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A Social Exchange

January 13, 2012

Somewhat tied into my previous post on social media is a current pet project of mine. You see, I'm a graduate student currently, having tried and failed to obtain a job after earning my undergraduate degree in New Media Design(recession?). As such, I've learned that I need to stand out more as an individual, as my degree can only make me look as good as the next guy with the same credentials. So, I've been looking for opportunities to "strut my stuff," and ways in which I can combine my disciplines and interests in a thoughful and meaningful manner. Not too long ago, I saw a call for speakers for 140Cuse, an extension of the social media conference known as 140conf. Knowing that I have an interest in the topic, as well as my own insights to share, I signed up, thinking I have until April to really iron out the details of my talk. Seeking advice, I turned to one of my professors at the University, who happens to teach social media, and has plenty of experience giving talks on the subject, inluding presenting to the US Senate. I figured, hey, who better to ask for advice than the fellow who's basically a guru? So I met with him, I pitched him my idea about presenting basically what I said in my Social Media in Specialty Coffee post, and brewed a Chemex of my home roast to incentivize the sit-down. That's when he told me I was way off-base with my idea.

Apparently, 140conf has a lot more to do about storytelling than presentation. The 10-minute time limit per person helps cut down on the windbags who have tons of analysis to present, and forces speakers to cut to the heart of their experience, increasing the value of each presentation (it also weeds out the people who don't have a point to their story). He told me that I was clearly passionate about coffee, and that I really just needed to shift my presentation to something more about an experience than an evaluation. We joked about showing up in people's kitchens first thing in the morning, when they're disheveled and  vulnerable, to make them a terrific cup of coffee with great presentation. This sort of idea would be clearly staged, though, as the whole breaking and entering thing wouldn't fly in most households, no matter how good the brew was. When we parted ways, I still hadn't had a concrete idea of what I could do - that instead came a few weeks later.

One of my professor's comments stuck with me after our meeting, which was that I had brought a very simple and approachable brewing kit with me. Between my electric kettle, a Chemex, a scale, and a Hario Buono, I really only had about $150 worth of equipment with me, though a few items were multipurpose. It struck me that, while many people may appreciate a good cup of coffee at Intelligentsia or Counter Culture, they may feel like all the choreographed and practiced maneuvers behind the counter are out of their league. Having brewed one-on-one with my professor, he showed a lot of interest in what I was doing and why, and my explanation appeared to be clear and relevant. At this realization, I understood that replicating this meeting with oter individuals - from fellow students and professors to complete strangers - would be incredibly easy for me to set up, and likely interesting to a good many that I'd meet with. But "traveling barista", to me, is not a strong social topic. It was a pro bono service model, where I basically just share my knowledge with anyone who would listen. But, I wouldn't want to make them pay for the experience; not only would that feel wrong, but it would result in a lot of blowback from campus administration, I'm sure. Instead, I thought I could add the social aspect back in, and make this more about an exchange of something. My wares are my coffee and my knowledge on the subject, which can be exchanged for essentially anything the other party thinks is worthwhile. Baked goods, a screen printed poster, a life story, a painful experience, a fond memory - these would be the social currency that I would consider barter-worthy, and I'm sure the list would be extensive.

While I haven't executed on this project yet, as I'm still working on branding and logistics, I feel very good about it. I think there's a lot of potential here, and I'm almost positive that I can generate some very good stories from the experience. And the best part is that it's steeped in social experience. Not only will it be fulfilling to me for my presentation, but it will provide me with diverse perspective through conversation, and the exchange of this social currency. I think this is something that's too often overlooked, as evidenced by the loner crowds in today's cafes. I'm not against people working at a cafe in particular - I know how productive a change of scenery can be - but there's something left to be desired by a dozen tables taken up by individuals with laptops. Coffee houses used to be community gatherings, where people met to update their friends on their lives, to gossip, to engage. I just want to bring a bit of that back, one (or maybe two or three) person at a time.

Now, the one thing that I'm really struggling with is the name: all the best fits are taken! My current working title is Social Brew, as it can imply a meeting and infusion of ideas, but I'm not sold on it. The use of "social" in a social project feels forced.  I need to get this up and running soon though, so Social Brew may be it until I can think of something better later on. Thoughts?






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