Meme Accounts Are the Coffee Industry's Conscience

Meme Accounts Are the Coffee Industry's Conscience
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For much of modern history, traditional news media played the role of critic and watchdog, the ‘fourth estate’ that served as a key check on power. Journalists at newspapers, and then radio and TV stations, investigated and exposed instances of corporate greed and political malfeasance with the public good in mind.

But in the last few decades, journalism has changed profoundly. Investment firms and billionaires have taken over once-revered organisations, newsrooms have been hollowed out, and the era of fake news reflects a growing mistrust of the media in general. The rise of social media—and the use of Facebook and now TikTok as news sources by many—has further eroded the audience base for traditional media. Meanwhile, the hollowing-out of local news has meant there are fewer ways to hold many companies and regional authorities to account.

Coffee is one such industry that often goes unscrutinised. With a few exceptions, coffee media is trade-focused and reliant on advertisers, which creates potential for conflicts of interest—it’s hard to be critical of companies that might also pay your bills. Meanwhile, the national news organisations that do report on issues within coffee don’t always have the expertise to truly understand the context around what they’re reporting. (Or even the basic terminology—I know they’re just trying to find different ways to say “coffee”, but every time I see Bloomberg or the Guardian use “java” or “cup of joe”, a little piece of me dies.)

But there is one place where industry criticism and pushback still happens—on a small scale, at least. These bold truth-tellers hold a mirror up to the coffee industry and poke fun at its largest players in a way that traditional news media just can’t, or won’t. They reach a broad audience, from at-home aficionados to burned-out industry veterans to whomever the algorithm decides should see their work. They’re funny, scathing, and sometimes completely inscrutable.

I’m talking, of course, about coffee meme accounts.

Extremely Online

The term “meme” was coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book ‘The Selfish Gene’ as a cultural parallel to biological genes. “Memes (discrete units of knowledge, gossip, jokes and so on) are to culture what genes are to life”, Dawkins wrote. “Just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes”.

The concept of a shared cultural idea that is passed down through the generations is probably as old as human communication, but in the internet era, memes have taken on a new life: They still spread by imitation and propagation, but their reach is much broader, faster, and more unpredictable. “Internet memes are easy and cheap to create and disseminate; they can also be shared anonymously, which make them a good mode for everyday discussions and critiques”, says Dr. Idil Galip, lecturer in new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam and founder of the Meme Studies Research Network.

Memes work so well because they’re bite-sized and easily recognisable, but can involve extra layers of complexity and shared meaning depending on the viewer’s level of knowledge. “The way that audiences can receive and decode messages from memes depends on their ‘memetic literacy’, which in turn depends on the breadth of their knowledge regarding digital culture and how ‘online’ they are”, Dr. Galip explains.

They can also be fiercely political and bitingly satirical, not to mention consequential. For example, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the “Is Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer?” meme helped tank the Republican’s White House bid in 2016.

In the coffee world, memes can be a way to bring attention to under-discussed or controversial topics—topics that more mainstream coffee publications don’t feel comfortable covering.

Facts and Absurdities

Today, there are a handful of Instagram accounts exclusively dedicated to coffee-related memes. Some of the most popular include @coolroastcurves and @turdwavecoffee, while a new favourite of mine, @minasbrewith, posts Lord of the Rings-themed coffee memes (is there anything more niche?).

Alan Jarrar had worked in coffee for seven years when, sensing burnout around the corner, he created the Instagram account @50percentarabica in 2019. Today, the account has almost 41,000 followers, and has been called “arguably one of the most recognized coffee meme pages amongst coffee professionals”. Jarrar himself has been described as “the coffee meme king”.

But why memes? “I don’t know, I just made one and it was funny as hell. So I made another one and here we are today”, Jarrar tells me, appropriately, over Instagram DM. “And as no one really takes memes seriously, I can rant about almost anything and it makes people laugh. I like that”.

Which sort of hits the nail on the head: Memes are silly, inconsequential, often simplistically provocative. Still, among the goofy reflections on barista life and the extremely niche posts about espresso, Jarrar also posts deeper critiques of the coffee industry.

But while many coffee memes are decidedly unserious, they can also be used to explicitly address injustices, and offer astute political commentary. 

The ongoing genocide in Gaza has received scant attention from traditional coffee media and organisations (with a few exceptions—Fresh Cup republished my piece looking at the context around the Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping). Social media, at least, has defied the otherwise deafening silence from the wider coffee industry.

Over the past seven months, the internet has become a repository for information, insight, and propaganda around the conflict, from Palestinian citizen journalists to disinformation-spreading bot farms. And within coffee, meme accounts have been some of the few entities to hold a mirror up to the industry’s shortcomings.

For David Lalonde, co-founder of Montreal’s Rabbit Hole Roaster (and, full disclosure, a paid subscriber to the Pourover), memes are a means to an end. Lalonde started @davidsrabbithole on Instagram “to critique the specialty coffee industry in a manner that fits the time: facts and absurdities”, he tells me. 

The attraction of memes lies in their simplicity and directness, he says. “I think people on platforms like Instagram aren’t here for long captions or deep texts. So memes are perfect because they are snappy, and the image does 90% of the explaining. I think memes are necessary on this type of platform”.

Lalonde’s memes are explicitly more political than others’, and he often uses them as a jumping-off point to explore a topic in more depth—he has frequently called out the coffee industry’s lack of response to the atrocities unfolding in Gaza. And he takes his role as coffee agitator seriously: “This industry needs to be burnt to the ground and rebuilt. The specialty coffee industry loves to be lost in rhetoric and it loves to praise itself for its ideas and not actions or results”.

Gateway Memes

Holding the powerful to account is necessary in all industries, but especially in those like coffee, which come embedded with colossal power imbalances, shadowy supply chains, and a long history of labour abuses. There’s a lot of money to be made in coffee—for a limited few, at least—and so there are huge incentives to cut corners in order to maximise profit.

The biggest companies and richest individuals, overwhelmingly concentrated in the Global North, still wield enormous control over a complex and opaque multi-billion-dollar industry. Meanwhile those who produce the value—coffee growers, farmworkers, baristas, and other hourly workers—feed off scraps, and are often at risk of exploitation.

Much like your conscience reminding you of past mistakes, meme accounts remind the industry that things do need to change. Where coffee publications often shy away from divisive topics for a variety of reasons, meme accounts seem perfectly suited to critiquing the industry’s failings. From commenting on the hypocrisy of “sustainability” marketing campaigns to accurately portraying barista life to calling out the industry’s colonial past and present, they offer an easy entry point to difficult conversations. 

Meanwhile, the powerful do their best to evade scrutiny—for example, you can’t tag the Specialty Coffee Association on Instagram, and the organisation turns comments off on controversial announcement posts—but it’s hard to hide when everyone is laughing at you.

Will posting memes on Instagram change anything within the coffee industry? Probably not.  While they offer a digestible format for presenting otherwise complex or off-putting information, memes are also inherently limited in their ability to educate audiences and hold the powerful to account in a sustained way. They aren’t and shouldn’t be taken as a replacement for good journalism, which provides that necessary context and detail. To really thrive, the coffee industry needs a conscience and a watchdog. 

But the most popular memes can reach thousands of people, people who may not have otherwise been aware of the industry’s flaws. If memes can move the needle even slightly, bring more people into the conversation and make the powerful uncomfortable, then they’ve done their job.

“Memes are short and easily shareable which is great for awareness”, Lalonde says. “Using memes for me is to lure people into the deeper convos we need to have but avoid as an industry”.