Until recently, if you perused the scholarship on Instagram, the app might have appeared to be a relatively benign, homogenous stepchild to its social media forebears. More visual, more commercial, less political, less weighty. Instagram was a place for diet fads and celebrity selfies, not a site for important developments like the obsessively analyzed Facebook or Twitter. While its status has begun to shift and be rendered more complex, the first book devoted to the platform, Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures (Leaver, Highfield and Abidin) was only published in 2020, a couple of years after the platform had reached one billion monthly active users. Meanwhile, those users relentlessly cultivated new media practices and relations on the platform through endogenous aesthetic conventions, emergent subjectivities, and political contestations.
Our new edited collection, Food Instagram: Identity, Influence and Negotiation (University of Illinois Press, May 31, 2022) opens up new lines of questioning about Instagram practices and relations through the medium of food. Food offers varied and delightfully visual points of entry for exploring social media practices across diverse geographies, coalescing around the central category of “food Instagram.” We identify food Instagram as not just a common subject, but a quasi-genre on the platform distinguished by a shared focus on representations of food, eating, and food-related phenomena circulated by both everyday users and industry professionals.
Reflecting the heterogeneous content of food Instagram, the book brings interdisciplinary lenses to the platform’s food images and processes of image-making, drawing on media studies, food studies, gender and sexuality studies, sociology, anthropology, art theory, political theory, and other fields. The book brokers conversations beyond academia, too, including chapters from a food journalist, feminist artists, and a food influencer, KC Hysmith, who baked, styled, and shot the cover photo. Carefully positioned, basked in natural light, shot from above, and purposefully colorful, the photo replicates the food Instagram aesthetic as it critiques it. A knife slices through a photo of “Instagrammable” cake, rendered in pink frosting upon a phone made itself of cake, visually representing the layered and deconstructionist work of the volume. In this way, the book contributes to our digital food culture as it comments on it, considering both food in media and food as medium.
When we composed our call for abstracts in 2019, we were delighted to see it travel far and wide across social media and listservs. From the dozens of submissions that we received, we crafted a collection of essays that draws together an international community of scholars, opening up conversations far beyond the US focus of much research on Instagram. Contributions feature food influencers in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and the US. Chefs and restaurateurs in France, Denmark, and Thailand appear in the book, while other chapters examine how Canadian and Australian farmers use the platform. Overtly political representations of food are explored in an Israeli nation-building project and in the posts of populist politicians in Brazil and Italy. Several chapters focus on regional food identities in North America, from biscuit restaurants in the US South to organic farmers in the cross-border Pacific Northwest. Food Instagram is thoroughly emplaced, rooted in locally evolving food cultures and taste politics with global implications.
As these chapters show, Instagram has become an important site for producing our mediated food system through its visual economy. From producers’ photogenic narratives about our food origins, like compassionately raised “happy meat,” to the stylings of brightly layered, extravagant “freakshakes”
in an Australian café bought by some customers only to photograph, not eat—food is consumed as much by the camera as by the mouth. As Gaby David and Laurence Allard recount in their chapter on food porn, when asking after dessert recommendations at a Parisian restaurant, the waiter replied, “Well, one is served warm and is very tasty, but the other one is more Instagrammable.” Food has always been valued for its visuality, and food porn long predates digital media. However, as a digitally networked commodity, food-related content can travel further and faster, and reach different, often broader audiences than previous food media. Everyday media users also become food content producers outside of professional spheres much more than before, altering the dynamics of food systems. Suddenly any point along the food chain could become a socially networked object accessible anywhere via the platform.
The spaces of food consumption have likewise been adapted for the camera lens, as restaurants, shops, farmers markets, and kitchens are redesigned to produce a grammable experience. By 2019, an estimated 78% of restaurants in the US used the platform, and both dishes and restaurants themselves have been redesigned to conform to Instagram aesthetics. Public appetite for continuous visual content as an extension of these spaces can lead to a convergence in aesthetic styles, as Fabio Parasecoli and Mateusz Halawa show in their edited volume, Global Brooklyn (2021), which traces the reproduction of the New York borough’s industrial hipster style across food hotspots around the world. Hashtags and geotags are additional place-making technologies on Instagram, creating meaning by both locating images geographically and linking content across space. In the world of food, they can serve to both localize and globalize food-related images, which can be seen, for example, in the use of the hashtag #foodporn. David and Allard note that although 80 percent of Instagram food posts in France are in French, the majority of hashtags are in English to intentionally engage with global users. These citational practices fuse digital and physical places, as food images index local identities while plugging into transnational networks.
Food subjects are also produced in this visual economy, and Food Instagram offers rich and provocative examples from not just the influencers and celebrities for which the app is most closely identified, but also restaurateurs alongside everyday cooks and food photographers. Representing a kind of networked star system held together by the density of their connections and followings, the influencer economy commodifies corners of food culture by driving attention and selling lifestyles. Contributor Mimi Okabe looks at how Japanese diet product companies mobilize influencers and everyday users to reproduce a hyperfeminine girl culture privileging thinness, while Tara Schuwerk and Sarah Cramer explore how wellness influencers rely on highly gendered visual conventions and questionable claims of expertise while prescribing healthy eating choices. Influence can also stir up bonds of community, such as digital practices of hospitality and communal cooking fostered during the pandemic by Black women linked by such hashtags and accounts as #blackgirlcooking and Vegan Soul Food, as examined by Robin Caldwell. Similarly, Alex Ketchum shows feminist restaurateurs adeptly blending a longer history of analog media, such as cookbooks and newsletters, with social media content like Instagram stories as a means to sustain their communities’ political commitments amidst food offerings, recipes, and event listings.
The volume also shows how food subjectivities exceed familiar categories of cooks and eaters, for example by looking to farmers carefully curating their feeds to depict the idyllic origin of crops and livestock, and populist politicians connecting with their publics using posts of what contributor Sara Garcia calls “food puritanism,” identified as ostensibly authentic (traditional or comfort) foods shared without embellishment or editing. Digital platforms like Instagram thus mediate food and identity through visibility, storytelling, and networked communities in ways that can deepen connections or fragment them.
In our introduction we offer up a framework for analyzing these and other themes that locate the book at the crossroads of a number of conversations in media studies and food studies. Proposing a “feed supply chain” analysis of food Instagram, we suggest that one of the aesthetic appeals of the platform is its ability to offer the illusion of frictionless access to beautiful images, including food. We write, “The platform helps to foster the fantasy of shortened food (and image) supply chains through its aesthetics of liveness, intimacy, and authenticity” (p. 13). By examining how the platform supports a visual food ecosystem all the way from raw inputs—including everything from attractive food and photographic labor to celebrity appeal and user attention—to distribution, consumption, and waste along the feed supply chain, we push fellow scholars of media and food to integrate image analysis into broader engagement with the politics and economics of constantly feeding the feed.
For the fields of media studies and food studies, this approach provides new access points for familiar topics like celebrity, influencers, food porn, virality, identity, digital and culinary labor, and the cultures of connectivity, among others. It also invites us to bring food Instagram into other emerging interdisciplinary conversations, such as the role of social media in increasing food waste through excess consumption; the often-hidden forms of labor supporting food Instagram such as farm workers, delivery people, and content moderators whose exploitation may be exacerbated by their relative invisibility; the carbon footprint of food tourism and the vast archives of unused photographs stored in the cloud; and social media’s role in the changing political economy of both our food system and platform capitalism. Instagram has significantly shaped what, how, and why we eat. As editors, we sincerely hope that Food Instagram documents how food also shaped Instagram, as the volume charts the myriad aspects of this transformation still left open to explore.
Use promo code S22UIP to receive a 30% discount on Food Instagram: Identity, Influence & Negotiation through the University of Illinois Press website (good through December 31, 2022)