Are you getting tired of “eating alone”? Now you have a solution. Just click away. While you’re eating, you can watch someone eat online. And this is exactly what’s happening in Korea. And this has become lucrative business.
Pictured above is Ji-hwan Choi, known as Chef King Biryong on his Meok-bang show. He is one of the more well-known meok-bang show hosts. He is in military uniform to connect viewers and to bring back nostalgic memories because most males in Korea have to serve in the military. The Diva is another popular host.
This growing new trend of “watching someone eat” (meok-bang: eating on air or eating broadcasts in Korean) can be attributed to a number of factors. Among them, I will highlight four factors behind the soaring popularity of meok-bang.
First, this trend is strongly related to a growing number of one-person households. The proportion of single-person households drastically increased to 35.9 percent in 2013 from about 9 percent in 1990, according to Korean Statistics. Watching someone eat online can be one way of dealing with single-person’s loneliness. They do not want to eat alone. They want to alleviate a sense of “alienation.” While they are watching these shows, they feel connected.
Second, watching someone eat is also an efficient way to relieve stress from a fast-paced and hyper-competitive life style. Korean society has been dictated by a culture of “success at any cost,” which places enormous pressure to many Koreans. Students, for example, are stressed from demanding school life and young Koreans are pressured from hectic work life. By watching someone eat, it can be argued that Koreans are experiencing a vicarious pleasure.
Third, the popularity of meok-bang is attributed to advanced technology, especially super-fast internet connections in Korea. Korea is known as the most wired place on the globe. Hyper-fast internet speed make it possible for viewers to interact with the shows. Meok-bang shows are streamed live, so these shows are not one-way, but rather mutual. Meok-bang hosts and viewers are “emotionally” connected to each other. This explains why the hosts tell stories while they are eating (and cooking). Many stories can be shared with viewers as well. This emotional connection might be made possible due to the high number of smartphone users. Korea has the highest smartphone use with a penetration rate of over 70 percent in 2014. This similar trend of watching someone eat occurred in the 2000’s in Japan, but made use of VCR and DVD, which are one-way technologies.
Fourth, this trend is also associated with a culture of consumption. In affluent Korean society today, food is not simply meant to fill the stomach. In the past, Koreans ate because they were hungry. But today they are able to consume food based on taste and aesthetic. Meok-bang reflects this changing food culture in Korea as well.
I think that these surging meok-bang shows are producing a new way of “commensality without actually sharing the same table.” These shows may transform eating as an individual act in modern society to social eating by providing a platform of bonding and sharing with strangers.