The phenomenon known as the “eat and tweet” has flooded social media feeds with mouthwatering food photos. Why is everyone suddenly so keen to snap their snacks? Social status? Loneliness? And how is it changing our approach to food and eating?
Raise your hand if you’re not on social media. Anyone? Come on, don’t be shy. You, in the back – you’re tweeting about this right now, aren’t you?
The popularity of social media networks like Facebook and Twitter continues to skyrocket, and so does the concept that everything we do – everyone we meet, every party we attend, every movie we see – needs to be uploaded and shared with our Internet friends. Mobile technology has made it incredibly easy to document every moment of our lives, and the looming invasion of wearable technology will only make it easier.
Increasingly, this sharing occurs by way of photos. In 2013, on average 1.6 million public photos were uploaded to Flickr every day. Uploading photos is the most popular activity on both Facebook and Google+, while Instagram – a social media platform wholly dedicated to image sharing – grew by 23% in 2013.
And, more and more, what we’re sharing is also what we’re eating. A 2013 survey found that 54% of 18-24 years olds have taken a photo of their food while eating out, while 39% have gone on to post it online. 90 new photos hashtagged #foodporn are uploaded to Instagram every minute. The idea of sharing food photos online has begun to dominate the world of participatory technology: apps like Burpple, FoodSpotting and SnapDish are specifically dedicated to the logging and sharing of food.
Recently, Virgin Mobile has tapped into the food sharing trend with their #mealforameal campaign. Participants share pictures of their food on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook with the hashtag #mealforameal. For every hashtag, Virgin Mobile shares a meal with people in need via OzHarvest, an organisation that redistributes excess food to those in need. So far over 150,000 meals have been donated.
“Social media is where a lot of us document and curate our lives,” says Virgin Mobile Digital Communities Manager Jordan Kerr. “Meals are often a time when people come together to celebrate life, culture and human relationships. Mobile phones are at the heart of this because they allow people to capture their experiences wherever they are and share them.”
Kerr says according to celebrity chefs Virgin Mobile spoke to, the practice is changing how Australians eat. “What they have seen is that it’s definitely changed the routine of dining. Snapping photos of your meal before you eat is completely commonplace everywhere from the fanciest restaurants to your local café. We even heard of people who order one meal to eat immediately and a spare on to photograph.”
Where did this “eat and tweet” mentality come from? How does it change the way we respond and relate to food? Where will it lead?
Food Isn’t Fuel…It’s Cool
Eating has always been a core component of socialising, and the way we eat reflects our class, gender and generation. Dining out – in Western culture especially – arose partly as an opportunity to conspicuously spend money (and look fashionable doing it). The idea of food as a signifier of status is not a new one, but what is new is the method by which we’re strutting our foodstuffs. Food is no longer seen just as fuel for the body: it has become a currency that can be traded online for social status.
“Social capital is an enormous component of people sharing their meals over social media,” says Matthew Cox, Lead Strategist at Dialogue Consulting, a company specialising in social and digital media strategy. “The goal is to strike up envy in other people and make them think, ‘Wow, this person had a cool experience.’ It’s about being seen to be a person who has exciting experiences.”
This elevates meals beyond necessary daily routine to competitive sport. Millennial diners will increasingly seek out casual restaurants that are newer and trendier in order to elevate their personal brand. Though Gen Y earns, on average, less than Gen X and Baby Boomers, they are significantly more likely to visit “upscale casual-dining restaurants.” While this may in part be related to differing attitudes towards finance, New York Magazine posits that it’s also because food is a “playground for one-upmanship” and “a measuring stick of cool.”
Blogger Thang Ngo, behind popular Australian food blog Noodlies, says that for him, sharing food experiences is all about sharing passion and discovering hidden gems – but there is a competitive aspect to finding trendy new places that’s linked to social status. He believes that it can lead to content becoming “same same” and strives to set himself apart by finding his own places. “These days I stick to my authentic hidden gems,” Ngo says. “I love the experience, and stuff on Noodlies is unique.”
Table For One (Billion), Please: Eating Alone Together
Is this new obsession with sharing food photography solely about making oneself look good? Not necessarily. Beyond the social posturing lies a communal element. Meals are becoming more solitary occasions; in the US, almost half of all adult eating occasions are solitary. Social media lets the solo diner turn a meal for one into a social experience.
“The ‘table for one’ rarely exists anymore, even among single people eating alone at home,” said Laurie Demeritt, president and COO at research organisation The Hartman Group, in a press release. “If you are eating alone, chances are you are also texting friends who live miles away or posting food photos to a review site.”
The Hartman Group’s 2012 study, Clicks & Cravings: The Impact of Social Technology on Food Culture, found that social media use is increasingly infiltrating the dinner table, with nearly one-third of Americans using social networking sites while eating or drinking at home – and the figure jumps to 47% amongst millennials.
An extreme version of this trend can be seen in South Korea, with the rise of a phenomenon known as muk-bang (a combination of the terms “to eat” and “on air”). Also known as “gastronomic voyeurism”, muk-bang involves someone sitting alone at home and eating copious amounts of food while live-streaming it to their followers. Some of the participants – usually women – earn thousands of dollars per month this way.
The popularity of muk-bang is partly attributed to a culture of loneliness: it affords the opportunity to sit across from someone else – even if it’s only via video – and share a meal. The relationship between muk-bang participants and their viewers is much like that between YouTube vloggers and their followers: light-hearted, casual and personal. The idea is that these aren’t so much performers and their fans but friends sharing something universal – a virtual extension of grabbing a meal with family and friends.
Tapping into that online community is the idea behind apps like MealLogger, the “fast photo food journal.” While looking at pictures of food can provoke a physiological reaction that makes the observer hungry, taking pictures of food can be an effective means of sticking to a diet. Sharing pictures of the food you consume online leads to a responsibility and accountability to your followers, even if you’ve never met them. It’s the same tough love, peer pressure approach that weight loss programs like Weight Watchers apply – just updated for an online audience.