November 2022 | Volume 24 No. 1
Mukbang is a Korean word, short for muknunbangsong, and means roughly, ‘a broadcast where people eat’. Mukbang broadcasts typically feature a solo eater who consumes a large meal consisting of several dishes and speaks through a camera while viewers watch online and type comments through real-time chat. The phenomenon has been popular in Korea since the late 2000s and has since gained popularity worldwide.
Dr Hanwool Choe, who is Assistant Professor in the School of English, began her research interest in language and food in earnest when, as a PhD student, she wrote term papers about mukbang for coursework.
“I first started watching mukbang just for fun,” she said. “At that time, I was doing my graduate studies in the United States and used to watch mukbang when I was craving Korean street food. But since I’m a discourse analyst who’s especially interested in analysing online communication, after a while I saw the resemblance between mukbang and the typical mealtime that we have at the physical dining table. That’s how I started studying this topic.
“I am primarily interested in how mukbang contributes to creating online commensality and a virtual sense of togetherness: how people (a host and viewers) talk about food; how watching someone eating comes to the fore into interaction; and what kinds of identities are constructed and presented in mukbang interaction.”
At the same time, Dr Choe has been studying another online content in relation to food and eating – everyday vlogging (video blogging) by Korean expatriates. “In everyday vlogs, vloggers share what and how they eat in their everyday lives, ranging from grocery shopping and cooking at home to dining out. Their daily eating scene seems very mundane, but shows the ways in which they get acclimatised to different cultures, traditions and language, thus accomplishing their new ordinary identities as expatriates and local selves,” she said. “What’s interesting is that their daily eating is evaluatively framed as ‘eating well’ by viewers. In the context of everyday vlogging, eating well is perceived to be more than a healthy or luxurious eating style. It rather resonates with the ordinariness of what and how to eat in our daily lives.”
Through highlighting how technologies connect food and eating practice to digital discourse, she gained a better understanding of how digital communication about and involving food embodies the sociocultural values of eating together and eating well.
Vlogging itself is not new on social media, it has existed for a long time at the centre of webcam culture, and initially much of the content was made by (micro)celebrities. “In it, they show (off) what is called a day/week in the life,” said Dr Choe. “Now lay people – usually the younger generation – also make their own YouTube channel to share their daily lives. I see everyday vlogs of a variety of lay people, including professionals, housewives, and students, and everyday vlogging is, to some extent, an extended form of sharing photos and videos on social media like Instagram. I would say the popularity of everyday vlogging indicates how living ordinarily has become used as a communicative resource in online environments for ordinary self-presentation as well as socialisation (with anonymous people).”
Mukbang content varies, ranging from ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) to food challenges where the host eats his/ her way through vast quantities of food, often within a time limit. Dr Choe’s research primarily focusses on livestreamed mukbang where a host speaks to his/her viewers, while eating, and viewers interact with the host as well as each other via a text-based live chatroom, while watching.
“Livestreamed mukbang does not include the challenge element but virtually embodies eating together that we usually have at a physical dining table, when eating with others,” said Dr Choe. “People watch livestreamed mukbang for various reasons. It can serve as ‘eating for another’ who cannot or does not eat for their own reasons – for example, they are on a diet, have morning sickness, or can’t access specific foods. In addition, people watch it so they have a virtual eating companion when they eat alone.”
Mukbang also has some entertaining elements: viewers donate cyber money which can be converted into real money, so mukbang hosts endeavour to make theirs more fun. Dr Choe compares this monetisation to the gratuity that we give to street performers.
In conclusion, Dr Choe offers her observations on two simultaneous identities of mukbang hosts, constructed in livestreamed mukbang. “First, expert eaters. That is, mukbang hosts ‘eat well’ [note, this is different from the meaning of ‘eating well’ in everyday vlogs] and thus can earn money – via viewers’ donations and sponsorship – through their eating. Second, mukbang hosts act as lay food reviewers: that is, they evaluate food in lay rather than expert terms while eating, which allows viewers to join them to talk about food and means that co-construction of taste and food assessments is achieved during mukbang interaction.”
I am primarily interested in how mukbang contributes to creating online commensality and a virtual sense of togetherness: how people (a host and viewers) talk about food; how watching someone eating comes to the fore into interaction; and what kinds of identities are constructed and presented in mukbang interaction.
DR HANWOOL CHOE