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The anti-social social beer app

January 27, 2015

Untappd antisocial copyWith a beer in each hand, I sat and tasted what was a pretty damn good ale. Before anything else, I pulled out my phone and opened an app to upload a photo, rank the beer and submit my review. Throughout what had become a two minute ritual I had unintentionally but entirely ignored my girlfriend sitting across the table. The look on her face told me it was time to delete Untappd.

On the surface, Untappd has quite a useful premise. Launched in 2010, the beer drinking app was created to help avid craft beer drinkers “discover and share your favourite beers”. With a tagline of “Drink Socially”, its creators hope users will find and explore new beers and places to drink them in.

But I, like many I’ve spoken to, rarely used it for such. Instead it became a catalogue of my past endeavours and a routine I felt compelled to fulfil with every beer I drank. To be fair, it was useful in the early days as a record of my favourite beers, especially trying to recall them later after one too many 6% IPAs.

But the harmless fun quickly turned into a red flag shortly after when we arrived for a session at Red Hill Brewery. A wave of anxiety washed over me when I saw my phone had no reception. Without a 3G connection, I wouldn’t be able to record a beer available only at the venue. Thankfully I discovered the free WiFi and earned a badge I had been trying to get for a while.

And herein lies the bigger problem with Untappd; badges.

Product developers, and more recently marketers, call it ‘gamification’. The technique of using elements from gaming to enhance what would otherwise be a mundane task. The relatively new concept was first made popular by Foursquare, the check-in app which allows users to compete for Mayorship of venues, encouraging repeat usage. Untappd brings its own gamification through badges, earned by completing tasks such as checking-in to three venues in an evening (Brew Crawl badge) or drinking ten Australian beers (Down Under badge).

What creators of these tactics often label as loyalty or retention strategies, they would be better described as addiction. And a meaningless one at that. These virtual rewards do nothing except release a small dopamine kick, leaving the user with a feeling of satisfaction despite its value being entirely artificial. By rewarding a user for earning the Lay Over badge (for drinking five beers at an airport) it creates a false assumption that it’s something we should feel proud to achieve.

Our need for this instant gratification has us wasting time (and ignoring our loved ones) for meaningless rewards that do nothing more than tell us – and others – that we’ve tasted twenty brown ales.

But gamification techniques work, and Untappd’s one million downloads and 300,000 check-ins every weekend are a testament to that. Sadly, with these figures comes a sense of importance within the craft beer community. Anecdotally I’ve hear stories of brewers using the app as a channel for feedback. Again on the surface it sounds healthy – listening (and hopefully responding) to constructive criticism from your consumers. But that’s not how the internet works, with feedback rarely being anything close to helpful, especially from a skewed niche audience. Surely a brewer obsessing over his or her 3 out of 5 rating has better things to be doing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for praising and sharing the great beers we drink and the brewers who craft them. But a quick glance around the pub these days will highlight already the number of people with their heads down a blue light splashed across their face. We don’t need another reason for people to be on their phones.

If we spent a little less time earning useless badges and cataloguing our beers we might even enjoy them a little more. Or god forbid, taking in the moment and talking to those around you (even if it is about the beer).

Let’s not forget to stop and smell the hops.

What do you think? Is there anything less social than  social media, or are apps such as Untappd a bonus for beer drinkers? Let us know in the comments…


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6 Responses to The anti-social social beer app

  1. Axel on July 10, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    I don’t think this article is aimed for people who don’t care about badges and who can honestly say that the app doesn’t interfere with their in real social life.

    I started using the app just a week ago during a trip to Belgium where I did a lot of beer sampling. I had no idea there were badges, I just wanted a quick and simple way to keep track on which beers I like, nothing more.

    Then I got that first Newbie badge, it was a pleasant surprise, it felt good. Then I got Belgian Holiday, Weekday Warrior, Taste Crazy and Take It Easy… And they all felt really good. I was hooked. It even felt good getting the Independence Day badge even though I’m not from the US. I couldn’t care less about the American independence day, but the badge… Ah, yes, the badge.

    It quickly went from just a simple notebook about beers to an, somewhat, addiction. Yesterday I found myself interrupting a conversation with a friend just to check-in this one beer… And then a second one… A third one… And then just one last time…

    Now I’m aiming for The Alcoholic badge – “You’ve been drinking everyday for 3 months now!”
    (And that’s a joke, I don’t think there is such a badge, should be though)

    Well, I believe that this is what the author addresses. The article is aimed for persons like me, and there are a lot of us!

    I’m going to take Darren Magin’s advice with me, do the check-ins when back at home. And hope that the feeling of novelty about this app and the badges will go away.

    And a question to anyone who says that the problem isn’t the app but how people uses it, do you reason in the same way when it comes to, for example, guns and heroin? Should heroin be legalized based on the same argument? I’m not looking for an in depth answer to these questions, I just want to point out that our huge societies are more complex than a liberal thought. We all draw arbitrary lines whether it’s about shooting heroin, the right to own a gun, smoking tobacco or, in this case, using a social app.

    And don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to criminalize any apps, social networks or change any opinions about guns, heroin etc. I just want to say that opinions are complex stuff and that I think it’s good that this article reminds us about addiction. Some of us get addicted to things, some don’t. If you’re one who easily get addicted to apps and similar things, you might want to read this article a bit more thoroughly and keep the message back in your head. If you’re not that kind of person, good for you, keep up the check-ins! I’ll surely do it, at least until I get bored and start looking for another kick!;)

    And on last thing, if someone from UNTAPPD is reading this. I think it could be a good idea to be able to turn off the badges, or at least put them on “mute” or something. Give people a choice to be in the “game” or not.

  2. Luke T on January 27, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    You raise some interesting points, but I strongly disagree.

    Firstly, like the other comments here, I’ve got zero interest in badges. I use it as a tool to quickly keep track of beers I like. The near complete list of beers makes data entry very quick.

    Secondly, it’s a great tool to find nearby bars that serve good beer when you’re travelling. Just look at where is trending in the check in feed.

    Thirdly, I’ve had two lovely interactions with brewers through the app that warned my heart more than an imperial porter.

    In short: clever beer apps don’t upset girlfriends, inattentive boyfriends do.

  3. Nick on January 27, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    As with any social media platform, whether it be Facebook, Twitter, or Untapped, the problem is not the website or app but in how people choose to use it.

  4. Justin on January 27, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    I use Untappd regularly, but I don’t “Badge Chase”. To be honest I don’t even know what badges are available, or which ones I have already “earned”. But where I found Untappd most useful was for casting my vote in your Hottest 100…I just open Untappd, sorted my beer list by my rating, and it helped remind me of which beers I loved the most over the last year. I ended voting for a beer I hadn’t drank for 7 months!

  5. Darren Magin on January 27, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    It’s easy to fall foul of being antisocial with Untappd but there’s also nothing wrong with checking beers in later – when you get home from the pub. There are no rules that state check-ins must occur straight away whilst drinking the beer in question. Problem solved!

  6. Mitch on January 27, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    Of all the people i know that used untappd not one gives a shit about the badges. sure it might take 20-30 seconds to check in a beer but it usually strikes up a conversation about the beer I’m drinking

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