Ever since the days of AltaVista and WebCrawler, humans have been gradually adapting their everyday behavior to the new, more connected world. The Internet has changed the way we shop, how we fall in and out of love, the way we communicate and even how we engage with the government. So, it should come as no surprise that it has also affected the way we eat. Sure, more recipe websites and plenty of #foodpicsbruh might change where and when we eat, but our relationship with technology, social media in particular, has also changed the way we think about food.
Check out this handful of technological, gustatory revelations about how our appetite for social media has scrambled our mealtime behavior:
1. We demand more stimulation
The American mealtime has been in a constant state of interruption ever since the first television set made its way into the dining room in the Nuclear Era. Since then, we’ve followed that TV – bringing our plates out of the dining room and into the living room. A coffee table became the dinner table and talking with your mouth full is no longer an issue of social grace. With the advent of social media and mobile Internet access, this time-split has become even more extreme, knocking the average family mealtime down to an optimistic 20 minutes. To put it simply, we get bored more easily. There are now multiple screens competing for our attention, and many restaurant owners have obliged by adding even more televisions, games and even live entertainment to keep peoples’ eyes up and engaged.
2. We have broader horizons
Social media has made the world considerably smaller. Foreign isn’t foreign and exotic is, if not familiar, accessible. We now have windows into far-flung worlds and the food they eat. Previously unknown delicacies can now be found at corporate big box stores. However, this hasn’t cheapened the experience or made eating an exotic fruit any less special – people are simply more educated and are more knowledgeable about their food options and origins than they ever have been. This increasingly international mindset has even caused an increase in demand for foreign language learning in America.
3. We are more adventurous
Unlike our broadened horizons, the breadth of our culinary lexicon, our more adventurous appetite is all about depth. Social media has given rise to a more impulsive and curious psychological state that craves innovation, newness and experimentation. We don’t just want a hot dog; we want all of the hot dogs. We want fresh, fused mash-up versions of familiar foods that show creativity and wit. Nothing is new; it’s only seen from a new perspective. Because of this, we will eat things we would have previously thought were outside our comfort zone. This means there are fewer taboo ingredients, and we expect our chefs and home cooks to go beyond back-of-the-box preparations. Safe-weird foods such as pork belly have moved from fringe fare to menu standard, which causes market prices to jump erratically as the supply moves to accommodate the more nimble diner’s demand.
4. We want our foods to multitask
Divided attention is no longer a transient state of being. We have become accustomed to living life between notifications with our head on a swivel. This reality is illustrated in a most surreal and profound way by the necessity for Don’t Text and Drive public health campaigns. If we are constantly multitasking, why shouldn’t our foods do the same? We can see the validity of this in the commercial successes of Vitaminwater and other functional beverages such as probiotic jalapeño dips, kombucha, the recent rise of chia seeds and even the spice turmeric. We project our idea of work ethic and efficiency onto our food – if we are constantly pressed for time, we want our foods to help us be more efficient with it.
5. We seek the superlative
The world’s biggest, best, spiciest, juiciest and most utterly enlightening food has all been exhaustedly catalogued for us. With social media we can sort, filter, cross-reference and GPS-auto-locate the absolute, quickly and easily. What and where to eat no longer feels like a matter of opinion, so much as a matter of statistical and geographical truth. A simple workday lunch at the pub down the block isn’t good enough when the world’s most highly-rated basket of chili-dusted, flash-fried calamari fritto misto is one neighborhood over. This principal has also given rise to culinary tourism – yes, it’s an actual thing. Thanks, social media, now I have to wait in line for nearly an hour just to get the Sausage Fatty special at Bogart’s … Er, um, don’t go there – it’s terrible …
6. We have food anxiety
Access to millions of opinions, ratings, lists and reviews has infiltrated our very concept of what it means to eat. Early Homo sapiens ate to survive another day. Classical Romans and Greeks binged (and purged) to show their wealth. Victorian-era nut-jobs ate to ward off sin and psychosis. And now, some popular TV hosts eat, so you can watch them make ridiculous faces.
All of this has transformed simple meal decisions into empirical tests: “Did I make the right decision? Is this restaurant the restaurant for right now?” We fret and toil over simple decisions, and we make seemingly trivial details absolutely monumental. The share of mind the food has during the experience of actually eating it is in jeopardy because of the likes, stars, shares, retweets and pageviews we use to measure how true to life we have been in our choices. A meal isn’t simply that, it is part of who you are to the rest of the world. How could that not give you anxiety?
7. We eat smaller meals
A recent study showed that internet-addicted and highly active social media users actually eat smaller meals because they are unwilling to cede large-ish chunks of time to anything that isn’t surfing the ol’ “webberroo.” Although this is likely valid, I would posit that this cultural trend is more about variety-seeking behavior and the general fear of commitment that our social media-enabled lifestyle has engendered within us. The more darts we throw the higher our likelihood of hitting the bull’s eye, and in this case the bull’s eye is a status update-worthy eating experience. Or it could be because The National Restaurant Association is telling its members to serve smaller portions to oft-obese American diners, and to manage visual expectations by using different plates and glasses. Or it could even be any number of fad diets or strategic health mandates that state you’ll be more satiated and less likely to eat poorly if you are eating more constantly. Whatever psychosocial factor plays best, Americans are eating smaller portions at more instances throughout the day, which means more #foodpicsbruh.
8. We like to look at food
There is an exhaustive amount of data out there that explains how much we love to take photos of food. But how does this phenomenon affect the restaurant or eating environment? You’ve undoubtedly noticed dozens of diners incessantly snapping photos of their food while you are out to a nice meal. “I’ve noticed that an alarming number of diners don’t even make eye contact with me, or let me describe the dish I just served them because they are busy taking awful flash photos of their food” said Brad Chapman, bar manager at The Block in St. Louis. Aside from being a sad indicator of the decay of mealtime sanctity, this also means that what your food looks like on camera is of crucial importance. Seeing as how important social media promotion is to an eating establishment or food product brand, general managers and restaurateurs may want to make sure there is some serviceable lighting in their establishments so that amateur photographers can accurately represent their grub … I say that last bit with more than a modicum of disdain.
9. We expect to interact with food on social media
Social media provides a platform for influence. I realize this sounds like the cold mindset of a slimy cutthroat marketer, but it is far more pedestrian than that. Bands, artists, photographers, writers, bloggers, artisans, super-mega-corporate entities and especially food trucks use social media to interact and manage relationships with their customer base. It’s likely that even you, the reader, have used social media to invite friends to a bachelorette party or DJ gig. We have been tenderized by all of this, and we are ready to engage with food brands in the same space we use to post about our most intimate life events.
10. We are buying more kits and grouped products
Because we are spending more time tweeting, commenting, pheed-ing (yep), and iceberg-ing (it’s a thing), we have far less tolerance for time spent doing menial tasks such as carefully preparing food from scratch or shopping for special-use ingredients. Our accelerated mental rhythm means that we are seeking more ready-to-go meal kits or product suites. We’re also spending more money on processed foods … bummer. In a cultural climate that screams “we want exactly what we want, and we want it now,” a product or brand might find success in offering a healthier, tastier alternative to prepared or processed foods in order to appeal to our faster pace without killing us from within.
To find out more ways social media has changed the way we eat and think, please contact James Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org.