The Death of a Tea Community
By all accounts, Steepster is dead, or at least dying. Steepster.com was billed as a tea journal. Anyone could create an account, enter information about a tea, rate that tea and discuss that tea via tasting notes and applying a numerical value between 0-100. Many found this appealing: it compiled tasting notes and gave opinions about teas that you otherwise would probably being buying blind. The site was helpful for my own tea experience as well as many others. Steepster fostered community and gave insight into many teas.
From the start, there have always been some problems. The numerical ratings have always been pointless and teas with more than two or three reviews are usually flavored blends that amount to the same variation of sweet, fruity/floral and cheap. But, the most striking problem, and the sites most obvious downfall, is spam. Spam has always haunted the forum section of the website. Seems as if the site creator(s) never installed a spam protection. This issue is probably the largest cause of its dwindling activities. The forum use to be active enough to remove spam posts into the next page fairly quickly just through discussion alone.
The discussion board was the most helpful part of the site. The forum included further discussion of specific teas or vendors, with long running pages like SOTD (Sheng of The Day). The discussion board was also the original home of curated boxes that still last to this day like Emmett’s Yangqing Hao Puerh buys and Liquid Proust’s curated shop. Lastly, posters hosted traveling swap boxes where you received a large box of tea and took what you like from it while putting some tea back in of equal value. It was great! To people in the west - including myself - these boxes helped you sample a wide variety of teas that felt prohibitive due to shipping or because they were hidden behind tricky to navigate sites like Taobao or Mandarin speaking auctions. Couple that with impressions of individual teas and it really felt like a community, helping make sense of a vast world.
Some of these ventures have moved on and have a life of their own. Emmett who runs the Yangqing Hao has two websites now. Liquid Proust has his own store front and so on. From typing in ‘box’ into the discussion bar I can see two posts about travelling boxes in the past year, one thread with twenty posts and the other with fifty. This can be compared to just three years ago where there were numerous boxes with specific categories (a Canadian box, a rare puerh box and so on) with triple digits posts for each. I am focusing on the boxes because they were a personal source of joy and education for myself. In addition, they were always well received within the community. Less interest leads to less people participating in the travelling box, lowering the amount and variety of tea.
The boxes also increased access to various teas, in turn creating more vendor pages and encouraging users to log more of their tea notes. I have learned a ton of information from reading tea notes throughout the years on Steepster. More so, notes are typically personal and unique. People share events happening around their session or generally in their life at the time. A good tea usually becomes connected to individual moments. Sharing and reading these connections reinforces the importance of a site like Steepster: it is both functional and social.
I check my favorite vendors pages so often that when I start typing Steepster into my search bar the links to various vendors pages come up. I have occasionally checked these pages over the years and over the past year even the most popular vendors have relatively dried up (White2Tea previously had two or three notes per day and now it is a couple notes a week - not entirely dry but still noticeable.) My visits have subsequently slowed along with this, the notes being one of the biggest draws for me. This is what prompted my further investigation into this article’s topic.
Is there anything to be done? Can Steepster be saved? This thread on the forum by passionate posters shows that a community is still there. That thread shows passionate posters hoping that Steepster one day returns to its heyday. The community is not dead but it has lost many active members, the frequency of notes is slowing down, people are moving on to Instagram (which, being a photography app, is a bad place to have in depth conversation). The posters in the thread point to the hard work of community members in moderating spam. But the solution is so much simpler: just a security measure when one creates an account, as on most websites with the ability to comment and/or post. Why the owner(s) have not done so shows the lack of engagement with their site. It would be quick and easy to turn over ownership and have someone implement this change.
Would that really solve it? Has the community moved on? Does there need to be another hub or do we even want one? I believe that a community like Steepster is necessary in the west: the chance of randomly meeting someone knowledgeable about tea in real life is unlikely. Especially someone with the knowledge of thousands of notes and a selection equivalent to a travelling box. Online is where most of us go from teabags to gong fu.
A lot of the tea community has moved to Instagram. Frequent posters on Steepster’s discussion board now share their thoughts primarily on Instagram. Obviously, the app is not very conducive to conversation. Sharing pictures is aesthetically pleasing and can communicate a lot. Instagram is also an easy and accessible way to tap into a community and share tasting notes. The app recommends other users based on who you are already following so it is easy to gain a community in that way. But the flaws are obvious: there is no way to look-up a vendor or specific tea except with hashtags which are not going to be consistent from user to user, if used in the first place. The comments section of a picture is not conducive to in depth conversation.
The tea community itself is always fluctuating. Approximately between 2009 and 2014 (2009 was when Steepster started not coincidentally) there was a gluttony of very active bloggers likes Hobbes and Marhsaln as well as various active forums. Similar to Steepster most of these have all completely stopped or at least slowed down to a trickle of content. One person can only come up with so much content and only so many facets of tea can be discussed. Maybe the community is more decentralized currently. This has its positives and negatives: no one is exactly dictating trends but newcomers and well experienced people alike may find themselves lost or even disinterested.
There will most likely be continuous cycles of blogs and forums starting, gaining in popularity and subsequently slowing to a crawl and stopping as can already be seen. In a way, it creates something exciting and dynamic just like the drink this conversation centers on.