With 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…