What does Instagramming our food say about modern eaters?

Why do we Instagram our food? It has become a topic of ever more frequent debate this year. But the more important question is why we are asking this question.

Food is traditionally a community event, a bonding experience, a shared joy. We have a culture that doesn't always let us experience food as such, as we rush through daily life with breakfast, lunch and dinner on the go. We all eat. We all have favorite foods. It is one of the few things in this world that everyone has in common. But, we have a technology that let's us bridge the gap between our dining experience and our shared life.

We all have moments when the joy or wonder or comfort of food is not containable. Yet we are alone. Or we are with a small group of our friends or family. So we share with a larger group or the entire world. Yes we lose some mindfulness of the experience itself -- that is a common problem in our culture obsessed with displaying our every move to the world: we lose some of the intimacy of the moment by the pause to take a photo, by even the thought that a photo should be taken.

But, putting aside issues like the quality of the photo, the sharing of it, of a meal, is a conversation, and one we all enjoy having. Chris Tackett created a slideshow of some of his food Instagrams and the reasons behind them -- much of which was about sharing a new experience, celebrating an event, finding solace in a sunset and a beer. For him, as for many of us, sharing a photo of a food is simply the most relateable way of sharing the larger moment. I rarely share food photos but did this week after I created my first fruit tarts entirely from scratch. The image was shared not for the food itself but for the sense of surprise and pride in a new culinary accomplishment. Similarly, I've shared photos of the bounty from a trip to a farmer's market, out of sheer excitement and joy at the sight of so many fresh and beautiful foods sitting on my counter, a joy I didn't want to keep to myself.

If sharing food photos is part of sharing experiences and emotions, then what is our concern with people Instagramming food to the point that we find it annoying, even deplorable, an act that is simultaneously accepted and scorned? (Other than the fact that some photos can be the opposite of appetizing, of course.)

"I think for some people it highlights how important food has become," Dr. Valerie Taylor, chief of psychiatry at Women's College Hospital at the University of Toronto, told Huffington Post. "Just like the tattoos of 'I love McDonald's' replacing the 'I love Mom' tattoo, food is taking on a very important role. It has moved beyond simply fuel."

Well, food moved beyond simply fuel a long, long time ago. As Jared Keller writes in a recent essay on tweeting our food, "Food has accompanied virtually every communal ceremony since the dawn of civilisation, from the Sabbath to the solstice, the communion to the wake. Before the Industrial Revolution, subsistence drove and defined the evolution of social relations: the most basic distinctions between preindustrial hunter-gatherer, pastoral, agrarian, and feudal societies is how each group collectively provided nourishment for itself. Eating together is a cultural universal. Eventually, the cafés, restaurants and salons of the Enlightenment helped develop a ‘republic of eating’ where strong conversation and drink became the cornerstones of modernity."

Beyond food as a community event and a social glue, food has been fodder for science and art for thousands of years. People have experimented with what is possible, from changing the form of a single ingredient to the chemistry and flavor of combining many ingredients. How lacking the world would be if we only thought of food as fuel and nothing more. Of course, an "I Love McDonald's" tattoo might be a bit disturbing, considering the thin thread by which what the chain serves can even be called food, let alone fuel. But getting a tattoo of a favorite food -- or cooking tools or anything else related to cuisine -- is not the visible sign of a disordered relationship with food. Nor is sharing photos of our food. Perhaps excessive sharing of one's personal life could be questioned, but to single out our sharing of food? That is a fault, considering how core dining, food, and cooking is to our culture -- to every culture in the world.

The Huffington Post article states:

While Taylor admitted that sharing photos of food on social media is relatively common, she said that in some cases it can come at the exclusion of everything else. "The concern becomes when all they do is send pictures of food," Taylor told HuffPost. "We take pictures of things that are important to us, and for some people, the food itself becomes central and the rest -– the venue, the company, et cetera -- is background."

When it comes to Instagram, a lot of people specialize. All I do is post pictures of my dog. I follow people who only post pictures of rural roads, or hiking spots, or, yes, food. There is a difference between wanting to share what we spend a substantial amount of our day thinking about, and having a disorder. Despite the fears by some that sharing food photos means we have eating problems, or that it makes us fat as some have claimed, or that it cheapens fancy restaurants as some chefs ardently believe, the simple fact remains that we like to share what we eat, even if that means taking a photo and posting it to social media. And many of us like to see what people are sharing -- after all, if there weren't an audience, far fewer of us would participate.

Instagramming, Facebooking, Tweeting, Google+-ing, Pinning, Tumblr-ing and any other platform you can think of is simply today's way of sharing something meaningful to us, and for many, that is a comforting, stimulating, interesting, or simply beautiful meal. Indeed, the internet from its very beginnings has been a place for people to write and share information about food. This is not a new event -- it is just the latest iteration.

Even if those looking at our tweets and Instagrams can't join in with us bodily, they can mentally, and that means something. It may not be as authentic as the literal sharing of a meal, but it is our well-loved second best.

That second best can also be an incredible tool for activism.

This week celebrated World Environment Day, and the theme was food waste. Across the web, people discussed the environmental problems of food waste from harvest to table. Much of the waste we experience from food is in the form of packaging. Jeff Kirschner created a new project for food Instagrammers, called Litterati. The project encourages people to act when they see a piece of litter -- take a photo of it and upload it to Instagram with the tag #litterati. The project documents our impact on the planet and scanning images with this tag, we can see just how pervasive food packaging and eating instruments are when it comes to litter. We don't just waste food, but we carelessly toss things related to food all over the place. Here's Kirschner's vision with the Litterati project:

Sharing food photos is, let's face it, part of who we are today. We will never stop celebrating food, or celebrating with food. We can use this love of sharing food photos for acts of good as well.

Is Instagramming our food wrong? Is it "deplorable" as some suggest? That is subjective. But it is reality. It doesn't matter the ifs, or whys. But what might matter is what we do with the fact that we share food photos. As the LItterati project shows, there are possibilities for tracking who eats what, where and why; for encouraging healthy eating or shopping from local farmers; for celebrating cooking at home and sharing food with neighbors or the hungry.

Food is a community experience. Eating together strengthens bonds and brings joy. Instagramming food is a way of bringing the shared experience even to the act of dining alone -- and Instagramming food also holds the potential for building stronger, safer, healthier communities. Just as the Litterati project focuses on how we can use community-generated data to move toward a litter-free planet, we may just be waiting for similar projects to help lead us to a waste-free planet, or even back to the table to dine together in groups.

Tags: Activism | Food Miles | Health | Social Media