On Saturday 24th August, Mai Kobayashi, Visiting Research Fellow Christine Barnes (King’s College London), and other FEAST members held a Digital Foodscapes Workshop ’“Food” that we “Cook” “Share” and “Eat”: Exploring our digital foodscape’ in Mumoteki, Kyoto. The workshop was part of the work that Christine has been doing over the summer exploring the representation and mediation of Japanese food culture on Instagram. Bringing together a group of people to share some of the initial findings of the project and discuss their perspectives on food and social media was a really useful way to test the ideas in the research.
During her visit at FEAST Christine has been researching “food media” on Instagram and the way that these SNS platforms can mediate everyday food encounters and alter the way we eat and relate to food. In the UK (where Christine is from) food media is widely recognised as transforming food systems and food culture and has emerged as some of the most popular content on SNS. Instagram is particularly popular, with the image-based format lending itself well to food and there are thousands of accounts dedicated to beautiful (and not so beautiful) food photos. In Japan, Instagram is the fastest growing SNS and in 2018 overtook Facebook as the most popular SNS. There is a lot of potential for Instagram to impact both how people eat and the food images and information that are circulated, but very little (if any) research has been done about what Instagram food content in Japan looks like. The project first created a taxonomy of key voices (the most popular Japanese food Instagrammers) and key narratives (by looking at the most popular hashtags) in order to identify the dominant food media discourses. While there are a range of popular food topics represented on Instagram, the most popular Instagrammers tend to focus on a much smaller set of foods – obento and home cooking. The project considers which aspects of mainstream Japanese food culture are represented in Instagram and to critically analyse these representations. In particular, we were interested in what is missing or hidden from these food narratives, and the problematic dislocation between the image on Instagram and the relationships to food (social, economic, environmental, gender etc) and the eating experience itself.
The workshop was designed to share some of these initial research findings, but more importantly to bring together a group of people to discuss their perceptions of Instagram and its impacts on everyday experiences of eating and food through a visual/arts-based activity. Workshop participants were a mix of invited FEAST members, interested members of the public, and people working in food in Kansai area including a chef and a miniature food artist. We had 19 participants and had a good mix of ages and genders. During the 2-hour workshop we gave a short presentation and provided a set of discussion questions and displayed a set of 48 popular Instagram food images. For the main activity we asked participants to make their own mini Instagrammable food dish using one of the top ten hashtags. We provided a big selection of craft materials for people to get creative with as well as a selection of bento decorating tools including nori stamps with pandas faces, sausage stamps, and Hello Kitty flags! By making a dish that was specifically designed to be posted on Instagram, people had to think about what makes a good Instagram image rather than just make their favourite food. We asked each person to explain what they had made and why, before finishing with a short group discussion.
One objective of the workshop was to introduce the idea of ‘digital foodscapes’, a concept that has gained popularity within food geographies – particularly those studying food media. Foodscapes describe the encounters, contestations and resistances that shape your everyday relations with food. Much like landscape, it describes the socially constructed meanings and values that are attached to food through our everyday interactions. It can include the spaces you buy, cook and consume food: your local grocery store or konbini (convenience store), kitchen at home, lunchbox, or restaurant. It can also include conversations you have about food, or information you read. Nora MacKendrick has a useful short piece on foodscapes. Digital foodscape develops this idea further to recognise the impact of digital technology and media in producing, mediating and circulating information about food adding news spaces and forms in which food is consumed. It can include SNS, online news, blogs, recipe sharing, phone apps. The focus is heavily weighted on the visual, and though lots of new content is produced and shared it is often removed from the experience of eating. Digital foodscapes involve eating with our eyes, and the visceral experiences of eating (the taste, smells, textures and so on) are lost or at least take a backseat to the image. Research has shown that digital foodscapes affect what we eat, the food knowledge we have, and who we trust to provide that information. Digital foodscapes are a useful way of highlighting the significance of these new media forms beyond merely entertainment or business opportunities (though they can be both).
The workshop ran with success. Crafting Instagrammable food was the most popular bit of the workshop – people really got into making their food and didn’t want to stop! We were so impressed with the creativity and skill that people had, producing some brilliant and detailed dishes. People had produced a whole host of meals and had thought about why they were making it in that way. For example, we had a bento with tea-soba and quail’s eggs, made of blue string and clay, chosen for the bright colours it would add. A mini breakfast came complete with burnt sausages, made by an imaginary career woman who was rushing to try and cook for herself but determined to share her culinary efforts on Instagram with many hashtags. A bowl of perfectly recreated ramen was topped with a winking cats face, combining two of the most popular things on the internet: food and cats. There was also the tiniest sushi set we’d ever seen, made as small as possible to be cute. When sharing why they had designed their food like they did people mentioned the importance of colour and kawaii (cuteness) in making it appealing, and several people acknowledged that manipulating food and its presentation to look cute or decorative in some way was important. Only one person mentioned taste or nutrition, having designed a healthy dinner with organic vegetables and fish. For others taste and eating was not the main concern – probably unsurprising when they were making food from art materials!
In the discussion we asked people to think about why Instagram has become so popular with food and what they think the impacts might be. Few people were regular Instagram users, but those who were, shared photos of food both as a way of sharing food they had eaten or cooked, or as a way of remembering what they had eaten like a food diary. We had a really interesting discussion with a mother who posted photos of food her children cooked. She observed that posting photos may be a way of getting recognition and praise that mothers may not get for cooking they do for their family. Others agreed that this validation was an important reason why people share food photos, particularly for mothers. There was little discussion about the problems of Instagram, and the group seemed broadly accepting of the continuing trend for taking and sharing food photos online. In our own discussions at FEAST, we’ve questioned the erasure of labour, gender, nutrition and agricultural sustainability issues from these narratives, and it would be useful in the future to have the opportunity to raise some of these questions with the public.