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Digital Beer: Humans, Computers and Keepin' It Real

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Though digital beer apps are hardly new, the conversation surrounding their merit is just beginning. With apps like Tap Hunter, Untappd, Pintley and Taplister (not to mention hundreds of others), the world of digital beer is booming. These apps have been met with equal parts backing and backlash and the conversation surrounding them brings up bigger questions than simple surface squabbles. Indeed, it requires that we evaluate how we interact with beer and how we interact with each other.

The main debates about beer's Internet makeover center on alienation. To the technology lover, the regimen of posting up at the bar, whipping out an iPhone, checking into bars rating beers is simply part of the experience in today's digital world. For those who feel technology is a wedge between us, each other and our experience, the thought of a group of friends sitting at a bar silently tapping away on their screens is an aberration of human interaction. However, digital beer technology doesn't push us away from each other; it pulls us closer.

Before a real conversation about beer and digital technology can occur, a basic understanding of their function is necessary. Most of these apps have been diversifying of late. While they mostly started with one main function (updating tap lists, offering users the ability to rate beers they try, alerting others of special beers near them or creating a compendium of users' taste history) the big players have added those functions which they did not originally include in order to stay competitive. Most of these apps are location-based and involve a sort of leaderboard type standing system. They all maintain one goal -- to make beer more social in an internet age.

Some argue that beer is already as social as it needs to be. Sharing a real beer in real time with other people is the end game, they argue. Indeed, their value is well-placed, as there is likely nary a brewer who would argue that beer is only meant to be enjoyed alone. The experience of shared, real-time beer can indeed be transcendental: an experience in which problems are solved, connections are made and friendships strengthened. By this standard, those who oppose and those who support beer technology are closer to agreeing than they think. You can't always share a beer in real time with someone you care about. Digital beer apps offer the next best thing.

In our modern times, our friends remain more far-flung than ever. With interactions online stretching across the world, we can see beer technology as the means by which we share a real, meaningful experience in a global society. If I sit in the Tap Room and enjoy a nice pint with a friend and I then hop online, rate the beer and tag my friends in the as I do so, I offer them an opportunity to link into that valuable experience. While the online interaction may not be the real deal, it does allow us to tether to those experiences we deem important, meaningful and valuable. Our actions over social beer apps may be holograms of the real thing, but they do offer the chance to globalize our pint -- to share it with someone across the room or across the world.

To those naysayers, I understand where you're coming from. Digital beer apps are often seen as a needless wedge, a muddying nuisance in an overwrought world obsessed with the technological. However, it is this very technology that can help us broaden our experience to include those with whom we cannot be in real time. Digital beer apps don't call us to abandon the pub -- they call us to invite all our friends.