You know, we worry too much about the Punch-and-Judy show of political blogging, not to mention the quiet, relatively cobwebbed corner of the Internet occupied by self-declared academic blogs.
If you want a look at what blogs are really for, there’s a fantastically engaging dispute unfolding over a clash between a customer and a barista at a Washington DC coffee shop. The basic issue: the customer ordered espresso over ice. The barista said that espresso over ice was against store policy. The customer, irritated, ordered espresso and some ice. This was reluctantly given to him. When he prepared to pour his espresso over the ice, the barista said that what he was about to do was “Not Okay”. Customer is angry. Customer returns later and orders an iced Americano, which is ok by store policy. (Really not much different than an iced espresso, in my humble opinion.) Customer pays with a dollar bill upon which he has written a message for the store.
Here’s the original post from the aggrieved customer.
It turns out someone else witnessed the exchange.
The store owner replies (and then doesn’t allow comments, unlike the other two posts).
The comments, though, are the real payoff of the whole exchange. You get the inevitable smattering of metacomments from people who think the debate itself is irrelevant, sure. (I find this kind of comment incredibly annoying, by the way: the person who shows up to say, ‘How silly that you all have the energy to post about such things, or beat dead horses, etcetera.’ How silly does that make the metacommenter, then? He’s got the energy to post about people posting.) But mostly what you get are people making strong statements about the following subjects:
1. How espresso should be consumed.
2. How coffee in general should be consumed.
3. Whether businesses should have policies that dictate how customers consume what they buy.
4. How a service employee should behave.
5. How a customer should behave.
6. What the “real” motivation for the policy might be (to prevent something called a ‘ghetto latte’, where a customer orders espresso over ice and then adds 6 ounces of half-and-half himself for free)
7. The particular history of this particular business, including their problems with DC taxes.
8. Witnesses offering their reading of the way the two individuals in conflict actually acted (I think we’re up to three self-proclaimed witnesses, though the barista himself hasn’t said anything yet, I think.)
9. Whether it’s ever worth getting pissed off enough to write confrontationally on a dollar bill.
10. Whether the owner of a store should reply to a clearly non-serious threat of arson with a slightly less non-serious threat to punch a former customer in the dick.
Once you get into the thread, I think you’re going to end up with an opinion yourself. (For the record: I think it’s right that it’s not the best way to drink espresso though I don’t like iced coffee of any kind; it’s none of the barista or store’s business what someone does once they’ve ordered something and it’s stupid to have a prescriptive policy of the kind that the store has in the first place; the barista himself handled the situation badly; it was over the top to go back and hand in the defaced dollar: that’s what blogs are for.)
This is how culture gets made, transformed, and is made meaningful. An incident or moment breaks into the assumptions, ideas and orientations that govern everyday life and reveals that there are wide disparities between different people about shared experiences. The accidental character of the particular incident shapes the debate that follows. If Jeff Simmermon hadn’t reacted visibly to the barista at the store or had passively accepted the store policy while quietly fuming about it, the blog entry wouldn’t have drawn attention from BoingBoing. If the barista had initially suggested an iced Americano or shown good humor about the store’s policies, Simmermon probably wouldn’t have been irritated. Simmermon’s quotation of “Five Easy Pieces” gives readers a cultural anchor, and gives further nuance to the different reactions coming from readers.
Sometimes social scientists or humanists argue that stories and incidents serve as mirrors or as synecdoches, that they are a smaller, more concentrated way to view the whole of society. I think this story shows the problem with that perspective. Stories like the “Iced Espresso Incident” don’t reflect underlying social reality: they make it. People discover their own assumptions when reading about such an incident, discover that other people may have very different assumptions, and then modify, rethink, or strengthen the mental software that guides them through everyday life. The particular contours of the story that pulled back the casing of everyday life to reveal the wiring and infrastructure underneath lends unpredictable shape to those reactions. Change the particulars of the story, and you change the way that culture transforms in its wake.