Social distancing is no walk in the park (figuratively and literally). Locking yourself up to the outside world and communicating through virtual applications have been the theme of 2020, as evident through the plethora of memes circulating the Internet. However, this quarantine period is not the only time that we, the new generation, are so desperately in need of companionship in our daily lives. This desire for social interaction has been encapsulated through the genre of “Mukbang” (eating broadcasts), where audiences spend hours watching mukbangers consume delicious food. Is this social trend pure entertainment, or does it reflect on how our modern society has become more and more secluded?
The Origin Story
The concept of “mukbang” originated from South Korea, where videos of this genre showcase Youtubers munching away huge portions of food, ranging from ramen to seafood or whatever pleases the audiences’ eyes and ears. Although it has emerged and developed into a successful and lucrative trend, the origin story is not exactly exciting.
While eating is coded as a communal and social activity in South Korea and many Asian countries, the newer generations face a different reality: Single, individualistic households consuming their meals alone. However, since eating together plays such an integral role in their culture, Korean youngsters have devised the broadcasting system so that the host and audiences can enjoy their food “together” online. Since then, the genre has become a global Internet sensation that unites lonely diners seeking human connection.
Mukbang as Pure Entertainment?
The “mukbang” genre has been on the rise, thanks to the sensory experience (ASMR) that it delivers to the audiences. As is similarly the case with“food porn,” the viewers tune in to the mukbangers’ eating sounds such as slurping, chewing, crunching and to the visually luscious dishes. These stimuli elicit psychological and physiological sensations, which is believed to alleviate stress and help the audiences relax from working and studying.
Other viewers tune into the eating broadcasts for a more specific and unique purpose: vicarious eating, or eating “through” the broadcasters. As many individuals struggle with dieting or the lack of access to tasty foods, mukbang videos serve as a perfect escapist gateway to their cravings. Watching the mukbangers enjoying heaps of food in and of itself satisfies the audiences’ desires with delish and indulgence, elements absent in their reality.
Mukbang and the Lonely Generation
Nonetheless, the primary reason for mukbangers’ massive fanbase has to be linked to humans’ most fundamental necessities of eating and socializing. Many audiences have cited watching mukbang videos as a mechanism to overcome loneliness and seek companionship. According to recent psychology research, mukbang is considered to resolve social isolation through viewers’ interaction with both the host and fellow audience members and incites a sense of belonging.
“Mukbang fills a void <…> where people are lonely. They want to eat with someone.”
As viewers desire a company while eating, they form parasocial relationships with the mukbangers where both parties interact and converse with one another. As a California-based mukbanger states best, “Mukbang fills a void <…> where people are lonely. They want to eat with someone.” With this need for socialization, mukbang videos provide and replicate escapism and community for people living in isolation.
The mukbangers are not merely performers whose task is to ingest the food – to their viewers; they are also the eating companions that help the audiences emotionally connect with one another. Furthermore, the mukbangers not only eat, but also communicate by responding to the audiences’ requests and questions, giving thanks for gifts, commenting on the food, or even sharing details about their personal lives. This engagement develops a bond that is unprecedented in other formats, where mukbangers share the private and primal act of eating as well as form relationships with millions of Internet users.
Not only do mukbang viewers bond with the hosts, but they also establish relationships with other audience members. The mukbang videos then evolve into a marketplace of social interactions, a form of “co-presence” that transcends physical distance. With the commonality in interest, these lonely souls find solace in the virtual community of practical strangers through “digital commensality.” Through this psychological facilitation of commensality, the practice of eating together is used as a coping mechanism of loneliness. Even though all interactions between viewers take place online and anonymously, one can feel the presence of others through chat screens and comments and develop empathetic relationships.
A Solemn Reality
Although mukbang can simply be viewed as harmless entertainment, the genre underlies social implications that extend beyond the boundaries of its own existence. Perplexed by the attention and popularity of these videos, I questioned the motivations behind an individual’s active and mindful decision to watch mukbang videos for hours on end. As I began to spend more time by myself, it becomes more and more apparent how difficult it is for me to entertain myself. The puzzle was solved: Mukbang is not a crusade for introverts – it is a reflection of our solemn and bleak reality as our contemporary society grows more reserved.
In this secluded world, mukbang videos might as well be the silver lining of someone’s day and as much as we can resist our natural instinct, we require human interaction to sustain. This innate desire is best embodied by the act of eating, where it is not solely about the food, but also about the people. Although this trend is not necessarily a desperate call for help, it illustrates how changing times and circumstances bring about countermeasures to adapt to loneliness through entertainment.
Cover: Justin Snyder Photo