November 26 2011
In the increasingly close quarters of our global village, Europe is responsible for bringing at least three different substantive and prodigious professional wine journals to market over the last several years. Each is written by a ‘Who’s Who’ of wine experts. Meanwhile, stateside, the U.S. has experienced an explosion of pithiness with amateur wine writers writing online.
This juxtaposition becomes relevant after reading a recent post titled, “Are wine blogs going tabloid” by professional wine critic and writer Steve Heimoff. In his brief post, with a decidedly American point of view, Heimoff summarizes his thoughts with the rhetorical query, “Why do certain bloggers revert to sensationalist stories that don’t, in the long run, matter?”
Good question. The easy conclusion suggests that controversy and hyperbolically bombastic articles lead to attention and traffic.
Certainly, two recent books that I’ve been reading bear out this discouraging notion: Newsjacking: How to Inject Your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage and Celebrity, Inc.
Both books cover similar ground in examining how brands can subvert the 24-hour news cycle for business benefit and how the 24-hour news cycle has been subverted by celebrities using easy technology while leading our news culture into tabloidesque territory.
When considered with Heimoff’s point, it is an easy deduction to suggest that 1 + 1 does in fact equal 2 – the sensational does sell and, by proxy, online amateur wine writers are a reflection of our larger media culture.
However, in suggesting this, there is at least one bigger contextual point being missed as well as a caveat. First, it’s an exclusive view that doesn’t take in the totality of the global wine media village and second, while sensationalism may sell, the lascivious isn’t always what’s shared.
No, it seems our schadenfreude and more primal instincts are kept private, while our shock and awe comes to the fore, at least according to one study.
The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania recently examined the most emailed articles on the New York Times web site in March of this year (link initiates a PDF download), looking for the triggers for what causes somebody to share an article, what makes one thing more viral than another?
Their conclusion? Positive content is more viral than negative content, but both, in general, are driven by “activation” – the notion that high arousal (emotive pleasure or outrage) drives shareable content. According to the research abstract:
Content that evokes either positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions characterized by activation (i.e. high arousal) is more viral. Content that evokes deactivating emotion (sadness) is less viral. These results hold (dominance) for how surprising, interesting, or practically useful content is, as well as external drivers of attention.
This brings us back to my earlier mention regarding the European wine journals that have come to market in recent years. Simply, they’re an antidote to the U.S. proclivity for the vapid.
The World of Fine Wine, the family of Fine Wine magazines based in Helsinki and Tong based in Belgium all represent an Old World counterpoint to what can be deemed as the extemporaneous and superfluous coming from the New World.
As Tong publisher Filip Verheyden notes in the Tong manifesto (link initiates a PDF download) :
We live in times of “instant” gratification. If we want to talk to someone, we pick up our mobile phone wherever we happen to be. If we want to know something, we click an internet button. We’re going at 200 km per hour.
What we seem to forget in this race against time is the trustworthiness of this quickly-acquired knowledge, and that is something we have to find out for ourselves. But who takes the time to do it?
…The articles that appear in Tong demand the reader’s attention. You can’t read them fast and put them away; you have to take the time to understand. I’d say it takes an evening to read and think about each article. These are not issues to put in the recycling bin. Even after five years or more, each will continue to convey the essence of its theme…
The World of Fine Wine and Fine Wine magazine are both similarly endowed with length and verve.
My takeaway based on the Wharton research and the stunning dichotomy between what we’re seeing in the U.S. vs. European wine content is two-fold:
1) The sometimes sensational aspect of online wine writers, especially domestically, should heed the research and focus their pot-stirring ways on matters that provoke an emotional response from readers, ideally with a positive consequence – like HR 1161 for example instead of tired, lame attempted zingers aimed at Robert Parker.
2) In addition to a legacy sensibility about the nature and style of wine, the Old World is also drawing a culturally defining line in the sand in how they view and report on wine – it’s with substance, permanence and integrity.
The conclusion is anything but. However, as the world becomes a smaller place and the U.S. and our wine media becomes a part of the world chorus, losing lead vocal, I would hate for our place in the gallery to be rendered completely voiceless based on a lack of substance which is the seeming trajectory that we’re on.
It’s just a thought…