The internet seems to be infinitely elastic; it has the protean capacity to remake itself, apparently endlessly, and to recapitulate and even subsume everything that it had been previously. In the process, it inveigles itself into just about every aspect of the way we live now -- 'we,' in this case, of course meaning those with access to electricity, a computer, and an internet service provider.
These attributes of the internet -- its ubiquity and indispensability -- seem to number among its more enduring characteristics. The rest of it is subject to change without notice. Do you, gentle reader, have a clear memory of what your daily life was like before the internet? I can remember the era, but for the life of me, I have a hard time figuring out how we ever managed. I can dimly remember what it was like to do email in the mid-90s, before there were dot-com, dot-net, or dot-edu suffixes; my email address (which even in those long-vanished days began with 'corax') ended with dot-bitnet. I remember the excitement that attended upon the increasing popularity of the 'World Wide Web,' and how in 1994 NCSA's Mosaic web browser, which had seemed a huge convenience in 1993, was for almost everyone instantly superseded by Netscape Navigator. (All of this, of course, was in the time before Microsoft's Internet Explorer was launched.) Also around this time (circa 1994), the 'weblog' or online journal began to gain in popularity, as web pages became easier and easier for private individuals to create. By 1999, the website blogger.com was created, offering previously unimagined simplicity and ease of development for 'blogs,' as they had come to be known. By 2007, according to technorati.com's 'State of the Blogosphere' report, over 120,000 new blogs were being created every day -- an average of about 1.4 new blogs every second.
For an internet incarnation that has been around already for a full decade, the blog seems remarkably resilient. One might well have expected it to have gone the way of the Dodo by now, but in fact the opposite seems to be the case: Technorati's 2008 report, collecting data on blogs from 66 countries, on six continents, and in 81 languages, found that blog posts were at that point being produced at a rate of almost a million new posts a day. The very software used for blogging -- much of it available on the internet for free -- partly accounts for this, as it becomes both more sophisticated and more user-friendly.
Wikipedia -- another of the resilient and evidently evergreen internet resources -- defines the blog as a website 'usually maintained by an individual.' While that is both true and not true for CHA DAO, I suppose that it does apply to a majority of blogs. But one major blog, or bloglike phenomenon, that is a quintessentially collaborative project, is Facebook -- surely on the short-list of the most important internet entities at the moment (along with Google, Youtube, and Wikipedia). In 2008 terms, which already seem practically pre-Cambrian in their slowness, it was calculated that it would take 13 years to reach a market-audience of 50 million people, as opposed to 2 years via Facebook. Those figures don't even take into account the effect of Twitter, which (now, i.e. early 2009) is one of the newest reasons for people to exclaim that 'email is dead.' For the Twitterati, email takes too long to get there, and a blog post like the one you are reading is impossibly lengthy: whatever you have to say in a 'tweet,' you must do it in 140 keystrokes or fewer. (This is not to suggest that they feel constrained to choose among these media, however, nor to use them in a stationary location: very likely they are using them all, more or less every single day, on a variety of hardware platforms, and sometimes in moving vehicles: you can send 'tweets' from your cell phone, read web pages on your BlackBerry, and so forth.)
Twitter's popularity is increasing by the day, among celebrities and heads of state as well as private individuals: the President of the United States has, as of this writing (April 2009), almost 700,000 'followers' on Twitter -- which means that [a] almost one in every 400 Americans is not only on Twitter, but is following President Obama's Twitter account, and [b] every 'tweet' put out under the name of President Obama will appear on the Twitter pages of all those users. Ashton Kutcher, an actor known for such television series as 'That '70s Show' and MTV's 'Punk'd,' is an avid Twitterer, and hugely popular; he has (also as of this writing) only about 4,000 fewer 'followers' on Twitter than the President.
So ease, speed, and accessibility are now, more than ever, bywords of internet innovation. Assuming that a web application meets a felt need, as Facebook and Twitter obviously do at the moment, the more easily and quickly one can use it, and the more accessible it is to users, the more popular it is likely to become. And, in keeping with the highly reticulated nature of the internet, the more such applications are going to be interactive with one another: you can now, for example, embed Youtube movies on your Facebook page, you can send URL links via Twitter, and so forth).
Why have I been rehearsing this thumbnail history of the internet? Because, gentle reader, so completely has the internet inveigled itself into your life, as I remarked above, that you might otherwise not have paid sufficient attention to the fact that this very information -- all the information on CHA DAO -- comes to you via the internet, and because of just such web applications as blogger.com and Wikipedia and Google. The Internet and Tea: that is our subject today.
How many Americans (or French, or Latvians) could have known what (say) Bi Luo Chun tea is like before the internet? And unless you lived in San Francisco, and had access to Roy Fong's Imperial Tea Court, where you could go in 1993 to find out what such an 'exotic' tea tasted like? Chances were good, back then, that if you knew the names of such teas, you had read about them in James Norwood Pratt's Tea Lover's Treasury (first edition 1982) or John Blofeld's Chinese Art of Tea (1985), and that their names would remain no more than mere phrases in your mind.
Today, on the other hand, without getting up from your chair (in Peoria or Avignon or Riga), you can pay a virtual visit to the Imperial Tea Court, via their Facebook page, and then go shopping for tea on their commercial website. Moreover, if you are not satisfied with their selection or their prices or their customer service, you can choose other North American vendors who have easy-to-use commercial websites (in addition to Facebook or Twitter accounts), such as Aura Teas, Harney & Sons, Hou De Asian Art, Rishi Tea, and probably five more since I last checked. Or, with just about as much ease, you can bypass occidental retailers altogether, and place your tea orders directly, with vendors in Guangdong or Yunnan or Taipei. A number of these are following suit and developing a non-commercial internet presence of one sort or another, in tandem with their commercial site: GrandTea in Hong Kong, for example, already has not only a commercial website, but also its own Facebook page. Other vendors have pursued other online methods of juggling information and commerce: Harney and Hou De Asian Art maintain their own blogs; Adagio Teas offers TeaChat, a multi-thread forum; and vendors such as Upton Tea Imports and the UK-based Nothing But Tea incorporate extensive useful information about tea within their commercial websites themselves.
Tea, in other words, is (even as we speak) inveigling itself into western culture at a rate unforeseeable even a few years ago; and that dizzying rate is in large part due precisely to the ubiquitous presence, and increasing indispensability, of the internet. Many historians have detailed the introduction of tea to the West, and we should not lose sight of the fact that this is not itself a new phenomenon; indeed it has been a process of centuries. But again, what is so breathtaking is the rate of increase over the past couple of years.
I was most recently struck by this when I read an article on the growing popularity of tea that appeared in WIRED magazine -- the online edition, naturally -- on 2 April 2009. I then viewed a short video to which the WIRED article offered a link. Well, that's not exactly correct: the article actually led me first to the movie-maker's Twitter page, which in turn included a 'tweet' (on 28 March 2009) that provided the link to the video, which had just been posted that same day.
The reason I find these items of such unusual interest and importance is because the article is about, and the video was made by, one of the most highly-motivated and successful entrepreneurs on the internet at the moment: Kevin Rose, founder and site architect of Digg -- yet another multi-use web application that is growing daily in popularity. Rose, whom the WIRED piece identifies as 'one of the most influential people on the web,' is young, attractive, engaging, and obviously smart -- and a vigorous presence on Twitter. He holds at least two Twitter accounts: his main one, 'kevinrose,' and a newer one, dedicated specifically to tea: 'goodtea.' The latter account is newer (begun less than three months ago, with only 25 updates total as of this writing), but it already has over 6300 followers; 'kevinrose,' meanwhile -- on which Rose also freely discusses tea-related items -- has well over 400,000 followers as of this writing.
In other words, Rose is hardly to be classified as a private individual: every time he types a 'tweet' on 'kevinrose' and presses 'update,' whatever he has just composed is instantly distributed to almost half a million people. Very few television or radio spots could aspire to such broadcast power; and, by virtue of its performative nature, the spot, once played, is over -- and disappears, unless it is played again. An internet post, on the other hand, can remain potentially indefinitely: simply by using the archive function on the right-hand side of this page, for example, you can read and re-read every single post in CHA DAO from now back to its very beginning in 2005. So internet distribution is potentially both immediate and lasting; and when one has a following the size of Rose's, one has the capacity to impact, and even change, the very behavior of society. Moreover, the mechanism of an application like Twitter, Facebook, or (recently) the blog is somewhat different from that of a television or a radio: like the computer or handheld interface on which they are typically accessed, these internet applications are interactive at various levels. If a user elects to 'follow' a Twitter account or a blog, he receives updates every time he checks the Twitter page (or his email). Every time a user logs in to her Facebook page, she sees many (if not all) of the latest updates by her Facebook 'friends.' So by sitting down and logging on to the internet, the user is not only engaging in physical interaction with the hardware device, but also preparing for some sort of social interaction in cyberspace. The ways in which such activity differs from the passive 'couch potato' relationship a viewer has to a television -- and its potential cognitive, affective, and actional consequences -- are quite significant. I have no doubt that Rose is deeply cognizant of all this, and bears it in mind as he oversees the development of Digg -- or whenever he posts content to Facebook, Twitter, or his own blog.
We should also note that WIRED, both in its print and its online format, is not only an influential and well-regarded journal of technology and culture, but is also perceived as decidedly hip. Maybe the only thing hipper than reading WIRED is to be read about in WIRED. So when an article appears in WIRED, announcing that 'Tea is the New Coffee,' an intelligent and upwardly-mobile crowd of readers is going to take note. Intelligent, upwardly-mobile, and probably mostly younger; and age-demographics are significant here, because as societal cohorts age and die, ideas or customs that had previously held strong sway over their cultures begin to morph or disappear. When articulate and well-placed public figures such as Kevin Rose make it clear that they love and drink tea regularly, the notion that it might be as 'normal' a daily drink (and stimulant) as coffee becomes more accessible to the mainstream of western culture.
And Rose is cited, in this same article, as praising tea unreservedly: 'It's one of those things where you want to turn to something really natural and from the Earth -- and from something that isn't going to give you a big crash .... Once you start consuming tea it makes sense: This is the best of all worlds.' When such citations are published in WIRED -- with the prediction that 'specialty tea' is about to 'hit the mainstream like coffee,' and that 'we're getting closer and closer to the tipping point' -- the rhetorical force, upon one of the most style-conscious (and solvent) sectors of society, is massive. A thousand ordinary bloggers might cumulatively not have the kind of oomph that Rose has, though it should be noted that he himself is in fact not blogging 'conventionally' in this instance; rather, he is producing video content, and posting information and links on his Twitter account and his new Facebook page (to which, incidentally, I discovered the link on his Twitter page).
So I regard the apparition of this WIRED article, and of the concomitant video, as not only good, but also unusually momentous. Kevin Rose may not only have discerned the imminence of the 'tipping point' for the popularity of tea: he may also actually be helping to cause it. If only one in ten of his Twitter followers were to start drinking tea, that would account for more than 41,000 new tea-drinkers. If each of these were, in turn, to communicate h/er enthusiasm for tea only to one other person, that would now be more than 82,000. And so on. This is precisely how ideas 'go viral' at the turn of the new millennium.
It helps that Rose actually knows something about tea, and communicates that knowledge simply and clearly in his video. He is no neophyte to tea; he says he has been drinking it seriously for 'eight or nine years.' (The one major factual error in his presentation concerns the caffeine level of white tea, but the misconception is extremely common, and nothing that a little reading on CHA DAO couldn't fix.) Much more important than any one detail, correct or not, is his obviously sincere and abiding interest in tea and tea culture, and his desire to share this enthusiasm with his enormous and burgeoning online community. He knows how to speak to a camera, and how to use visuality to great advantage: despite or because of the fairly low-tech nature of the video, he appears to accomplish with ease everything he sets out to do in it. And the viewer comes away aware, perhaps for the first time ever, that there are several different types of tea -- each with its own provenance, flavor profile, and brewing needs -- and also that they all are made from the leaves of the same plant, camellia sinensis.
Rose's presentations also convey subtly the chic factor of premium teas. The WIRED article says that Digg, his company, 'spends about $1,000 a month just on specialty tea for employees.' This 'chic factor' is actually vitally important to the 'viral' spread of tea culture in the West, because ready availability of high-quality and/or rare teas depends on a circulation of capital sufficient to support the enterprise (and its entrepreneurs). In order to mobilize a substantial international tea commerce, in other words, there must be enough continuing revenue to make the undertaking attractively profitable. And this is precisely what has been happening in the USA since the early 1990s, with the rate rapidly increasing over the course of the last decade.
A related, clearly important aspect of Rose's presentation is the company that he is seen to keep. Both the WIRED article and another video involving Rose (in which tea-drinking is mentioned at around 09:30) feature another young, attractive, engaging, obviously smart, and highly-motivated entrepreneur: Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. Ferriss's book rose to the #1 spot on the best-seller lists of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Business Week, and has been translated into 34 languages. A page in Ferriss's website tells us that he 'has been featured by more than 100 media outlets, including The New York Times, The Economist, TIME, Forbes, Fortune, CNN, and CBS. He speaks six languages, runs a multinational firm from wireless locations worldwide, and has been a popular guest lecturer at Princeton University since 2003, where he presents entrepreneurship as a tool for ideal lifestyle design and world change.' It would be difficult to imagine more glamorous or successful companions in the world of information technology; and these drinking buddies have a lifestyle to match -- one that includes 'tea shots of gyokuro for $50 a thimble full'. If the reader needed any reassurance that Rose's interest in tea is not somehow eccentric or idiosyncratic, Ferriss's presence and complicity provide it. Not surprisingly, these two sip tea at Samovar, one of San Francisco's toniest and most inviting tea emporia. Actually Samovar has three locations to choose from -- not to mention a sophisticated website, a tea blog, and, of course, a Twitter account.
The sorts of sociological indices we have been considering here are metrics of power. With power comes money; with money comes increased commerce between Asia and the rest of the world; and an increase in commerce, as the last four hundred years have shown, brings with it the increase of tea in the West. So Kevin Rose may be spot-on when he predicts that a nationwide (global?) 'tea renaissance is just five years away'; but if and when that comes to pass, the power of the internet will have played an integral part in bringing it about.