Monday, August 20, 2012

Rating, Beer, and Sports

I had a bit of a "Eureka!" moment this morning. I had SportsCenter on in the background while getting ready for work, and a segment about which college football teams were the most overrated/underrated. Those words, like "hype", have become something of a dogwhistle for me, indicating that the speaker doesn't understand what words mean. This is because, like "hype", 99% of the time someone uses them in the context of beer they're using them incorrectly.

But, of course, in this context it absolutely fine. The preseason rankings just came out. No one has played a game, but teams have already been ranked according to expectations (and hype!). So of course someone can be overrated or underrated. Saying "Oklahoma is overrated" means that their final ranking will be lower than their current ranking. Same with "Oregon is underrated", that's a prediction that they will finish higher than their current placement. (Those were the talking head's picks, not mine.) And, crucially, this will be tested on the field. These teams will have to play games in order to earn their spot. My alma mater's coach has apparently said (paraphrasing) that preseason polls should be printed on toilet paper, because then they'd have a use. And he's right! Without playing any games it's an exercise in masturbation, driven by humanity's bizarre need to talk about the unknowable future. So it's clear what over/underrated means in this context, that a team won't win/lose as many games as their ranking says they should, and thus won't be ranked as high/low at the end of the season. Pointless prognostication, yes, but at least there's a clear meaning.

Now, when you say that a beer is overrated, what are you saying? The only rankings beers have are the cumulative review statistics on the review sites. Can those be wrong in any sense? I can't envision the case for this happening. All those reviews purport to do is measure what the community at large thinks of a beer. That's not something that can actually be wrong. And the rankings don't purport to tell you who is more likely to win beer judging competitions or anything like that (although they'd actually probably do a decent job on aggregate). Calling Westvleteren 12 "overrated" isn't the same thing as calling Oklahoma "overrated". Oklahoma could lose to Baylor or Iowa State or Texas. Westy 12 isn't going to be upset by Mortification or Pannepot. That doesn't make any sense! And it's not a prediction that the aggregate rating is going to go down with time, because there's no clear mechanism by which that could happen, and no clear timeline on which to judge. (And it tends not to happen, ratings are actually pretty constant through time, at least when I've looked at them.)

So what does the speaker mean? The only plausible interpretation is "I like this beer less/more than its review average would indicate." The only response to which is, "Congrats! Go review it and then shut up about it." That your tastes don't line up with a community as a whole isn't unexpected, surprising, or meaningful. As with the ridiculous overuse of "hype" in the beer scene, the use of "overrated" is clearly just an attempt to demean something. I mean, saying "Westy 12 is overrated" is clearly an insult to it and the people who like it, while "I enjoyed Westy 12 less than the aggregate scores would indicate that I should have" isn't. But when someone says the former, they really mean the latter! That's the only possible thing you can mean. (Unless, of course, you're actually claiming that there's a conspiracy to drive the ratings of something higher, which can certainly happen but is rare enough to not be worth talking about, especially not without any kind of actual statistical evidence.)

Like "hype", I'd love to see this carry-over from sports cease to be used in beer discourse. Like "hype", I'm fully aware that won't happen. Oh well.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Hyping Hype

One of my crusades recently in online beer communities has been against the word "hype". I'll discuss my rationale below, but if you're the impatient, TL;DR type, I'll summarize here:

1) It's being used incorrectly (this is actually fairly minor).
2) Using it that way corrodes discussion and inhibits clear thinking (major).

I'll explain.

Prescriptivist Poppycock

First, let's start with a dictionary definition. I loathe doing this because I think that, in general, any literate adult should be able to tell you roughly what a word means, but we may as well go to the "authorities". My favorite method is to use the google search "define:foo" which leads to these results:


  1. Extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion.
  2. A hypodermic needle or injection.

  1. Promote or publicize (a product or idea) intensively, often exaggerating its importance or benefits.
  2. Stimulate or excite (someone): "I was hyped up because I wanted to do well".
Now, it's clear that the meanings we're dealing with are both of the #1's (although you could sort of make a case for verb #2, I don't think it really makes sense in pretty much any context, and really needs to be followed by "up"). And both of those explicitly mention "publicity" or "promotion", as well as "extravagant", "intensive", or "exaggerating". It is completely clear that "dudes talking about a beer on a beer website" aren't meeting this definition. Saying your opinion of something, even in hyperbolic terms ("that was the best beer ever!") isn't promoting/publicizing something intensively, let alone extravagantly. Maybe you're exaggerating (although if it's your honest opinion then you're obviously not, by definition everyone has had a "best beer ever" so stating yours is just stating an opinion), but unless you're doing this repeatedly (to meet "intensive") then it's not hype.

So what does meet this definition? Well, typically any publicity push by a company will at least get close. Bud Lite or Dos Equis are obviously hyped. Even in the craft beer world it does happen. One could accuse Shelton Brothers of hyping Westvleteren 12 in advance of their shipment of it to the US later this year (I think that's debatable, but regardless, it's a reasonable case). ONCEMADE was absolutely hyped. At the time of the launch I said that it was a fantastic example of hype in the craft beer world. It was a product that wasn't really all that different from dozens of other products that had a big marketing push (publicity/promotion) using over-the-top (exaggerated) language, and it showed up all over the place in a short time span (intensive).

I hope that illustrates why calling something like, say, Pliny the Elder/Younger or Heady Topper (or most other craft beers) "hyped" is using the word incorrectly. There's no intense publicity, no exaggeration, no extravagance. There are just beer fans enjoying a beer and  talking about it. You might disagree, and you're free to (taste is subjective, after all), but their expressed enjoyment of something is not hype, it is praise.

(This is a tangent, but I wanted to include it. While it's not in the definitions I think a very important part of thinking about hype is asking, "Who benefits?" If I go on Beer Advocate and make a post about how Pliny is the best beer ever, there's no way in which I benefit. First, pretty much everyone on BA already knows about Pliny, I'm not actually spreading the word to anyone new. Second, even if I were, what do I gain? It's an off-the-shelf beer, already very well known, it won't trade any better. I also won't gain financially. If anything increased awareness will just make it harder for me to buy! The same is true of most beers that people consider "hyped". Really, when you're talking about BA or /r/beer the posts that could be hyping are the ones talking about a great new local place with hard-to-get stuff (think Funky Buddha), but even then it's probably just genuine praise, not an attempt to inflate trade values (although it could also be homerism, that's beyond my scope right now). I think that's something valuable to keep in mind, "Who benefits?")

Damaged Discourse

This is my real problem with the overuse of the word "hype".  What do I mean by it? I don't mean that people are using a word incorrectly and the English language is suffering (if she has survived the sling and arrows of the recent past, she'll continue doing just fine). What I mean is that calling something "hyped" is an accusation. The word has clear negative connotations. When people use it they are implying that something is not as good as its reputation, that its reputation is fluffed up by the hype. It's also accusing the people who have praised it of either being taken in by the hype (and thus being unsavvy saps) or of actively fueling the hype, and thus being pawns (or worse, hypers).

Lest you think I'm being paranoid or overly sensitive here, I'm not. I don't actually give two shits if someone accuses me of hyping something. If they do, I'll explain why I'm not, but I'm not particularly insulted by it. This isn't a personal quest because I'm just a Sally-sensitive. Those effects are real and they are poisonous to sensible discourse. It means that people are forced to defend not only their opinion of the thing, but also their motives for holding that opinion. It removes the benefit of the doubt. This is bad. Maintaining the benefit of the doubt and assuming good intentions are critical to having a reasonable, respectful discourse, especially over text, where tone and visual cues are missing.

That's my biggest problem with the over-use of the word hype. It creates a situation where accusations are flying, people are put on the defensive, motives are constantly questioned, and communication degrades.

What To Do

So, what would I like to replace the word "hype" with? Most of the time you can sub in "praise" without any issues. One use of "hype" where that doesn't work is the "hype train" effect, where beer forums (especially trading forums) are inundated with discussion (usually ISO/FT posts or discussion thereof) of the new beer. This is corrosive in the same way, implying that the beer (and those trading it) are not worth the attention. Honestly, I think that this should just vanish from our discourse. Human beings like trends, everyone knows this, beer is no exception. That the forums are populated by posts about a flavor of the month for a few days every few weeks isn't surprising in the least, nor is it bad in any meaningful way. Even though I earlier used the word "inundated" these posts are rarely the majority of posts on a board. It might be a bit hard to ignore, but it's not like there's nothing else going on. I'd like to see people accept this, move on, and bury the phrase "hype train".

Where Does This Come From?

One thing that I'd still like to discuss is why this use of "hype" is so prevalent. My belief is that it comes from sports discussions. The difference there is that because of the enormous media presence, things really are frequently hyped. Tim Tebow is hyped. RG3 is hyped. As much as the Stanford fan in me hates to say this, as of now Andrew Luck is hyped. It's true that these guys generate discussion on forums in the same way beer does (although on a much bigger scale for sports), but the presence of media actively fueling the fire is what sets sports discussion apart. Hype sells for them in a way it just doesn't for craft beer. Hype gets eyes on ESPN, readers on the various news websites, listeners on the radio. Those things bring advertising dollars. The hype machine directly benefits the people doing the hyping.

Since there's a pretty large overlap between people who are into sports and people who are into beer, the language translates. The problem is that when you have a lot of people talking about a beer, you're not in the same situation as when you have a lot of people talking about an athlete. In the latter case the media is driving the discussion, and they're doing it to get your attention and therefore money. In the former case it's just a bunch of dudes who are passionate about something. But the fact that they're so superficially similar (ie "Everyone's talking about Tim Tebow" and "Everyone's talking about Heady Topper") makes the comparison easy. But it's also lazy, and it's wrong.

That's the end of my rant about hype.