Taking photos of our food has become an international phenomenon. When the server places our plates on the table, the first thing we reach for isn’t our cutlery – it’s our phones. Photos are taken from all angles to get the best shot to upload to Instagram before we even think about taking a bite.
To some of us, it’s intensely irritating. To others, it’s a way of life – even of earning a living. But what drives people to share photos of their dinner? What’s the motivation of the ‘foodstagrammers’?
Esade’s Mar Vila, Gerard Costa and Eleunthia Ellinger investigated this global trend for the Journal of Sustainable Tourism. Over the course of six months, the trio monitored foodstagrammer tourists visiting the city of Barcelona, a very popular food-tourist destination. Using a series of observations and immersion experiences in six food tours with 48 participants, the researchers analysed and interpreted the actions, people and activities to gain an insight into the motives of the foodstagrammers.
The rise of food tourism
The founder and executive director of the World Food Travel Association (WFTA), Erik Wolf, defines food tourism as "the act of travelling for a taste of place in order to get a sense of place." According to the WFTA, food tourism has risen in prominence in the last decade with the help of social media and television shows. Food has become a primary criterion for traveller destination selection, and the numbers of food tour companies, events, and experience focused marketing efforts have increased globally.
Food tourism has risen in prominence in the last decade with the help of social media and television shows
The rise of social media represents one of the most significant changes in tourism, and businesses increasingly rely on it to manage and market tourism.
Changes in tourism caused by social media are complex and can be conflicting, as the implications for social, environmental, and economic sustainability may contradict each other. Social media can promote sustainable tourism choices and help small businesses reach global consumers at low cost. But they also foster a consumer preference for luxurious brands and forms of resource-intense consumption or unsustainable products and services.
In pursuit of perfection: the motivations of the foodstragrammers
Foodstagrammers – defined as tourists who take food-related photographs and share them on social media – perceive their activity as something unique and distinctive. Driven by their pursuit of extraordinary and shared experiences, they spend weeks researching their trips, scouring Instagram for influencers linked to their destination. "These are unique experiences," explained one participant. "I wouldn’t do it at home. I prepare for them months ahead of time."
For many foodstagrammers, eating the food is secondary to the photographs. Or, as some describe it, "The camera eats first." One participant shot more than 100 photos before eating; another placed a tripod ceremoniously on the table before every meal to ensure the best shots, taking several frames of the food and surroundings before picking up a fork.
Transferring these experiences to social media seems to increase perception that the participants were living moments that go beyond the normal – events that are far removed from the simple consumption of food.
The sense of an extraordinary experience shared with friends and followers coincides with the sense of belonging or the moments of experience and feelings. Instagram is perceived not only as an explanatory documentation of the experience, but as a lens through which the experience can be viewed by a community of peers and like-minded individuals.
Food or photos?
As a leisure interest, participants demonstrated that their activities were a unique combination of specialised consumption and a dedication to sharing with those who respect their passion. But the passion isn’t necessarily the food – rather the act of sourcing, documenting and sharing the experience. The concern with likes and follows, and the permanent presence of cameras, creates tensions within the very experience they pursue. One participant explained how he would never again join a group of cooks or gourmets on a food tour, after being scolded for taking photographs.
Sorting, editing and uploading photographs – with their resulting likes and affirmations – provides foodstagrammers more pleasure than the experience of travel, location and eating the food
And, despite the months of research to identify the ideal location, with the best restaurants and the most aspirational cookery courses, for many the experience is secondary to what comes next. Sorting, editing and uploading photographs – with their resulting likes and affirmations – provides more pleasure than the experience of travel, location and eating the food. "My partner tells me that he wonders whether I have a better time during the meal or later, when sharing photos and uploading it," admitted one participant, to murmurs of agreement from her fellow foodstagrammers – many of whom had already started to manipulate their photos at the table.
I Instagram, therefore I am
For foodstagrammer tourists, sharing photos of what and where they eat during their free time is a way of describing their lifestyles, their attitudes, and their values. A lifestyle and personal status are depicted that enables a social identification that would be otherwise unobtainable.
This motivation is an identification and a distinct characteristic of millennials and generation Z, who are considered intense Instagram users with a high level of opinion-seeking behaviour. They pursue followers, reposts and tags to create a sense of belonging and create a culture.
For the foodstagrammer, the experience isn’t about consciously promoting a restaurant or place – it’s an exercise in identification
Being a foodstagrammer identifies them, even though this leisure activity may be far removed from their day-to-day life. Instagram is used by professionals to market their businesses, paying influencers to be the face of their brand. But for the foodstagrammer, the experience isn’t about consciously promoting a restaurant or place – it’s an exercise in identification.
And this social identification provokes a certain degree of narcissism. Instagram allows people to document their experiences, and excessive complacency with their regular lives leads them to believe that these extraordinary experiences must be shared. One participant wondered out loud if he would do “all of this” without Instagram.
"We have to admit it,” he acknowledged. “If I can’t exhibit it, why would I do it?"
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