Snark Attack: Navigating the Intrepid Waters of Social Media

By Tim Dominick

Found on the pages of a mythical coffee forum:

Coffeeroaster1: Hey everyone, I’m developing a new espresso blend and need some input on whether or not pre-blending is worthwhile or if I should roast the components individually?

Helpfulpeer#1:  There are pros and cons to both, could you elaborate on the coffees you are using? Things like bean density and processing styles can play a big role in which blending method will work best for you new blend.

Coffeeroaster1: I’m considering a natural Ethiopian Sidamo, Washed Bolivian, Washed Rwanda and pulped natural Brazil. I also have a really nice robusta that brings in great crema.

Helpfulpeer#1: I’d try the washed coffees together and you might be able to get the pulped natural and natural to work, but it might be better to do them separately. The Robusta is probably best roasted solo.

Snarkyroaster: Natural coffees suck, why would you even consider using them in a blend? I can’t believe people are still drinking that crap. Robusta? Jeeze, sounds like Coffeeroaster1 is trying to save a few bucks

Coffeeroaster1: Come on, Snarky, haven’t you tried XYZ natural? It got a 97 from coffee review and there are a laundry list of reasons why this processing style is legit. As for the Robusta, ask around there are some well-known roasters who use modest amounts in their espresso blends.

Snarkyroaster: Dude, naturals are for lame roasters who probably haven’t tasted a good coffee and Robusta is always crap and no self-respecting roaster would ever touch it.

See how quickly an online conversation can be derailed? All it takes is one negative, non-helpful coffee creature to turn an interesting, thoughtful conversation into an online version of poo-slinging that quickly deteriorates into a snark-infested feeding frenzy.

Creating Community Online

The coffee community relies heavily on social media and digital interaction to stay informed. The SCAA began providing an online venue for discussion in 1998 when a group of roasters asked the association to host a Roasters Forum. This cadre of roasters went on to form the Roasters Guild and the forum provided a sounding board during the formative years of the guild. Today, we can fish in a never-ending stream of Twitter feeds, Facebook, blogs and a spectrum of forums catering to every facet of our industry. We even have a self-proclaimed tabloid, Sprudge, documenting competitions, travels and comical details of our industry mates.

Nearly every avenue of communication allows interaction between an author and their readers. The vast majority of back and forth is positive, and even when detractors respectfully disagree or constructively criticize, the dialog can evolve and grow.

On the other hand, a flippant response or scathing diatribe online is very disruptive to the tone of our collective conversation and can instantly derail a productive conversation. A snarky retort sends a shot across the bow and might even bring some instant gratification to the writer but it can quickly damage their credibility. Certainly, it is acceptable to completely disagree with a stance and spend hours crafting a series of thoughtful responses designed to further the conversation. There is a genuine need to remain respectful even in unbridgeable disagreement. The breakdown in civility online begins with anonymity. It is quite easy to be a jerk if you don’t have to sign your name to your words. Quite a few professional forums have eliminated the option altogether and require users to use their full names, however editorializing after articles and on many blogs can be done with a nom de plume. Oddly, being known does not stop everyone. The desire to be an iconoclast drives some people to attack traditional beliefs and institutions in an effort to set themselves apart as a rebel. A person seeking to polarize the community could easily use snarky comments as a way to dissolve constructive dialog.

Our industry thrives on diverse voices; sadly many of our peers have chosen to curtail contributions to online discussions because they do not want to deal with a small but vocal minority of malcontents who seem more intent on personalizing a debate than presenting an opposing viewpoint. This faction tends to shout down dissent, continually repeat the same argument and strives to dominate discussions rather than present workable solutions.

Due to this, a growing number of industry veterans are reluctant to participate in online dialogues. Given the increasing importance of digital debate, this loss of our elders is a very alarming trend. It is not uncommon to meet someone who entered a few hundred words in a text box only to redirect their browser at the last minute to avoid potentially malicious feedback. One person candidly remarked that he “would rather delete a long post than wind up stooping to the level of some jerk that can’t debate but constantly wants to argue.” Another longtime contributor is committed to holding his tongue if certain people enter the conversation because he wants to avoid turning a conversation into a sideshow.

Dealing with Disruptors

Dealing with disruptions can be as simple as ignoring the comment. In particular if the comments are personal, it is wise to resist the temptation to reply. Other times we can find a few thoughtful words to contrast the snark and quickly diffuse the situation. Rarely is addressing the disruptor head-on is the only solution. In this case, check your emotion at the door and prepare to dissect their argument. Resist the urge to personalize the debate and start by logically addressing their case, point by point, working hard to identify any common ground. Even a small amount of agreement can bring resolution, allowing fruitful conversation. If no common ground is established, at the very least you clearly stated your position and indicated that you are not going to stoop to throwing stones. Often times it is best to have this type of conversation via e-mail or private message rather than broadcasting it to a wide audience.

If you come up against an anonymous poster it is best just to leave the conversation because it is very hard to have a dialog when you do not know who is on the other side of the debate.

Nothing says “troll” or “snarky” faster than foul language, abusive remarks or all out assaults on your grammar or spelling. If the dialogue has deteriorated to this point, walk away. If you notice a contributor constantly restates the same tired argument across a variety of sites, resist the urge to respond. There are certainly a few people who live to get a rise out of you and the best way to leave them unfulfilled is to ignore their overtures. A common tactic amongst this crowd is to put you on the defensive then slam your response as an excuse or an attempt to gloss over the problem.

If You’re Tempted to Snark

Sometimes we come across a comment that just screams out for a jab or long-winded rant. Resisting the temptation to respond is tough, especially after that second glass of wine or third shot of espresso but we must show restraint. Try to think of a constructive way to voice your disagreement, if you can’t think of a good way then it would be wise to move on with your day and just leave well enough alone. A good rule of thumb if you are in a heated dialog is to write your response and take some time away from your computer to reflect. Come back to your post, re-read it and decide if you still really want to enter the rabbit hole. Consider the source of the comment. If it is someone who has a propensity to goad posters into an argument, don’t give them the satisfaction they are seeking

Reaching Common Ground

One of the strengths of the coffee industry is that it is home to a diverse group of people and  a broad spectrum of opinions. How we choose to word our opinions and, more importantly, how we react to other voices, dictates the tone of our collective conversation. There are a growing number of very important issues facing the coffee community and our digital network will be a most important venue for the conversations.

As Tom Robbins wrote in Another Roadside Attraction:  “Our Similarities bring us to a common ground; our differences allow us to be fascinated by each other.” If we enter each conversation with this in mind, we can make the most of our opportunity to shape the direction of specialty coffee.

Tim Dominick joined the roasting team at Sacred Grounds Coffee in Arcata, Calif. in 2000 and entered the online realms of coffee discussions after meeting a group of forum members at the first Roasters Guild Retreat. A long-time resident of the seaside hamlet of Moonstone Heights, if he is not digging in the garden he is watching the waves with his daughter, Hazel.