멀리서 같이 먹다
Created by 5777859
먹방   Eating Together Apart

I am alone, sitting cross-legged on the floor in a one-bedroom apartment. Looking up to my screen I watch as a young woman slowly ingests a huge meal; a sizzling selection of seafood and mushrooms that she had carefully prepared in a spicy sambal sauce. The amplified sounds of her mastication echo as she gently probes her next portion. This mouthful is almost too much for her to take.
I am salivating.

Image of Ssoyoung, 2021   (Brown, 2021)

No, I haven’t paid for this video on Only Fans I’m simply describing my experience watching a Mukbang video on YouTube. It seems I am not alone in this endeavour either; with people tuning in from all around the world and popular posts attracting hundreds of millions of views (the most successful of which drawing in over half a billion (DONA 도나, 2020)). The prevalence of Mukbang is evident. But what might, on the surface appear to be a strange, unhealthy oft intimate web niche may just be the digital evolution of food media and a testament to the enduring penetrative power of the ‘Korean wave’.

먹방이 뭐야What is it?

Arising from South Korea circa. 2010 (Cha, 2014), the term ‘Mukbang’ refers to a now wide-ranging genre of online eating shows. Where the ‘mukbanger’ or as they were originally known, broadcast jockey (BJ) commonly consumes large portions of food on camera whilst interacting with viewers (McCarthy, 2017). The word itself being an amalgamation of the South Korean words for ‘eating’ (meokneun) and ‘broadcast’ (bangsong) (Kircaburun et al., 2020).

Image of BenDeen, 2021   (Brown, 2021)

Videos in this genre were originally live streams on native Korean platforms such as Afreeca TV. However, a large portion of the content is now pre-recorded (eg. TikToks & YouTube videos). Prominent niches within the genre include ASMR (where slurping and chewing sounds are amplified), story time mukbangs (where BJs share stories during their meal), cook-bangs (where BJs are shown preparing their food before consumption) and perhaps the most easily recognisable and infamous subgenre in the mukbang scene, the oogui eater (where BJs gorge themselves on massive amounts of food) (Ewe, 2021).

어디에서 왔습니까Where did it come from?

To understand the driving factors behind mukbangs we must first consider the societal context. Historically, Collectivism and Confucianism held a powerful influence over everyday life in South Korea. As such notions of hierarchy and group harmony were immensely important. (Park et al., 2017). Eating was not considered to be a private activity rather a means to achieve social solidarity, with individuals facing social judgments from eating alone (Kim, 2020).

Recently, South Korea has seen a trend towards a 24-hour society resulting in the fast decline in both the frequency and duration of shared meals (Kim, 2020). Leaving an ever-growing number of Koreans both living (Household Projections for Korea, 2019) and eating alone. In the wake of such societal changes, in conjunction with a highly developed and adopted digital infrastructure (Kemp, 2021), came the advent of food broadcasts, and, in turn, evolving social norms that challenge traditional cultural values (Kim, 2020).

Busy Seoul Train Commute   (Device Atlas, 2021)

Viewers in these streams were found to establish emotional connections & empathy towards BJs (Hakimey & Yazdanifard, 2015). Growing fond of the personality as a result of their live interactions with the chat (Song, 2018). Furthermore, the viewers of streams developed a feeling of co-presence with other viewers (Choe, 2019) which facilitated a subjective closeness and a sense of social bonding (Donnar, 2017) and belonginess in both viewer to host, and viewer to viewer relationships (Hong & Park, 2018). As such these online communities became a means for individuals to compensate for unfulfilled emotional needs.

먹방의 시대The age of Mukbang

There has been a substantial amount of discourse both academic and non-academic surrounding the merits, appeal, and purpose of Mukbangs. Echoing above, Bruno & Chung (2017) found that those who benefit the most from these videos were individuals who desire a social presence whilst eating alone. However other significant factors that contribute to the appeal of the genre include sexual gratification, entertainment, escapism, and unsurprisingly vicarious satiation of food cravings (Kircaburun et al., 2020).

Food and sexuality are closely linked, both being core physiological instincts and activating similar parts of the brain (Fisher, 2011). Both instincts are interrelated in the wider public-psyche (think ‘popping your cherry’ or ‘foodgasm’) and by consequence, media (ever seen a Lindt chocolate commercial? Or a cooking show by Nigella Lawson?) utilizing similar language and imagery. This interrelation continues as Park et al. (2017) notes that at times men and women may combine sexual and eating gratifications (Park et al., 2017). As such mukbang appears to be continuing this trend, perhaps leaning heavier on such sensuous techniques like ASMR and achieving a greater sense of intimacy than that of a mainstream cooking program (which can, at times, feel like it’s bordering on voyeurism).

Image of Rose, 2021   (Brown, 2021)

With some applauding this format which revels in of the act of consuming (Lee, 2021), many viewers have noted that tuning into streams has helped them to stick to their diets as they vicariously eat through the hosts (Castrodale, 2019). Additionally, the format has seen the success of many female BJs of all shapes and sizes. As such it has been seen to challenge traditional views surrounding women, specifically challenging expectations of decorum. With some viewers noting that the real depictions of eating have helped them to deal with their own insecurities (Lee, 2021).

However, Kardefelt-Winther (2014) warns of the dangers faced when compensating unattained offline social needs with use of a specific online activity. This has raised concerns surrounding addictive use of this content. In addition to this, some content has been found to be harmful for those suffering from eating disorders (Strand and Gustafsson, 2020) as prominent BJ’s partake in yo-yo dieting (excessively fasting, working out and then binge-eating). With such behaviour suspected to be involved in the premature death of a popular 19-year-old BJ (Tan, 2021) and the mental and physical decline of popular American mukbanger NikocadoAvocado (Asarch and Mendez II, 2021). Others support these notions arguing that watching mukbang may be especially dangerous for younger viewers as it models binge eating, portraying it as socially acceptable (Associated Press, 2019).

My First Ramen Noodle   (Nikocado Avocado, 2016)
My New Diet as a Disabled Person   (More Avocado, 2021)

Since its breakthrough into western digital culture in 2015 (McCarthy, 2017) the format has continued to evolve. An increasing number of videos show content creators consuming ever weirder and/or more shocking items. This includes eating coloured ice (closer food, 2021), food made to look like everyday objects (HunniBee ASMR, 2019) and most notably Ssoyoung who has become infamous (in now deleted or edited videos) for torturing and eating live seafood (penguinz0, 2020). The prevalence of these videos, what we could dub ‘shock-bangs’, are likely linked to the engagement-based machine-learning ranking algorithms utilised on many social media sites. These algorithms have been proven to favour controversial and extreme content as “people just like outrageous stuff” (Hao, 2021). As such content creators who participate in commodifying themselves across the medium (Athique, 2019) are increasingly pushed to extreme matter for viral success. These factors have furthered debate surrounding the toxicity of the ‘mukbang lifestyle’.


개인적인 반응Personal Response

From the mundane to the very extreme - mukbang has brought the act of eating into the digital age. Imbuing within it a new series of social transactions and connotation. The above acts simply as an overview into this world and is by-no-means all-encompassing. In preparing to write this report, I was struck with a challenge as I did not realise how large and varied the genre really is. Like many online communities, mukbang seems to be represented in the wider public psyche by only the most controversial content and it was an innate curiosity of such that originally drew me to it.

At a glance, the news media surrounding mukbang appears to be vastly negative. Pertaining only to the horror stories and most extreme niches. However, as my research continued, I found myself drawn to the videos that weren’t overtly disgusting, shocking, or sexual but rather the ordinary. The videos that were perhaps most recognisable in comparison to traditional food media formats. Where BJ’s would prepare ordinary meals and then consume them. Conversely, I also engaged with a subset of mukbangs that bore closer resemblance to personal vlogs, where you’d be forgiven for not even realising you were watching mukbang as conversation and personality took forefront.

SISTER MUKBANG // Girl Talk...   (Centomo A, 2021)

Living in Sydney during the most recent lockdown has left me spending a lot of time in isolation. With practically all social interactions mediated by some form of technology and restricted to meals inside my 1-bedroom apartment. As such these ‘cook-bangs’ and ‘personality-bangs’ did function as a means of escape. With the former, (in the time directly following a viewing) providing a renewed appreciation for the ritualistic act of eating – revelling in the sensations and naturally desiring some form of company (a co-presence which I found the videos, themselves did not provide). And the latter, functioning as an equal satiation of my curiosity (into others personal lives), a desire for social dialogue and a distraction from the monotony of lockdown (with attraction or visual interest in the host being a deciding factor in viewing practice).

So, it seems when it comes to viewing mukbangs at least, I preferred watching women eat (with the exception of Ephemeral Rift's content). Although, it does not seem these videos will make it into my daily digestion of content, I can identify common factors between my mukbang preferences and other genres that I watch and enjoy regularly. Specifically, a recent uptake (coinciding with lockdown) in the viewing of personality-based videos. However as opposed to being based around eating these are usually based around other interests like music (RoomieOfficial), movies (Mr Sunday Movies) or cooking (Binging With Babish). With the latter sharing ASMR and other elements with mukbang.

In the creation of this report and site I sought not to present a negatively skewed perception of the genre rather an unapologetic presentation. Providing a brief topology of its idiosyncratic, messy, and often overwhelming content. Placing the accompanying video and photos within the design of the site, I attempted to craft interpolations conveying the voyeuristic experience of watching these videos. A combination of production value (often being filmed in a car or home) and the unfiltered appearance of the content displayed on the screen seems to tap deeply into this instinctual curiosity. As BJs continue to eat for their viewers and those millions continue to watch, we finally draw focus to the screen itself. Which bears the commercial connotations of media and in turn, highlights the transactional nature of consumption within these digital platforms.


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