Friday, October 2, 2009

Coffee, candy bars, and Facebook

(They look really good, but DrTom has no clue what kind they are.  When he orders a coffee, he says "Give me a coffee.")

The Facebook (FB) phenomenon amazes me.  Of course, there are many aspects of it that we all marvel at and puzzle over.  It is really neat to be able to connect and reconnect with friends and family all over the world, and keep them up to date with our lives.  We would never write enough letters to do this, or even talk to them often enough on the phone to accomplish the same amount of information transfer.  My sons and I regularly insult each other in that public forum, for example, but I would never take the time to call them a "dickhead" in a hand-written letter, or call them up just to say "your mother wears combat boots". Whoa!  I guess that would be my wife.

In addition to our friendly "hellos" to one another, many FBers are obviously trying to sell something, or to inform us about a topic that is important to them---a social issue, like poverty or global climate change.  They want to tell us what is happening on these fronts and they hope to motivate us to some kind of action.  It is truly difficult to imagine a system that could alert more people in less time than a social networking site like FB, so it is tempting to use it to pass on messages, links, and photos that are near and dear to our hearts.  Alas, it is also not uncommon to read posts that are about as inane as one can get: "I'm bored", or "time to sleep", or "Guess what?", etc.  You know what I am talking about, and you know who you are.  But this just comes with the territory.

However, the most curious FB site I have found so far is Starbucks.  Many commercial enterprises have a page on FB, and the size of their fan base must be an indication of how popular that particular store or product is in the real world.  Target has 535,000 fans, Butterfinger has about 300,000, while the most popular Sears Group page I can find has only a couple of hundred fans.  (There is often more than one Group page for well-known names.)  Starbucks Group page has over 7 million fans!  Think of that.  A number that nearly equals the population of the New York City area bothered to find and join a FB site that is all about coffee.  What could all those people have to talk about, because at a site like Starbucks, no one knows anyone else?  What they have in common is that they apparently love Starbucks coffee, and they are willing to proclaim it to the world.

Please indulge me a moment as I go to the Starbucks site right now, where I will copy some of the posts there to paste here: "I love Starbucks.. BEST COFFEE EVER", "I'm a Cafe Mocha, Decaf, kind of gal!", "venti caramel frap", "Im loving it frappe mocha", "My new favorite. A grande quad skinny vanilla latte... Yum!", "caramel frappaccino w/ extra shot of caramel can get me through the worst day", "Mmmm - Peppermint mocha", "I LOVE Love Love Starbucks!! ♥", "Java Chip Frappchino Light.....YUM", etc., etc., etc.  At the Butterfinger page, posters simply tell everyone they just ate a candy bar.

Starbucks' management must absolutely love this self-perpetuating advertisement love-fest, and they must love FB for establishing this social network. (By the way, click on the title of this blog if you want to go to the Starbucks FB to which I am referring.  There are many of them, but this one is the biggie.)  Thousands of posts per day on that site, going on 24/7, telling perfect strangers either how much they love Starbucks products or which flavor is their favorite.

The question that intrigues a former student of behavioral ecology like me is why people post on a FB site like Starbucks.  My best explanation is that this is a format for being recognized, however insignificant it may be.  Facebook and other similar sites call what we do here "publishing".  When I am finished writing this post, I press a button, you can see what I wrote, and it is then considered "published", in internet jargon.  As a former academic, I think this is pretty amusing.  In academia, we work for years to collect data and analyze it, write a scientific paper based on those data, have our peers tear the paper apart, rewrite it a few times, submit it to a scholarly journal where it is torn apart some more and, if fortunate, it is eventually accepted for publication.  Good journals reject about 70% of the papers submitted to them.  If accepted, you are sent a bill for what is called "page charges".  These charges, which you pay for out of your research money, can be $125 per page of journal occupied.  That kind of publication takes a great deal of effort, and if you are lucky, maybe a few dozen other scientists will read what you wrote.  But here, anyone can be published in a millisecond, at no cost whatsoever.  And you can say anything you want, as long as it is relatively clean, even if you fabricated the idea out of thin air.  And that little publication, complete with name and photo, could be read by thousands.

Most people will go through their entire lives and never have their thoughts or written words heard by anyone outside of their immediate circle of friends and family.  The potential to have your voice heard far and wide is huge on the internet.  The fact that I may only be telling the world that I like mocha frappuccino is better than nothing and, I suppose in the case of the Starbucks example, there is a weird kind of camaraderie knowing that you are communicating with a group of 4 million people who like the same drink.

DrTom also has his motives for publishing on these FB sites.  I seek out FB sites regardless of their content that have lots of members because, to be perfectly honest, I am trolling for new readers of this blog.  A typical post of mine on the Starbucks site would be something like, "Get yourself a cup of Starbucks coffee, and then read about my black lab at"  The more members the site has, the more likely I am to pick up a reader or two.  Why I want you to read my blog is the more interesting question, and I might explore that more in the future.  In the meantime, get yourself a nice hot cup of pumpkin mocha latte and reread this post.  Dig deeply, and tell me why you publish on FB.  If you don't publish there, the reason you don't could be even more interesting.

(Almost every cup of coffee that DrTom drinks is made at home with fair trade, organic French Roast beans ordered online from Cafe Britt. He makes it one cup at a time using an Italian Bialetti.  As they say on the FB Starbucks page, "Yummy".)


  1. an interesting view of starbucks and what that world looks like, of course, I do love your blogs and read them first as they are always interesting.7

  2. Dr. Tom,
    Unfortunately I don't drink coffee, so they won't let me near the Starbucks FB site.
    What size combat boots?

  3. Since you like coffee, grab a mocha, sit down and enjoy some poetry about coffee.