Many years before obsessively photographing food became the socially acceptable practice that it is today, my dad used to send me CD-ROMs filled with pics of each and every meal that he and my mom ate while they were on vacations. The CDs were labeled “Mediterranean Cruise” or “Adventures in Chile,” and on the discs, there would be hundreds of carefully composed portraits of whatever was on my parents’ plates at any given destination. Never mind that there was nary a shot of either my mom or dad in various and sundry exotic holiday locales. Documenting some of his favorite (and not-so-favorite) vacation eats was the only way that my dad chose to remember wherever he’d been.
My dad was always an early adopter, and if he were alive today, he’d probably have an Instagram account dedicated to his take on #FoodPorn. While the notion of an old man photographing and sharing what he’s eating via social media may be charming (if somewhat anachronistic), for plenty of Millennials, chronicling their daily bread has become essential to their social media identities, and snapping and posting food pics has become an expected norm for many of them.
According to a study conducted by YPulse, 63% of young people ages 13 to 32 said they post food pictures on social media, with 57% of them posting information about the food they’re eating at the time. Indeed, the hashtag #FoodPorn currently boasts nearly 116 million Instagram posts, compared, say, to a relatively paltry 570,000 posts using the hashtag #WorldPeace.
While digital technologies and social media have helped to fuel the rise and ease of sharing food pics (especially among young people), the age-old human impulse to document and share whatever we’re eating—or would like to eat—has been around for centuries. An analysis by the Food & Brand Lab at Cornell University found that much of the food most commonly shown in paintings over the span of 1500 to 2000 AD actually weren’t representative of typical diets of the time. Instead, food paintings have historically depicted a glorified version of extravagant meals that featured items such as exotic fruits and hard-to-find or expensive shellfish.
The Cornell analysis concluded that historical food paintings typically featured meals that were more idealized and aspirational than showing actual everyday eats. In essence, we’ve been sharing our #FoodPorn pics for more than 500 years.
The visual glorification of food may have been around for at least half a millennium, but young people today have taken their homage to food and eating to the next level. At this year’s SXSW confab in Austin, Texas, for example, Millennial expert Eve Turow Paul moderated a lively discussion, “Engaging Millennials in New Media Through the Lens of Food,” which was devoted to discussing how brands can better connect with Millennials and engage them around food. Meanwhile, another SXSW session, “Beyond #Foodporn: Changing the Food Media Diet,” featured noted food journalists discussing how to break through #FoodPorn clutter when we’re living in a time of objectified cuisine proliferation.
These days, it’s not unusual for Millennials to not ironically label themselves as #Foodies, partly because being a food connoisseur is very trendy right now, but mostly because many Millennials can legitimately claim to have more adventurous palates compared to many older people. The hitch is that young people seem to be more interested in how their food looks on social media above all else, according to a study carried out by British supermarket chain Sainsbury.
Perhaps what’s different about Millennials sharing food pics has less to do with the food pics part and more to do with the sharing part. Food and sharing food have become a form of social currency, and young people are deeply invested in the new social food economy in ways that may seem awkward or inappropriate to those who find strange the practice of clicking smartphone cameras prior to partaking in a meal. However, I’m sure my snap-happy, food-loving dad would’ve approved.