The Failure of First

The Failure of First

There is an obsession with being first in our culture that I find increasingly troubling and frustrating. This isn’t just coffee specifically, I find it throughout various industries and professions.

Journalism has long chased the scoop – the story that no one else has. In the past a scoop wasn’t simply a story that no one else had – it was also revelatory, bringing something hidden to light. Today it is mostly just saying something (or posting a photo of something, or claiming something) before anyone else does.

Journalism has undeniably changed because of the internet. The frustration with the internet is its revenue model – we’re all eyeballs to advertisers. It’s not that we were in some golden age of journalism before, tabloid journalism has always been a horrible thing – and certainly no better than Gawker. The incentives in journalism have changed to writing something that gets as many eyeballs as possible, skewed through a world of analytics of page views and headline optimisation. Nothing gets eyeballs like a “first”, and as a result (and I’m not talking about coffee specifically here) accuracy and truthfulness have gone out of the window. Poorly researched inaccuracies, or salacious claims, can be retracted quietly on the same webpage once the wave of traffic dies back. It isn’t damaging because those eyeballs have moved on, and only the very few that care will revisit the story to see if it has been updated. There was a period of time where you’d often see people try to comment “first” first on a particular article, contributing nothing – simply attempting to claim some non-existent internet points. We all hoped it would go away, but I don’t think anyone wanted it to drift from the comments section up into the content itself.

Linkbait, the now omnipresent listicles, compendia of Buzzfeed-esque gifs, it’s all very…. amusing, but I miss being treated like an adult who might actually want to do some thinking. More information, less titillation. Sadly, there’s a reason why the Daily Mail’s website (which I will not link to) is so appalling well trafficked.

I am aware I have crossed the line into “shut up old man” territory. I’m aware that things change, that newspapers are dying, and there is no moral obligation to save them. I’m aware that the profession of journalism now exists in large part to see how far it can get away with stealing from those who still want practice it, or at least try to get them to work for free. You can argue that if people really wanted great journalism then they’d support it and champion it. The fetishization of longform writing is perhaps a counter to this, but that isn’t really what I’m talking about either. Enough about writing though…

Typically in coffee, we love a “first” when it comes to equipment, something I’ve never really understood. Being the first one in a town, state or country to carry a certain new piece of equipment seems to have gained a perceived value that I don’t believe is being realised or returned. I don’t believe that paying a premium in cash (or time without a fully functioning machine if you bought in beta) generates matching revenues. I don’t think enough people buy coffee because of the machine’s novelty to cover its costs.

The difference with technology is that there is a long precedent of “first” not really winning. This doesn’t stop technology companies launching very average products, barely out of beta, in an effort to be first to market. (I’m not talking about coffee specifically – just technology generally) Being first may give you something of an opportunity, but there is a better opportunity if you enter with a superior product later.

The same is true of ideas. We all want to be able to claim we were the first to do something, though in truth almost every interesting idea in coffee is derivative in some way (this is no bad thing) of another. There is no real ownership of a great idea, but there are definite advantages to executing a good idea well.

In coffee it isn’t unusual to see an older generation roll its eyes (in either frustration, exasperation or amusement) as the younger generation “discovers” something or “invents” something that they’ve seen or done long before.

My biggest worry is that the world of the “first” is very shallow indeed. Ideas aren’t really dug down into because everyone just wants to move onto a new one, rather than work towards a better iteration of an existing one. That is perhaps cultural, and on the upside I believe it leaves enormous opportunities for anyone willing to stick with something to really explore it. This isn’t a universal problem – some of the most interesting businesses and people to me in coffee are doing this: digging down, exploring and taking their time to work something through. I believe they’ll see continued success from this approach, and I look forward to seeing what they learn and where they end up.

I’m not really sure I’m going to make a definitive point here, it is just something that my brain has been chewing for a little while and writing for here is as good a way of any to start to process it a little more. I’ve missed writing on here recently, as most of my creative energy had to end up somewhere else for a while. I’ll share more about that in the not too distant future…