries have even gone a step further, launching free proprietary apps to drive demand, lead fans to their own brands and encourage socializing around them. In the last few years, Boulevard, Abita, Sixpoint, New Belgium, BrewDog, Founders and Victory have all developed beer finder apps. It’s just one more way that technology is informing our decision-making and affecting our behavior.

This new crop of digital communication tools is incredibly effective at distributing information to enhance our experiences, not necessarily replace them. Which begs the question: Will more people use these tools to augment their next bar or brewery outing by gaining knowledge and making genuine connections with others, or will they simply succumb to yet another array of digital distractions?

Opinions vary, but Dr. Durvasula has her doubts. “It is no longer enough to live life, it now has to be documented and shared (as though it loses its value if it is not shared),” she says. “External validation leaves people on the chronic grail quest for the approval of others rather than just enjoying life for themselves.”