We all know food is important, but have you ever really considered just how huge of a factor it is in your life?
Obviously, you need the stuff to live. You’re probably eating three square meals a day with snacks in between (and before bed). Now think about the time you spend deciding what to eat — whether at the grocery store or ordering online or stealing from the office fridge or whatever. Then, on top of that, there’s all the time you waste when you’re not even hungry, just clicking through blogs or scrolling through Instagram looking at #foodporn.
Food's always been inherently social as well; in true cliché form, "it brings people together." We understand that some days you’re just going to stay home eating Hot Pockets while playing The Sims for twelve hours, but more often than not, food is an excuse to come together with family or friends for meals. It’s been that way since the beginning of time, back when the cavemen were huddled around a fire tearing gazelle meat apart with their hands and sharing whatever greens they were pretty sure wouldn’t kill them.
Now then, understanding how huge a part of your life food is, and that it’s been at the center of our species’ social bonds since the time of the Flintstones, try and wrap your head around just how dramatically social media has revolutionized this core facet of human life.
At the most basic level, it’s multiplied the amount of time you spend thinking about food. Think about it. When you were hungry or needed to go shopping, your brain would think about what it wanted. Now though, open Instagram and you’re inundated with images of over-the-top milkshakes and fancily-lit organic salads. And if you’re like most Americans, you’re on your social feeds multiple times a day. So for the first time ever, you’re constantly being inundated with food stimuli even when you don’t want it.
And all those social components we were talking about along with how food "brings people together?" Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and the rest have even changed the way we do that. You no longer have to be sitting around the kitchen table to "share" a meal with someone; instead you stand on your chair and take a top-down pic, write up a pithy caption and hit send. Boom — you just interacted with hundreds of people through your food.
There’s an element of sadness to that though, isn’t there? You no longer have to be physically present for food to create a bond between you and someone else. Don’t worry — there are plenty of other articles bashing social media for ruining the way we humans interact; we only bring it up to introduce mukbang.
In case you’ve never heard about South Korea’s novel new form of online entertainment, mukbang literally translates to "eating rooms." Internet celebrities (think YouTube stars) sit in front of a camera and eat obscene amounts of food while their fans watch and interact. The biggest stars in this world can make over $100,000 per year.
While there’s several cultural reasons this fad hasn’t caught hold in the United States, we do have our own less extreme version of online food celebs: bloggers. There are now hundreds, maybe thousands of people who earn their primary income by a combination of beautiful food photos, custom recipes, online tutorials and more. It’s become a bonafide career. Not that people didn’t make a living as "celebrity foodies" before the internet, it’s just that they had to have a distinguished platform to get their content out there — Food Network, a newpaper that printed their restaurant reviews, etc. But the combination of YouTube and social media has made that unnecessary; now anyone can be a star (supposing they can get followers outside their grandparents).
The same tools used by individuals are critical for restaurants these days, too. Most people will Google a place before committing to eating there, of course, but one of the most effective ways to attract new customers is social media. Seeing “Susan Johnson liked Steaky McSteakhouse” on your Facebook feed is free advertising for a dining establishment.
And then there’s the physical restaurant itself. Now that everyone in the country has an HD camera and 4G, they’re constantly taking pictures of their meals, and chefs have to cater to the fad. Make no mistake, one of the biggest shifts in restaurants during the social media age is a massive increase in focus on dish presentation. Customers still care about taste, obviously, but now they just as badly need something that’s going to get them some likes.
To that extent, some restaurant consultants actually advise their clients to cater the lighting at tables to iPhone photographs. Because the better the pic, the more likes and exposure the restaurant gets.
You’ve probably even seen some places offer deals if you tag or follow the restaurant’s social media pages. That should tell you all you need to know: they’re willing to give up income in exchange for a mention.
But like we said, you’re not going to share anything unless your photo comes out bomb.com. And this is where the situation gets psychologically interesting…
Obviously, good food releases serotonin — the chemical in your brain responsible for happiness. So when a chef is preparing a dish for you and wants you to be happy, his primary focus for thousands of years was to make it delicious. Thing is, presentation is now almost just as important.
Multiple studies have shown that people have a quantifiable positive reaction to getting feedback on their social media posts. That giddiness when your selfie does really well on Instagram or the joke you put on Twitter breaks your previous RT record? To your brain, it’s not much different from the high of a delicious bite. Thus, the ability to instantly share images of your dinner and get positive reinforcement can raise the net amount of "joy" produced by a meal higher than ever.
The side effects of this phenomenon — a growing consumer desire for pretty dishes as opposed to ones that simply taste good — has exploded to the point that it’s causing legit trends in the food world. Avocado toast is the most cited example; you can’t honestly say you’d heard of that until the past 5 years, yet these days it’s in every swanky brunch bar across the nation, not to mention all the amateur home chefs who spend varying amounts of too long trying to get the perfect shot.
Speaking of health food — it may be the most popular category of food content out there these days, but there’s a niche for everyone: carnivores, dessert lovers, stupid over-the-top fast food mashups, etc. It’s creating entirely new forms of peer groups, bringing people together on the internet via their favorite IG pages. Even if you don’t slide into the DMs of some yoga guy who follows the same healthy lifestyle blogger you do, you may be out with with friends and strike up a conversation about that page. Even indirectly, the world of internet food creates bonds.
Though it has been pointed out, this isn’t always a good thing. There’s a dark side to all this food content, too.
Eating disorders amongst teens has skyrocketed in recent years, rising over 110% between 2010 and 2013 alone. For a long time, there was a certain silence between those suffering from bulimia and anorexia because, simply put, it wasn’t something you talked about. If you were purging or starving yourself, you knew it was unhealthy and didn’t bring it up casually amongst friends or family.
But then came the internet and social media and all of the sudden, there were communities of people who would "support" one another, giving tips and advice to those who are considering picking up the practice. These sites are, sadly, more common than you think.
They’re only part of the issue; the societal pressure to conform to idealistic body images has increased since the rise of social media, and since kids are starting on these platforms at such a young age, they sometimes think their inability to look just like the heavily-edited photos of their favorite IG models is a failure on their part, which is the dark side of our evolving relationship with food. Social media is unequivocally partially responsible for the uptick in eating disorders.
On the whole though, is this social media influence a good or bad shift? There are those who sneer at people photographing their plates at restaurants, but it’s giving some diners a whole new way to enjoy food. Restaurants are forced to embrace the change or risk losing an edge on their competition. In some cases, it’s creating entire new industries and a new wave of celebrities, but it’s also adding to an increasing epidemic in society.
One things for sure: it's not going away anytime soon.