Warning: Long Post
I’m taking an intermission from my On the Road series of posts to reflect on the smartphone app Untappd and how it has affected my perception of beer and my habits in regard to it. I’m a relative latecomer to Untappd, and to smartphone technology in general – I got my first smartphone just a year ago and started using Untappd in February. I probably haven’t figured out all of the best uses for the app yet, but have definitely seen both positive aspects for as well as drawbacks from its use.
Untappd’s creators describe the app as a social media app for beer drinkers: it’s like Instagram, a database, and a (drinking) game all rolled into one. The general layout of Untappd’s functionality is very similar to Instagram, and like IG your posts – which are called “check-ins” – appear in your feed, along with the posts of the other Untappd users you follow. You check in when you have a beer, and your check-in includes what beer you’re having, and may include where you’re having it (location), your own rating and description, and a photo (Untappd includes filters and photo editing functions like IG). Your followers may toast (like) your check-in and/or comment on it (and vice-versa).
The occasion of this post is my “achievement” of 200 distinct beers logged in Untappd since I began using it, for which I received the “Master” badge above. Untappd users receive badges when they pass milestones set by the app in different categories. There are many categories for which badges are awarded, that fall under three general headings: Beer, Location, and Special. To earn a badge you must have a specified number of beers that fit the description specified by that badge. Some of the Beer badges are awarded for total distinct check-ins – at 25, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, and the Elite badge: 2,500 brews. You also “earn” badges for how many different IPAs, or New Zealand, or pumpkin beers you drink, etc. There are currently 57 possible badges in the Beer category, and many of them can be “leveled up”. Most of the badges are straightforward but some are quirky and fun too, like the Take It Easy badge (got it) or Top of the Mornin (not yet).
Location badges are awarded for beers had at specific venues, and in some cases at specific times, e.g. check in 10 beers between 5-10 pm on weekdays in a month to earn the Happy Hour Hound badge, or check in at 5 different breweries to earn Find the Source.
The Special badges are just that: badges for special events (like the World Pint badge I was awarded this week for drinking beers from two different countries competing in the World Cup) or calendar days (St. Patrick’s Day or Mardi Gras). Special badges, with a few exceptions, can only be earned within a specified period of time, and are then retired. Many Special badges are earned by attending beer festivals or by drinking specified beers – yes, these badges are marketing schemes.
To manage all these check-ins Untappd has an ever-growing database of distinct beers. For the purposes of the app the details included for each beer are limited (brewery, location, style, ABV, IBU) but it does also include the average rating for the beer by other Untappd users and you can scroll through and read their reviews. Wiki-style, users may contribute to the database by entering information for beers not found. Home brewers may even set up their own home brewery as a recognized brewery in the database – fun!
I have enjoyed the social media aspect of the app, occasionally. It’s fun to see what a buddy or one of my brothers checked-in, and toast them and have a short exchange. I’ve learned about a few beers this way too. If you’re reading this and you use Untappd, follow me! I’ll follow you back. My username is phirx of course.
The database aspect of the app has been the most useful, especially with my work on this blog. Theoretically it is a good way to keep the record of the beers I’ve had and my own ratings and thoughts about them (Untappd’s five star system and phirx 1-10 are the same system), and I have used it this way. Sometimes I want to write down more than will fit in the comment field and unfortunately, a user’s check-ins are not searchable (at least I haven’t been able to figure out how to do it), one may merely scroll through them in reverse chronological order. The app can be a quick source of information about a beer in a pinch – and I use it as a reference this way frequently – but often the data is incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate, especially with entries from smaller independent brewers.
Socially, the app can be a distraction. Although hanging out with people who are constantly fiddling with their phones has become a cliché of modern American social dynamics, I am increasingly beginning to dislike my own participation in it after one year with a smart phone in my pocket. If I am going to drink more than a couple beers I have begun writing my notes in a notebook the old-fashioned way, and entering them in Untappd later. I like having a notebook to look over more than hunting through Untappd and I am not restricted to the app’s format for my comments.
The badges are fun but: this “game” aspect of the app is insidious and can subtly or overtly affect the choices the user makes about what beer to drink, and when, and where, and how much. One Untappd user I follow vowed never to drink the same beer twice when he started using the app. He currently has checked in 2255 distinct beers, most of which I have never seen or heard of. He has racked up 234 badges (I have only 76) including a very impressive array of retired Special badges.
Some time ago a Special badge appeared for users who checked in a Magic Hat Dream Machine IPL during a specified time. I have enjoyed many Magic Hat beers so I bought a six-pack and was awarded the badge after I checked in. However, I didn’t like the beer very much. I felt like a sucker. That was the last time I paid any attention to the badges until after I had been awarded one. I made a conscious decision that I did not want earning an electronic badge to have any sway over my decision of what beer to drink, whether it was achieving a certain numbers of beers in one category or the more obvious badge (bribe) paid for by a brewery as an advertisement/marketing ploy.
It will be interesting to see how Untappd, and my use of it, evolves. I have learned a lot about craft beer from using it and enjoyed interactions with others who use it. Yet the limitations and implications of the app itself have pushed me back towards using pen and paper. Like all technology, the challenge is to learn to master it, and not be mastered by it.