Title: #EatingfortheInsta: A Semiotic Analysis of Digital Representations of Food onInstagramAuthor(s): Jenny L. HermanSource: Graduate Journal of Food Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Nov. 2017)Published by: Graduate Association for Food Studies Copyright 2017 by the Graduate Association for Food Studies. The GAFS is agraduate student association that helps students doing food-related work publish andgain professionalization. For more information about the GAFS, please see ourwebsite at https://gradfoodstudies.org/.
JENNY L. HERMAN#EatingfortheInsta: A Semiotic Analysis ofDigital Representations of Food on Instagramabstract Food photography on Instagram creates various types of digital communities while largely excluding other groupsfrom lower economic backgrounds. Through examining photography theory, socioeconomic patterns, and the impact andinfluence of various representations of food on Instagram, this article explores the implications of the social media platform’sgrowing popularity through a semiotic lens. In analyzing the marketing functions of Instagram and the creation of cravingsalong with the innate absence of nourishment in virtual food consumption, this article questions some of the class-based socialpatterns rising from this endless digital photo feed as well as considers some of the possible societal benefits. From the use ofhashtags and their power to influence the culinary industry, to the use of filters to replicate unattainable moments, Instagramserves as both a tool for food-lovers to carefully construct curated digital identities, while disseminating cultural messagesabout their social class and cultural backgrounds. Despite its ability to unify, the platform paradoxically distances users frompersonally engaging with those very cuisines and communities they consume online, pushing traditional concepts of foodtowards an abstract digital era.keywords social media, food culture, photography, Instagram, gastronomyINTRODUCTIONmedia use and identity making to consider groups and com-In an age of visual excess, technology creates a pullmunities, I finally address the patterns and symbolic impli-towards both nostalgia and futurism, leaving many socialcations for social classes and economic mobility. At eachmedia users straining to keep up and longing to slow downstage and scale, food-related images on Instagram reinforceas they document their lives online. Digital media platformsand potentially challenge certain socio-economic norms.such as Instagram accelerate and expand social trends atThese culinary posts function as digital self-representation,a pace that leaves both markets and minds spinning. Alongsimulation of social belonging, and reinforcement of socialwith the popularity of gastronomy in practice and in study,class norms.digital representations of food combine categories to crecultures.1 With an increasing variety of culinary programsPICS OR IT DIDN’T HAPPENThe drive to document experiences certainly is not lim-ranging from food-blogging courses to the emergence ofited to acts of consumption. The near compulsion that fuelsprofessional culinary photography, an insatiable social appe-Instagram users to engage in amateur food photographytite for food-related subjects may contribute to the successbefore every bite shows the extent of the desire to captureand popularity of digital food images.2 Established in 2010,culinary moments ranging from greasy fast food to revelato-the online photo-sharing platform Instagram launchedry gourmet cuisine. The need to take a snapshot is so strongsmartphone users into a new paradigm of media sharing,that for many, a meal can hardly be enjoyed to its fullestreaching 700 million users in April 2017. The visual natureextent without the added comfort of knowing that laterof Instagram allows users to share quality images of food,on, the mouth-watering anticipation of the first bite can berestaurants, and a limitless array of food-centric content,re-lived by the Instagrammer and garner “likes” from friendsproducing a spiral of social and economic implications.and strangers alike. Failing to delight all parties, this trend3Considering semiotic principles and concepts fromhas spurred an increasing number of restaurants to ban cellcontemporary food studies, I explore some of the currentphone photography in their establishments, including thecultural impacts of the symbolically saturated cyber com-upscale Momofuku Ko, where celebrity chef David Chang,munity of Instagram. I analyze trends, identify typical users,along with many fellow diners, seeks to preserve the qualityand delve into the latent meaning and symbolic power ofof the culinary experience without distractions.4these culinary images on both an individual and societalscale. Moving from the smaller scale of individual socialThis urge extends far beyond a simple desire to shareexperiences, but involves a complex process of making21GRADUATE JOURNAL OF FOOD STUDIESate a pervasive theme throughout social media in Western
meaning and defining the self. As Roland Barthes writes inCamera Lucida, “The Photograph’s essence is to ratify whatthe sense of being an insider, which allows for inclusion in ait represents” or rather, to confirm something or someone’sfamiliar experience. Instagrammers seek to both have andpresence. While a photograph does situate its contentsprove “authentic” experiences. Part of the intent in takingin the surety of existence, the picture remains somewhatthe picture is to prove, albeit unknowingly, participationfree of other anchors. Through use of photo filters or de-in the system of signs that creates pop-culture trends andlayed-posting, the user can infinitely manipulate particularsto reinforce and perpetuate the self-image that the Insta-further away from the original content. Barthes identifiesgrammer is attempting to digitally portray. This sense ofthis quality of “absence-as-presence” in photographs thatkeeping up is an integral aspect of perceived pressures to5show content while simultaneously remaining undefined.remain current in the fast moving Internet culture, whereAccording to Barthes, “from a phenomenological viewpoint,foodie trends can become passé before even emerging intoin the photograph, the power of authentication exceeds themainstream awareness. To contend with a sea of similarpower of representation.”7 Barthes’s reluctance to attributepizza pictures, for instance, the Instagrammer must setmultiplicity of usefulness to images is perhaps the result oftheir pizza snapshot apart—or rather, align it as closely asan inability to predict the prevalence of photography in dai-possible through a series of visual and grammatical markersly contemporary life and its power to create narratives andto indicate that they are in fact enjoying a special slice fromidentities, rather than just to confirm presence. As Barthesthe fashionable pizza joint of the moment.6also claims in his essay “Towards a Psychosociology of Con-in recognizing relationships. Instagrammers are activea form of communication, or rather a “grammar of foods,”symbol-makers as they produce icons, or representationsstating that “ communication always implies a system ofof objects, and seek the indexical value of those icons, orsignification.” In this way, each Instagram post deliversthe implications they carry. Finally, a symbol emerges fromconsiderable meaning to viewers. While Barthes suggeststhe process, representing a cultural moment, in which thean underlying message in culinary content, the process ofInstagrammer played a part. The end result: a saturatedsimulation offers another perspective for navigating thepicture of an impossibly decadent slice of pizza, possibly inambiguous role of food imagery.the hands of a stylish young person with a vivid city scene asAlthough some food photographs do seek to merelyGRADUATE JOURNAL OF FOOD STUDIESParticipation in sign-value systems is deeply rootedtemporary Food Consumption,” food itself is a language and822On Instagram, this process of making meaning createsthe backdrop, creating a hyper-reality which only exists, andpresent an image, a semiotic approach to interpretingtherefore can only be captured and reproduced, digitally.these images captures the core of food photography onThe ability for others to replicate this image requires accessInstagram: the production of signs through the inductionto a similar location, affluence, and creativity, but many seekof meaning. As a social media platform, Instagram grantsto participate for a sense of belongingness and inclusion, ifusers the ease of specifying meaning through hosting pho-even for the casual fun of being in-the-know.tos, enabling captions to describe the images, and addingAlthough this phenomenon connects strangers andboth location markers (geotags) and hashtags, which linkstrengthens new social ties, it paradoxically also pushes theto other related content. For instance, semiotician Charlesculinary world to a visual space beyond the act of eating.Peirce’s triadic approach to the systemic relation of signs,While Peirce’s semiotic analysis implies a gradual draw-called semiosis, applies to the deconstruction of food im-ing-together of specificity resulting from added layers ofagery. For example, one of the most popular types of foodmeaning, this quest for authentic portrayal, when examinedposted to Instagram is pizza.9 Such a commonplace foodthrough another semiotic process of representation, cre-item itself does not seem to warrant much further exam-ates an almost ironic distance between Instagram users,ination (firstness), but when context is given by the additionfor instance, and the culinary experiences they attempt toof a caption or geotag (secondness) revealing that the pizzapreserve and legitimize. Providing a particularly apt illustra-comes from a particularly popular restaurant, the accompa-tion for this interpretation, the concept of simulation allowsnying hashtag can add further meaning and increase speci-for a complementary understanding of the manner in whichficity (thirdness).10 The first impression is one of potentiality,digital representations can replace reality in service of com-the second puts the image into context through a relation-modification as they gain new meanings.ship to something else, and the third increases specificityTo examine Instagram food photographs through thebased on other known information, arriving at a possiblelens of French theorist Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulation” ne-interpretation.cessitates a basic understanding of his process of simulation
and the idea of the hyper-real. First, Baudrillard exploresand attempt to personally capture what has been shownthe ways in which objects transform from the realm of lit-to them. In this way, Baudrillard indirectly predicted theeral, useful things, to the representative world of symbolicimpact of technology on daily life. In System of Objects hevalue. In “The System of Objects,” Baudrillard writes of anwrites, “Man has become less rational than his own objects,order of simulation in which something reproducible goeswhich now run ahead of him, so to speak, organizing histhrough the process of commodification, which is targetedsurroundings, and thus appropriating his actions.”14at a drive towards consumption fueled by a “lack.” In regardsto images, the following process best describes simulation:Whether applied to cameras, smartphones, or fooditself, this theory accurately captures the somewhat automated manner in which people appear driven to consume or1 It is the reflection of a basic reality.eat for the purpose of the Instagram shot to be gained rath-2 It masks and perverts a basic reality.er than for nourishment or taste. Someone participating in3 It masks the absence of a basic reality.this system might see an image, perhaps of a cupcake from4 It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is itsa famous location like Sprinkles or Georgetown Cupcake,own pure simulacrum.both of which are social-media gold and have been featured11on television and various blogs.15 Instagram participantsThis process of simulation, therefore, threatens themay then seek out that iconic image, rather than the actualdifference between true and false, and can easily be appliedobject itself. The underlying current of competition andto the existence of Instagram images, which, through var-self-inflicted peer-pressure in these situations contributesious editing devices, achieve the hyper-real. Eager foodiesto the already present tone of keeping up. Once obtainingaround the world chase the unachievable ideal photo,the desired object, the Instagrammer’s primary purposewhich does not exist, except digitally. Again, in Simulacrabecomes digital, not literal consumption, for proof thatand Simulation, Baudrillard writes, “To simulate is to feign tothey belong to a certain group that has experienced thishave what one hasn’t.”12 Appropriately, then, amateur foodphenomenon. Someone in-the-know would never wait in anphotographers challenge perceptions and limitations alikehour-long line at Georgetown Cupcake (which has 537,000because technology gives everyone access to the same toolsInstagram followers) and not take a picture. The complete-of deception. Therefore, one can give impressions of a falseness of the memory they are crafting would otherwise bereality so accurately that they achieve creating simulacra, orimperfect. Hence what writer Jacob Silverman calls thejust a really good picture of pizza that they may or may not“populist mantra of the social networking age,” which insistshave enjoyed at the time or even place implied in the image.on photographic evidence to both prove and propagateIn this interpretation of the world, Baudrillard claimsenviable experiences: “pics or it didn’t happen.”16that material objects attempt to fill an immaterial void thating “totality” is perhaps a suspicion of falseness, or perhapsIDENTITY AND VIRTUAL BELONGINGThe connection between social media presence andresults from being subject to witness the representationsidentity drives the overall allure of creating a digital repre-of “having” that saturate the Instagram photo feed. Imagessentation of not only the self, but also as a catalogue of livedof food serve as a perfect example of removal of the original(or simulated) experiences that connote belongingness to ause-value into commodification of abstract symbols. Foodcertain social group or movement. According to food schol-is meant to be literally consumed. While it has long heldar Signe Rousseau in Food and Social Media, modern formssignificance in representing various cultures, landscapes,of social media are essentially “ providing everyone withand lifestyles, the removal of its innate purpose, to be eaten,a virtual megaphone that they can use to carve out theiris an almost radical departure from its basic use. To photo-own niche as best as possible.”17 The motivations behindgraph food, a perishable object, not only immortalizes theindividual choices in image sharing build online identities.temporary, thus rejecting nature, but also represents onlyAn article from The Telegraph’s food column aptly quips thatits own presence, and therefore signifies the absence for all“social media is peppered with the gastronomic equivalentothers viewing it. The result is the image’s absolute inabilityof selfies.”18 Referring to food presentation, be they prod-to satiate the viewers, thereby creating lack. Advertisingucts of either home-cooks or professional chefs, this sen-works in a similar way in its ability to fabricate a lack in cir-timent captures a significant aspect of this trend. Anthro-cumstances where it did not previously exist. These imagespologist Daniel Miller at the University College of Londondo, however, spur others to seek out similar experiencesstudied a large group of young Instagram users (aged 16 to23GRADUATE JOURNAL OF FOOD STUDIESarises from a disappointed demand for totality.13 This lack-
18) and noticed several patterns among them in terms ofthe conscious efforts with which they undertook not onlycapturing the image, but also with arranging the food toappear to its greatest visual benefit. In his book on socialmedia, he identifies in the chapter “Crafting the Look” threecategories of food images. These include images of personally made dishes such as cakes or salads, images taken offood made by someone else, like a display case of macaronsat a bakery or a meal ordered at a restaurant, and finally,images of food taken for the express purpose of showingthe artistic skill to capture the image.19 Miller considers thisfinal category the “exploitation of the food to demonstratethe craft represented by taking a good Instagram imageof something that otherwise would not have elicited anySource: @tejanoideaparticular aesthetic appreciation.”20 This could range froma close up image of a piece of fruit to a pile of discardedpistachio shells.The trio of images—identified through a simple searchfor #orangepeel—illustrates the three main categories offood photographs Miller identified on Instagram. The firstdepicts a cake garnished with orange slices that someonebaked at home; the second an elegantly plated order ofsushi from a restaurant, each piece situated atop an orangeslice; and the third an artistic rendering of an orange peeltaken with a macro lens.All three of these Instagram images do more thanmerely represent the contents of the photo frame. Theyspeak to the photographer’s concept of their own identity.The cake, for example, not only self-promotes the skills ofSource:@miss urban turbanbaking and decorating, but also sends an important classmessage about the “luxury of time” that the baker has attheir disposal, as food scholar Adrienne Lehrer points out.21To share an image of a personally made food item like thisdessert speaks on several levels. It implies the Instagrammer has expendable income and time to make, decorate,and share sweets. The second image of sushi suggests anexpendable income for dining out and implies an associa-GRADUATE JOURNAL OF FOOD STUDIES24tion with cultivated or exotic tastes. The higher aestheticquality of the plate with a smaller portion denotes a departure from necessity into the realm of recreational pleasure.Lastly, the close up of the orange peel shows an artistryapplied to what is essentially a food scrap. With attentionto composition, contrast, and color, this image could potentially be captured by anyone with a smartphone and hintsat no other economic, social, or taste categories due toSource: @1 ak tionAside from aspects of social media that are intended forsimplicity of setting and content. A cursory reading of suchand utilized as a means of connection and communication,food images communicates significant messages aboutsocial media also functions as an advertising platform foreach Instagram user and how they wish to broadcast them-the self. Much like aligning imagery to branding for otherselves to the world.commodities, social media has instigated the idea of brand-
ing the self, which is achieved by consistency of content,image style, hashtag usage, and myriad other minute detailsthat signal both adherence to and difference from certaingroups or ideologies. Although the content of each photoseems personal, the public nature of the content is inseparable from the digital communities they contribute to, resulting in what researcher of food and communication, SimonaStano, refers to as the intersubjectivity of food, in which anindividual “seeks legitimacy through comparison and sharing.”22 The amalgamation of cultural factors influencing theculinary world makes eating “ one of the central spaces forthe expression of identity.”23Much like the concept of “valorization” in theoristJean-Marie Floch’s Visual Identities, Instagram users appealto a certain market niche or demographic to garner likes orfollowers, which can function as status symbols. This canbe driven by hopes of creating
#EatingfortheInsta: A Semiotic Analysis of Digital Representations of Food on Instagram. RADATE ORNA OF FOOD STDIES 22 On Instagram, this process of making meaning creates the sense of being an insider, which allows for inclusion in a familiar experience. Instagrammers seek to both have and
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