They say art is all about empathy. When you read a wonderful novel, when you gaze at a mesmerising painting, when you listen to an enchanting piece of music: a feeling of connection between artist and consumer is forged. In that particular moment, in that line, in that drawing, in that melody and lyric, you find someone who can portray reality in a way that resonates with you. Connection is probably behind most of what we do outside of basic survival. So what has a live feed of someone eating dinner got to do with it?
Mukbang is a fairly recent phenomenon, so far of significant size only in Korea, where people live broadcast themselves eating dinner. The food is usually of a copious amount, and the eater friendly and charming. Thousands tune in and pay real money (in the form of transferable online currency) for the benefit of watching the Mukbang star dine in. The live message feed is clogged up with messages, with the eater responding to through their live stream.
Confused? You’ll probably be perplexed by Gogglebox too. The show, a highly successful TV show broadcast by UK network Channel 4 since 2013, observes people watching TV. Literally. Families, old couples and good friends watch and chuckle along to the week’s major TV programs and events. Once you wrap your head around how pointless an exercise it is, you’ll start to realise it’s actually quite watchable.
Jeff Yang, an Asian-American cultural critic and head honcho at The Futures Company, a global research firm, believes that the development of Mukbang has its origins in “the loneliness of unmarried or uncoupled Koreans, in addition to the inherently social aspect of eating in Korea.” So, an activity normally done with loved ones is now switching to the online realm as more and more people find themselves alone during said activity. One of the biggest Mukbang stars, Changhyun, similarly stipulates that his broadcasts provide the viewer with someone to eat with. He notifies his audience of what he will eat each night, in advance, so that viewers can mimic the experience of sharing the same meal. Gogglebox does a similar thing with watching TV. But then, how do you feign the experience of watching Gogglebox with someone? Satirical news outlet NewsThump has the answer, in Gogglegogglebox.
Joking aside, the Quartz article, from where Jeff Yang made his remark, sums it up perfectly.
“One explanation, a somewhat grim one, is that Mukbang is the apotheosis of humankind’s trajectory away from face to face interaction.”
So, people are shunning face to face interactions for online alternatives. Understandable. While providing nowhere near the same satisfaction as their real life counterparts, the online choices are instantly available, require no organisation with a fellow person, and reduce all social awkwardness associated with socialising nowadays.
South Korea is undoubtedly the country furthest along the road to complete integration of real life and the internet. It boasts the highest internet speeds in the world and one of the highest rates of internet usage. Trends there could indicate the future for the rest of us, and Mukbang could represent the first of many everyday home activities to become the focus of hugely successful live broadcasting. One of the most well-known Mukbang stars, Park Seo-Yeon, makes over $9,000 each month through her live feeds.
Since Mukbang has proven so successful, what other everyday things could make their way into live online feeds? Let’s think of the all the everyday activities that have a social component. Watching TV and eating are the two most obvious, and they have been done. But there remains a myriad of activities we do to kill time when at home, often with a friend, partner or family member. Simply hanging out, listening to music, sunbathing, reading, studying, working, playing videogames, stargazing, creating and being generally artistic. All activities perfectly doable on your own, but complemented by having someone there with you playing along. Could we see success stories of people live streaming themselves doing any of the above?
Just writing about the possibility of live feeds popping up dedicated to these activities feels absurd in itself. But prior to mukbang, anyone claiming you could make over $100,000 a year by filming yourself eating dinner each night would be laughed off as a lunatic. Yet Seo-Yeon has done just that. Of course it helps that she’s devilishly pretty (see below). But you don’t have to possess good looks to gain a following doing something ordinary and streaming it.
Tayser Abuhamder used to work in a deli, enduring long hours and dull tasks, until he started live streaming his workdays. Hundreds tuned into his streams, where he cracked jokes, messed around, and generally made the day more interesting. Eventually fired by his boss for his streaming activities, he now makes three times as much as he was there thanks to his large following on social media. His deli broadcast could be said to mimic visiting your friend at work. Or, it is simply hanging out. It’s the live aspect that creates a more real connection between viewer and YouNower. Vlogging can have the same effect, but it lacks the length and the live component.
The founder of YouNow, Adi Sideman, was part of a community of tech entrepreneurs in the 90s that believed everyone would eventually be the star of their own web show. Founded in 2011, his website works by taking a cut of the YouNow star’s earnings as it is transferred into real currency; but the voluntary nature of the donations means businesses are wary at best of investing in the industry. There is no advertising on the site, and so transactions are entirely voluntary. The site’s code of ethics also stipulates there is to be no direct cash-for-requests activity, as that can inevitably lead down to the rabbit hole of the weird and illegal. The business opportunities in live streaming are certainly there, but for now it remains a risky investment for entrepreneurs. This will grow substantially over the forthcoming decades, as YouNow’s user base is overwhelmingly under 25.
While Ali’s vision of everyone having their own Truman Show hasn’t come true, he was in the right ballpark. Not everyone wants to have their own show. Most people would rather just observe others. The anonymity allowed to the viewer in live streams takes away any actual requirements from them, while still getting some of the satisfaction associated with real life socialising and hanging out. And with the emerging holographic lens technology will have the potential to make it feel like you are really there.
And this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sure, the idea that we are moving away from face to face interaction and into the realm of online-only interaction is perhaps a scary one. But there’s good reason to believe much of the YouNow activity is simply complementing, rather than replacing, real life social interactions. After all, the connection with a complete stranger half way across the world can be an uplifting experience, restoring one’s faith in the unity of people worldwide. Especially considering we basically all live in cities now, where talking to random strangers is more and more socially unacceptable. The idea that technology is hurting both our ability to socialise and the very fabric of our society is one that has been around since the invention of the printing press in the 1500’s. Many studies actually show teens feel more connected to each other thanks to social media.
But even if the live streaming phenomenon is beginning to replace face to face interaction, as mentioned earlier, why is this such a bad thing? Some people are naturally unsocial, whether through their own experiences or their unique psychological and physiological make-up. Standardising social activities into the online realm would free up time for those who can’t deal with excessive real life interactions, allowing their creative juices to flow much better. After all, the greatest minds the world has ever seen were asocial. How many more Newton’s, Tesla’s, Da Vinci’s or Aristotle’s could be out there, now that they don’t need to waste their time trying to be something that they are not? The world’s geniuses and great thinkers didn’t necessarily always lead happy lives themselves, but their achievements have led to a world in which we are healthier and live more fruitfully. Probably a worthy trade-off, wouldn’t you say?
Relating to my own life, I realised that a live stream of someone reading, working or studying isn’t such a ridiculous idea. I find it much easier to work in a cafe or library, or with a friend, than I do on my own. This is the audience effect, something scientists have known about for years. People tend to perform better when in the view of others, at least at familiar tasks: new, more complex challenges are best approached completely alone and without distraction. Could opening a live stream of someone studying help you concentrate on your own work or reading? The idea isn’t so far fetched.
I hypothesise that in, say 50 years, there will be live streams, garnering thousands or millions of viewers, of absolutely every single everyday task or hobby there is. Ones for studying, ones for brushing your teeth, ones for cleaning your room. You can probably find these already on YouNow or Meerkat. But what will change is how successful they will become and how much more commonplace they will be, and how normal it will be to watch a video of someone brushing their teeth while you do so. One day that won’t be weird. One day.
In fact, with lifecasting now increasingly popular, the idea that you could fit your life in to align with that of someone else is not far fetched. And in doing so, you could have someone there with you waking, eating, washing, working and living. Justin Kan founded Justin.tv in 2007, where he wore a body cam to broadcast his entire life. 24 hours a day. Since then, many other people have taken to filming their entire lives, or at least large portions of them. Aligning your routine with someone else’s is entirely feasible, and there’s a chance some are already doing this.
Whatever the future holds for online streaming, expect it to play a much bigger role in social satisfaction and empathy. Mukbang is only the beginning.