[Note: The original version of this post contained another paragraph that paraphrased the discussion on a Facebook group for whisky bloggers. While I had anonymized my references and not quoted anyone directly, some in the group expressed discomfort with that material being included. Since I don’t really want the focus of this to be diverted to that non-issue, I have edited the post to remove those references. Everything else is as it was before.]
When this blog was only about a month old I posted this long piece critiquing many practices and habits of whisky bloggers; it was simultaneously intended as a kind of manifesto and as a public check against any temptation I might feel to slide into the same habits/practices (post your standards publicly and it becomes harder to contravene them for convenience). Towards the end of the piece I said the following:
And finally, we need amateur bloggers to provide not just enthusiasm but that voice of skepticism that neither the industry or those who align themselves with it, explicitly or implicitly, can be relied upon to provide: to puncture industry p.r., to point out when importers and retailers get a little too carried away with their prices or marketing rhetoric, and most importantly to keep each other honest. This notion of a happy, fuzzy community of whisky enthusiasts sounds nice–who wouldn’t be for a happy, fuzzy community?–but it leads in practice, I fear, to a dilution of rigour and a blurring of the important fact that while whisky enthusiasts and whisky producers and sellers do not need to be at odds, their interests are not identical.
Around the same time I was invited to join a Facebook group of whisky bloggers and did so. While I generally stay out of discussions on the group–there’s only so many different places that I want to talk about whisky–a recent conversation caught my eye and made me think that the point above may bear repeating. In that conversation about networking etc. at whisky festivals and events I made the following comment:
I think the whisky blogging world would be far better if less networking happened.
Another blogger asked what exactly I meant by this. This was my response:
What I mean, more or less, is that the networked community of bloggers who are constantly patting each other on the back and cross-promoting each other fail to keep each other honest or to keep a spirit of critique open for anyone other than approved outsiders (like Blair Bowman). And when their networking extends to industry figures whose products are then blogged about in that same back-patting, non-critical manner then there’s just a hint of (soft) corruption about all this fuzzy niceness too.
I do understand why the professionals–for whom this is not a hobby but a livelihood–need to network. but we also need to leave open some room to critique those networks as well.
This may seem to place me in the position of being against community and the shared experience of whisky which, like puppies and ice-cream, you can’t possibly be against (though puppy ice-cream, of course, we should all resist). So, I figured I would restate and expand on my views and do so here on this blog so as to open the conversation out to the larger whisky geekverse (or at least the tiny fraction of it that reads my blog from time to time).
I am not, of course, against either community or sharing whisky. In fact, I drink with friends often. I just don’t see what necessary relation this has to bloggers networking. Most bloggers presumably have lots of opportunities to share whisky with friends and are not restricted to whisky events and shows for the opportunity to do this. At least I hope they’re not. So feeling dubious about networking at whisky shows is not the same as being opposed to community or a shared experience of whisky. So what is it exactly that I am dubious about?
Let’s take the longer one first: hobbyist whisky bloggers networking with industry figures. [And here I should clarify that I see both distillery employees and marketing folk as well as professional writers and journalists as industry figures.] The problem here, I think, and I don’t think this can be a very original observation, is that in lifestyle journalism writers are far more embedded in the industry to begin with than they are in a critical relation to it. This is not a criticism per se; writing about whisky is not the same as writing about government corruption or geopolitics and I’m not suggesting the same investigative style should be appropriate for both (it’s a bigger problem really that political journalists behave like lifestyle journalists). Lifestyle journalists can’t question the industry very much because the publications they write for (mostly on a contract basis) are deeply reliant on the industry for advertising, materials etc.. Whisky journalism therefore functions mostly as a celebration of the whisky industry and everyone’s happy with the quality and quantity of reciprocal backscratching (or wanking, if you prefer).
But this is precisely where I think bloggers have the opportunity to open up room for critique that the industry–the distillery owners/marketers and the major publications–cannot or will not give us; to write about issues, and from perspectives, that don’t align with those of the industry. I’m not suggesting that this is what bloggers should write about all the time–I myself spend all my time writing fussy tasting notes that a handful of people read; but keeping the theoretical space open seems important. This independence and potential critical perspective is what it seems to me gets lost very quickly when bloggers so happily jump in the pool with the professionals; and indeed many bloggers seem happy to be co-opted in this way, it seems proof of their success that the industry acknowledges and “rewards” them with access. Here’s an example of this kind of muddied activity in progress:
A month or so ago on her blog Whisky Lassie, Johanne McInnis, who is also one of the perpetrators of the #WhiskyFabric meme, inaugurated a series on whisky writers with an interview of Dominic Roskrow. If you take a look you’ll see that this interview contains a “scoop”, presented in a very dramatic manner. To wit, that Roskrow is launching his own independent bottling concern named Discovery Road. There’s not a word in here about the question of the conflict of interest that raises itself re the fact that he will apparently continue to work with Whisky Advocate for whom he reviews whiskies, nor about the fact that he’s presumably already been reviewing whiskies for Whisky Advocate and others for a while now while building the industry relationships that allow him to break into independent bottling. It’s as though this thought has not even occurred to the genial Johanne who seems to see no role for herself here other than to help promote this undertaking. [It goes without saying, of course, that Whisky Advocate itself is yet to mention this.]
I hope it’s clear why I find this kind of thing objectionable; and I hope that it’s also clear that it’s hard to escape doing this kind of thing if you see yourself as part of a “community” that includes the people you might otherwise take a more judicious and critical look at.
Now, what do I have against whisky bloggers networking with each other? Not very much, actually, except that a) there’s already a tedious amount of groupthink in the whisky world and b) we need to hold each other to higher standards. Being tougher on ourselves is only going to result in better writing, more attention to ethics, and more interesting blogs in general. But even for a dick like me it’s hard to be tough on people when you’re meeting up and drinking with fellow bloggers, following and retweeting each other, relying on each other for readership, and generally keeping an echo-chamber of views and reviews going.
This, in more detail than anyone wanted, is why I think the whisky blogging world would be far better if less networking happened. Now please link to this post on Facebook and tweet it to all your followers.