Tag Archives: Coffee

Eating on the Wall

So I tend to go out to eat a lot, particularly when I end up back in Philadelphia (even if I’m there for only an hour and this is why). This is one of those central things my significant other and I agree upon, though I do sometimes frustrate her with my constant desire to eat a whole meal at literally any time of day.

As of the first paragraph, I’m actually doing that right now. For atmosphere, put this on in another tab, wait through the ad and the promo (because apparently noise can’t sell itself), and then come back. We can pretend to be in a coffeeshop together.

You done? Okay. Fiddle with the volume. I can wait. Ignore the sidebar–Youtube is trying to distract you with paid content.

All the time in the world here.
All the time in the world here.

Anyway, full disclosure: the S.O. uses Instagram (and no I don’t have the link to her profile). Her fascination with Instagram has made her a rather good photographer, doubtlessly in some small part due to a family tradition of taking artful pictures all the time. This practice extended to our frequent mealtimes, and created a ritual I have come to call Saying Hipster Grace. It this daily ritual, the adherents await the presentation of the meal, at which point the participants make a ritual ablution with their phones, where they aggressively rearrange the table to get all the food in frame and then use their cell phones to take a picture.

The food then begins to cool as they select filters and post to Instagram. A sigh of satisfaction signals the end of the ritual, as the picture uploads and the phone goes away.

My being rather agnostic about Saying Hipster Grace (I refuse to get baptized into Instagram, and just store pictures of good meals on my phone) is uncharacteristic and difficult to explain. In Standage’s terms, where we’re all Romans running down to the dock to get our mail (26), I’m the literate plebe that taught himself how to swim. I need data, all the time, and as many of you found out today, I’m constantly trying to keep my social media presence organized.

But I just won’t share my frankly spectacular meals on social media. Something about that just seems like oversharing, like Cicero tweeting from the restroom. And this makes me meditate on Standage’s assertions throughout Writing on the Wall that social media has, in some form, “been around for centuries” (250)–and I agree, it certainly has, even if sometimes his history chaffed the postcolonialist in me for being really traditional, Eurocentric and a bit self-fulfilling. But I can’t help but think that, as Standage himself notes, there’s something a little different this time around (239), something more pervasive, and more centralized (248).

My S.O.’s picture of cinnamon bun french toast from two days ago on Instagram was linked by 49 people in 4 hours, and by noon had been incorporated into the restaurant’s online marketing presence, all without her explicit permission. Like Cicero’s letters, she’s happy to have it reproduced and used (the dish was lovely, after all, and the attention is her gift to the restaurant), but unlike Cicero’s letters, her social media is being used for a pretty thoroughly centralized, wholly commercial end. This is Facebook Corporation via Instagram, not Cicero’s scribe, and breakfast ads don’t usually save the Roman Republic from ruin. Something is different here, but I’m not sure it’s just corporate centralization (one of Standage’s constant perils).

Super-Serious.
Super-Serious.

I take pictures of my best meals because I want to remember them, not to share them. I get the impression I’m carrying around a model of “what is important information” that Standage might attribute to the broadcast media age–that magically approved authorities like CNN (which constantly posts pictures of food) have a greater claim to talk about their lunch than I do. Sponsored results like the ones at the top right of the Youtube video I’m having you listen to, and the annoying voice-over at the beginning of the video, perpetuate this broadcast-privilege model of importance–the business that provides this service has more authority to sponsor or review than the average user, despite my profligate linking to things I like. Despite Standage’s closing note, I still feel like I have to “squeeze through the bottleneck of broadcast media” (250) despite not actually being dis-enabled from having that scale of web presence. This rebirth of social media is having some trouble shaking off its broadcast media phase, like a horrible Nazi-connected (202-203) puberty that has left its marks. That might be why a lot of people (and the language of twitter, with “followers”) imagine a me-as-central-broadcaster-to-audience model of social media, even though the constant desire for response and “likes” (and followers talking back) shows how this is different and interactional.

I guess, to declare my independence from broadcast-media thinking, I should take and post a picture of the cappuccino I was drinking in Elixr as I wrote that last paragraph, but I logged out the coffeeshop without logging in to take a picture.

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Making Time for “Coffee”

I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with Chrome Nanny. For those of you unfamiliar with this horrible brilliant device, it is an extension for chrome that you can program to limit your browsing of certain sites. During the semester, I have it set to only allow me to check Facebook, Reddit, and other similar sites for one or two minutes an hour. When I use up my allotted time, it provides me with this gentle reminder:

Oh so gentle.
Oh so gentle.

When Chrome Nanny reprimands me, I am reminded of the frivolous nature of these sites. Why would I be posting pictures of my dog on Facebook when the article I’m working on remains depressingly unfinished?

Because of that face, obviously. 

The internal dilemma I feel between social media and productivity is nothing new. As Tom Standage notes in Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 years, people felt the same ambivalence towards coffee shops in the seventeenth century. When discussing the initial reception of these caffeine driven hangouts, Standage explains how “[n]ot everyone welcomed the freedom of speech afforded by the new social forum, and some people worried that its compelling, information-rich environment, which provided an endless and addictive stream of trivia, gossip, and falsehood, was distracting people from more productive pursuits” (104).

Get back to work, Theobold!
Get back to work, Theobold!

Over three hundred years later, the feeling that we are wasting our time by engaging in “non-productive” conversations is one that continues to plague us. Indeed, the nagging feeling of squandering valuable time becomes the topic of conversation in an episode of Seinfeld from the mid-1990s.

But really, can’t we have coffee—or facebook conversations—with friends? Is social media merely a distraction? Obviously there are aspects to social media that are unarguably beneficial. As Tom Standage notes, social media has the ability to spread news, spark revolutions, and create a global community. But what about the rest? What about the status updates of mundane daily activities and excessive pictures of food?

Inquiring minds need to know.
Inquiring minds need to know.

Despite the fact that we all may feel compelled to block or unfollow people who are constantly bombarding us with details of their lives, I nonetheless think that the type of connections this level of sharing provides is valuable, and not simply a distraction. Rather, I think social media allows us to talk about the inane details of our lives—to “have coffee”—with our friends and family regardless of the physical distances that separate us. And as Jerry, George, and Elaine remind us, having coffee with your friends may not be such a waste of time after all.