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The term ‘food porn’ is no alien to us. Instead of frowning at the phrase, it is very well welcomed by many online users, becoming the social currency that is shared, traded, and viewed on various social media platforms, as well as one of the most significant common denominator that defines our generation, the Millennials.

Back in 2013, a survey conducted in the United States revealed that 54% of 18-24 year olds have taken a photo of their food while eating out, and 39% even posted the photo online. Moreover, another study indicated that 82.3 million of the 168 million online users (18-64 years old) learned about food via social networking in 2012. Those numbers could only have gone higher since then.

So how exactly did this ‘eat-and-tweet/share’ evolve into a trend, or even a norm? To begin with, we’ll look at the socio-cultural practice of dining out, which is universal but especially so in the Western culture.

Now, pause for a second and reflect on your own experience. It probably isn’t too difficult for you to recall an incident or two of your friends sending you snaps of their proud home cooked meal, a couple next to your table taking a selfie of themselves at a fancy restaurant, and so on.

Since the nature of social media and the core element of dining out emphasize on the idea of ‘socializing’, food pictures emerge as a natural connector for people online, enabling the increasing number of lone diners to share their experience and reconnect with others in this digital era. The notion of ‘eating alone yet together’ thus seeps into our daily lives and becomes the new norm.

There is, of course, another key factor attributing to this trend’s success, which is fundamentally because of food itself. Food is a universal symbol of love and comfort in contemporary society. It has sloughed off its utilitarian, traditional image as something predictable, uniform, and serious, and embraced its new identity, which signifies fun, pleasure, quality, and diversity. What is more, however, is that when food is brought onto social media, it becomes an emblem of identity, ideologies, and origins. Thus, with the rise of social media, it is increasingly perceived as a way of expressing (or curating) oneself (online)—or, as some puts (less eloquently), a way to be cool and show off.

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Screen shot of my own foodstagram account by Vivien Li

The plating is important, so is the lighting. Should I do a top-down shot of the dish, or a zoom-in on the food itself? Food images are edited, re-edited then presented in ways to best deliver an enjoyable experience that can be seen and appeal to the public. One cannot help but wonder what Michael Jacobson, the co-creator of the Center for Science in the Public Interest who coined the term food porn in 1979, would say if he saw the images found on Instagram and Facebook nowadays. Indeed, these food pictures are exaggerated to an extent so sensationally out of bounds of what a food should be that it deserved to be considered pornographic, yet it is precisely this gratification we crave for while browsing through our endless feed of foodstagram.

There is a plethora of food accounts created, dedicating themselves to specific cuisines and curating a food personality that helps engender a sense of community among the creators and their followers. It is no exaggeration to say that food pictures brings people together online and helps one user identify with another; people do not engage with food accounts they are not interested in or disapprove of. The act of following a food account is just like joining an online club for people of common grounds, which, in this case, is common taste and lifestyle, i.e. organic, Japanese bento, sweet tooth, etc.

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Screen shot of ChChewFoodie’s Instagram Feed by Vivien Li

Now that we understand the appeal of food porn, we can take a look at its actual effects on people’s lives. Take Good Food Café’s ice cream trdelnik in Prague as an example of a huge international social media buzz. After being covered on several news articles (i.e. Buzzfeed, NPR, Mashable), the café gained wide awareness online through various social media likes and shares, and generated mass profits—though it was overrated, in my personal opinion—as many tourists flock there, hoping to get a taste of the Czech Republic. (Even the dessert trdelnik itself has been branded as ‘old traditional bohemian’ food, highlighting its historical roots despite the fact that, ironically, it originated elsewhere—probably in Greece, Sweden or Slovakia.)

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Screen shot of Mashable’s article on trdelnik in Prague by Vivien Li

With the proliferation of food photos shared online, and more conscious decisions on where to eat and what to document (then, in turn, share with our own family, friends and followers), food porn is becoming ever central to our social lives and identities. It appears that the quote of the famous French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin rings ever truer: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”

 

[Featured image courtesy of Vivien Li]

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4 thoughts on “The Food Generation: Indulging in Food Porn

  1. Hey Vivien,
    I really like how you incorporated both western food culture as well as an example from Central Europe. Your analysis seems quite accurate to me; sharing food on social media is just another way to connect to people. It is like extending a dinner invitation to the world in a way. Yet I also think it can possibly be a way of making others jealous and showing off. “Look at how cultured I am by eating this” or “Look at how much better of a chef I am than you.”
    Personally, while I see the appeal of food porn, I do not follow a single food account. I hate when pictures of food come up on my social media feeds as it just makes me too hungry and often I am too far away from the particular restaurant, bakery, etc. where the featured food is served.
    I also think it is noteworthy that a sort of stigma has surrounded the notion of taking pictures of food. I have encountered plenty of people from our own generation who laugh at friends who take pictures of their food before they eat it. Usually I am too hungry to spend time taking a photo before I eat, but when I do I look at the picture later when the food is gone, and I just get very sad ha.

  2. @vrl218 I really enjoyed how relatable your post was to all of us, especially students living in New York City. I am 100% a huge follower of instagram foodie accounts, from super small ones to “insta-famous” accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers. The intention of foodie accounts are great — they give publicity to the company and provide regular folk with a quick and convenient way to find new “hip” places to eat. But like every new trend in tech / social media we need to think of some consequences of this.

    One less impactful consequence is that perhaps food-porn is altering the way we explore, and find new treasures on our own. We are slowly shying away from the idea of wandering around a foreign city, and stumbling across a place that could either be the best meal of your life, or not. This method of finding new food spots has higher risk though — when you don’t know what you are getting yourself into, the risk of the restaurant being not up to par is much higher. But we may sacrifice that sense of spontaneity and self-discovered places for a reassurance of a good meal. It’s not a black and white situation. Some of my best food memories consist of the experience in finding the spot, with whomever and wherever the memory is made with. Some of my other favorite experiences have to do with the amazing meal we had because we found the “best” place online. I wonder if there is some kind of balance we can reach, before we rely solely on the internet for a good meal.

    I distinctly remember being in Southern California with my friend a summer ago. No one knew where to eat, so instead of taking a walk and finding a place, we sat in the car for maybe 30 minutes researching. We tried everything from yelp, to instagram, to googling things like “best foodie instagram accounts in LA”. Granted we had a GREAT meal in the end, but was it worth all that wasted time scrolling on our phones?

    Lastly, the second possible consequence that comes to mind is how it may harm certain businesses. Food porn thrives on trends. One account may see something on a different account, and that spot / food item becomes a hot topic. This could create some kind of bubble of trendy foods everyone becomes aware of, leaving others behind. Others who may be just as deserving of praise and popularity, but by chance others picked up in the cycle of food instagram accounts.

    Kind of a critical thought, but something to think about! I for sure know I will not be able to abandon my beloved foodie accounts anytime soon.

  3. I thought this was a very well written blog post and very relatable. Especially since we study in New York City, an area filled with a wide variety of restaurants and cultures. Even now being abroad we are constantly surrounded by new food and cultures, and obviously feel obligated to try the local cuisine. I know I sure do! That is one of my favorite parts about traveling from country to country, I am a big foodie 🙂

    Just the other day I was out to eat with some friends and one of them pulled our their phone and said, “my I-phone always eats first!” I just about died from laughter because that is so true, people are constantly snapping, and sharing their meal before they eat it. What a crazy phenomenon that I never caught onto myself. I definitely enjoy a good meal but don’t feel obligated to share it. I would much rather relate with a person over the food rather then seeing a picture of it on a media platform, it doesn’t do as much for me as actually experiencing it.

  4. It’s almost sad that we will never know about potentially amazing food because of Instagram. Sure, we see the best presentation of foods, but what about all those dive places with the less pretty but incredible meals? Some of the most delicious things can look like total garbage—at least in my personal experience. The success of a restaurant—especially in a city—depends on its items’ Instagramability. Just look at the rainbow bagel’s story for confirmation of this thesis. When a beautiful, yet otherwise average dish is shared on social media, it becomes coveted, and one feels as if they have to experience it themselves.
    Or do they? I know half the time I want to try some new food thing it’s partially because I want to get a Snapchat or Instagram shot of it. To me, it seems like this is less about the food itself and more about the Age of Aesthetic we live in. The food is aesthetically pleasing, the Instagram post will be, and thus, your personal brand will be aestheticized. In summary, I’m pretty sure interesting—or interestingly presented—food is just another way to market a business or personal brand. I know food is already a commodity and the point is to sell as much of it as possible, but I wonder if anything is being sacrificed—health?—for the sake of it’s curb appeal.

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