March 18, 2012
Last Wednesday I checked in for a mocha at The Energy Bar down on the corner of Market and Park St. in SW Portland. I had been there once for some fresh carrot juice and I noticed the neon sign in the window advertising espresso drinks. There’s a Starbucks right across the street, and I had originally been gravitating in that direction looking for something to stimulate the brain-cells after my tuna sandwich. But when I noticed the sign at The Energy Bar, I thought “Why not?” I am all down with that local thing, after all. And Starbucks, well, that’s Starbucks.
When I say that I checked in at The Energy Bar I mean that I opened an app on my smart phone called Yelp!, did a quick search for “energy bar” and then hit the “Check-In” button. Not being as young as people like James McWilliams, I am not particularly hip with apps, but my daughter had suggested Yelp! back when I saw her last January. You can use Yelp! for a number of different things. For one, you can “Search Nearby”, and Yelp! will use the GPS on your smartphone to bring up a list of restaurants, pubs or coffee shops that are in your general proximity. These establishments are tied to “ratings” and reviews that are contributed by subscribers to Yelp!, and I have found that consulting these ratings and reviews can be somewhat helpful in finding a place to eat or drink when you are on unfamiliar turf. Not to mention the fact that your phone will also bring up a Google map showing you how to get there.
You can also have a list of “Friends”. Those of you (probably neither of my regular readers) who are down with Facebook know that this word has absolutely no relationship to the meaning of the ordinary English word ‘friend’, much less to Aristotle’s celebrated discussion of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics. “Friends” are just people to whom you are linked by the app in cyberspace, the cloud or wherever it is that links do that voodoo that they do. Du? But if say, you’ve decided to pop into The Energy Bar for a mocha, and one of your “Friends” is also in the mood for a coffee or a glass of carrot juice, they can open their smartphone, consult Yelp! and learn “Hey! Paul just checked in at The Energy Bar. I think I’ll head that way and see if he wants some company.”
Being the guru of food, fun and conviviality that I am, I think that this is an absolutely smashing innovation, certainly something that should be vigorously endorsed by anyone interested in food ethics. And so I “check-in” religiously on Yelp! whenever I wander into a pub, coffeeshop or other general dive with nothing better to do besides sit there by myself, peruse the newspaper and enjoy a mocha or a tuna sandwich. There is a rub, however, and it is that I have no friends. Zero. Nada. So when I go to the Energy Bar, the chance that I will run into somebody I know is pretty much the same whether I “check-in” or not.
Which makes me feel sort of like some pathetic loser when I “check-in” and Yelp! advises me that I have no friends. Nevertheless, when I did the check-in at The Energy Bar last Wednesday, my phone automatically opened a new page congratulating me on the fact that I had just become “The Duke” of The Energy Bar. Now, this is getting really obscure, but it turns out that Yelp! keeps track of check-ins, and the person with the most check-ins at any given establishment becomes the duke or duchess of that establishment. It is also apparently possible to achieve higher levels of Yelp! royalty by being the duck, er duke, of many different joints. So even for us pathetic losers with no friends, cyberspace has cooked up a rewards system to make us feel good about checking in!
Except that this was exactly the second time that I had actually stepped into The Energy Bar. Aside from the fact that Starbucks is across the street, I have no explanation for my sudden royal status. The Energy Bar makes great carrot juice, and their mocha is passable as well. Aside from that, if there is anyone out there who would like to be my friend, please sign on to Yelp! and look for the Duke of The Energy Bar. Pathetic losers should stick together.
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University