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Christopher Holmberg Headshot

Food And Social Media -- A Complicated Relationship

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Eating has, throughout history, been seen as a social activity, which is why understanding its social context and delineations is integral when trying to comprehend food and eating patterns.

One of the most prominent social revolutions in recent time is the boom of social media. In order to realize the relationship between food and social media, one needs to fully consider the word social in social media.

I cannot think of a better way to illustrate this than to turn to South Korea. In Korea, as in many other countries, eating together with your family is norm; in fact, the Korean word for family literally means "those who eat together." However, due to a hectic and fast-paced society, this has proven difficult to implement into practice. The rise of single households and long working hours has led to more and more people eating alone. This, in combination with different fashions of excessive dieting, has created many fascinating trends mediated through digital technology.

One of these peculiar trends is Muk-bang, in which a person eats enormous servings of food in front of a webcam, while conversing with the people watching. Muk-bang translates to "eating rooms" -- and broadcasted online they have generated virtual celebrities, known for their bottomless appetite and enthusiasm when eating. One of the highest paid eaters, Park Seo-Yeon, makes around $9,000 a month consuming scrumptious food items online. In our highly connected and virtual day and age, food has found its way to social media, or rather, social media has found food.

Food blogs, food forums and food groups in online social networks are numerous. Some mostly function as means to share recipes while others for reviewing restaurants or dining experiences. Depending on the subject matter they vary according to both how food and eating is presented and portrayed. While blogs dedicated to exercise view food as fuel and vitamin packages, people following recipe blogs tend to emphasize the pleasure and indulgence associated with eating. Which food community one belongs to can therefore be seen as a strong marker for one's identity. Hence, the classic phrase by the famed French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin could not be truer in these wired times: "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.

While these online trends can be regarded as harmless and uncontroversial, much more serious and negative occurrences exist.

As formerly clandestine illnesses, anorexia and bulimia have now reached the limelight online among adolescents. Despite efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of extreme weight loss and eating disorders, the pro-anorexia (pro-ana) and pro-bulimia (pro-mia) communities have flourished online, and the amount of young girls and boys with eating disorders is increasing -- and many blame social media. The communities, blogs and forums are often managed by individuals who have some sort of eating disorder themselves. The persons use these web sites as a means of communicating information for others who also have an eating disorder, while not actively seeking treatment.

The websites construct eating disorders as a lifestyle choice rather than a disorder. Users share risky weight loss tips, provide tips for covering behaviors from peers, family, and health care workers, and share "thinspiration" images and videos of gaunt (mostly) girls and women, to enthuse further weight loss.

The tips and tricks that earlier only were reachable by word of mouth from a limited circle of people in the days before social media, are now just a click away.

It is important to note that social media is not a single thing, but a constellation of tools and technologies that support peer-to-peer conversation and user-generated content. This enables the social and cultural aspect of food consumption and dietary practices to curlicue. This dimension, rather than the biological aspect of food and nutrition, has been labelled the omnivore's dilemma. The term is based on the assumption that we as humans can eat a wide variety of things. Unlike specialized eaters, an omnivore is capable to thrive on a multitude of diets, lacking inherent predilections for things that are healthy -- why culture and societal norms becomes the main aspect dictating our eating behavior. Thus, social meaning and metaphors of food can direct dietary choices and determine what type of food confer social acceptance. Metaphors regarding edible things are associated with feelings of respect and socializing, while metaphors of nonedible things are linked with distaste and, at times, repulsion.

Food porn is one such powerful metaphor. Food porn is typically used on platforms such as Facebook or Instagram, captioning delicious and visually appealing food items soon-to-be-ingested. The term "food porn" goes back to 1979, when Michael Jacobson, co-creator of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, wanted to contrast healthy and unhealthy foods --"Right Stuff" and "Food Porn" -- in the organization's newsletter. Jacobson later clarified that he "coined the term to connote a food that was so sensationally out of bounds of what a food should be that it deserved to be considered pornographic.

Thus, as most social and cultural phenomenon, the meaning of food and diets are in constant transformation. Another well-cited historical recollection of how the changing structure and dynamics of society transform consumption and dietary habits is provided by Mintz. Mintz differentiates between political and social uses of goods. In between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, Europe and its colonies transitioned from mercantilism to capitalism. Due to, among other things, industrialization and colonization, the availability of sugar rose dramatically. Sugar went from being scarce luxury goods, into becoming accessible for everyday people. Consequently, this changed the meanings related with consumption. The term "sweetness" itself changed connotation from a literary imagery pertinent to sweetness and inducement, to a physical concept as an independent taste.

The digital revolution, comprised of constant connectivity and the advent of smartphones, can be seen as another such societal transformation. It has reformed the way we approach food permanently; our food culture has become digitized.

This brings us back to where we started. In addition to goods and capitals, industrialization also brought about alterations regarding family structures, particularly when women joined the labor force. This transformed the way food was prepared.

In addition, significant changes in demographics and traditional gender roles, as well as rapid increase in working hours caused food preparation to move away from people's home into becoming an industry of its own.

With the resulting change in meal patterns, food communication in social media can be seen as a way of trying to share a meal in a stressful post-modern era, why the phenomenon of Muk-bang in Korea, and indeed, the lunch time foodie snap, suddenly makes much more sense.