Food for thought: how Instagram is changing the restaurant business
The proliferation of smartphone cameras and photo-sharing apps has changed the way we lead our lives
Through the late 1970s into the 1990s, ploughing a lonely furrow across remote and sometimes exotic parts of Asia as a Financial Times correspondent, I was never without my Canon and as many rolls of colour film as my hand carry bag could secrete away.
Sometimes, like in the coal mines of northern Anhui in China, or wild-west Mindanao, or at a Baluch tribal “jirga” in the lunar desert between Pakistan and Afghanistan, this was a dangerous obsession.
One learned the art of how to protect, and where to hide, completed rolls of film. With just 36 photos per roll, shots were rationed and each exposure had to be carefully composed. Only when I got back to the UK would I discover whether any did justice to the stories I was witnessing. Cropping or improving exposure of an ill-composed photo was a major challenge, undertaken in the eerie red light of the FT’s dark room.
I gathered many of these photos meticulously in albums, to give family and friends a glimpse into the impossibly distant journeys that filled my year. And it was here I learned one of my first lessons of human psychology: friends would flip patiently through the pages of my albums, only ever to pause if I was posing in a picture – preferably with a group of other people. Most people seem to have an irresistible urge for the “We wuz ‘ere” picture.
I at that point never dreamed that this “We wuz ‘ere” urge would be indulged beyond most people’s wildest imaginations over the past two decades, from the creation of the internet to the birth of Facebook, then increasingly self-indulgent permutations on the same theme, like Instagram and Snapchat. And I never anticipated the infinite and insatiable gregariousness that these magical new technologies have unleashed.
When once the written word was the message, with pictures to provide visual validation, today it is often the picture itself that is the message, propagated with a viral force and speed that is almost impossible to get your head around. In less than seven years since Instagram launched it has gathered 700 million active users – over 100 million of those added in the four months since the beginning of this year. These are at the heart of a snaphappy global community that this year is expected to take 1.2 trillion photos, with around 100 billion being added every year. About 85 per cent of these will be taken on smartphones, with just 10.3 per cent taken with what I used to know as a camera.
This development is in the process of spelling the extinction of the professional photographer (thank heaven I chose to be a journalist rather than a photographer) and perhaps even the concept of professional photography. As smartphone cameras have become increasingly sophisticated, the craft of photography has been commoditised. Artistic composition comes a distant second to the imperative for immediacy, and the “We wuz ‘ere” phenomenon, aided and abetted by the “selfie” camera.
Where my carefully composed Kodak photos might occasionally have reached an audience of a few thousand people, a Freakshake photographed in Australia in August 2015 (that is, a milkshake with cookie chunks and whipped cream) was within days being offered in London and New York, and was being salivated over by millions.
Which brings us inevitably to the extraordinary eating revolution concocted by these new technologies; for many Facebook or Instagram fans, a dish in a restaurant does not exist – and absolutely strictly cannot be eaten – until it has first been photographed. As one London restaurant owner noted: “Every time people are at a restaurant, they eat with their phones first.”
This is a social phenomenon that I absolutely flounder to comprehend, except to wonder whether, for many people, this is as good as it gets. Perhaps a “unicorn latte” being drunk in a New York coffee shop really is the pinnacle of some peoples’ day. I have a close but puzzling Japanese friend who for the past six years has taken photos of absolutely every dish she has eaten in restaurants. I don’t know whether these are taken to share with friends stuck at home in Tokyo, or whether it is some kind of fetishist dietary control device. But it perhaps explains why Instagram says over 200 million posts have carried a “food” hashtag since it was founded in 2010. Facebook can presumably boast even more.
This phenomenon seems to be as powerful as it is perplexing. Restauranteurs around the world are now reconfiguring their restaurants, and their signature dishes, to make them “more Instagramable”. Designers are committing themselves to making restaurant brands “Instagramable” as a core “hospitality marketing” device. Take a Mexican food chain called Barburrito in the UK that prints its brand and logo on the silver foil wrapping of its burritos. One “hospitality marketer” noted: “There is an obsession with photographing the burrito in its foil – people make shapes with it.” So as Instagramers share the pic of their burrito with their friends, they market the Barburrito brand to thousands.
Another restauranteur insists that the dining table is an artist’s canvas: “The challenge for a restauranteur is to anticipate the customer’s visual tastes correctly – to create tables, dishes and settings that are photographs waiting to happen.” A diner apparently has a compulsion to use his or her photos to reflect “an invariably enviable lifestyle”.
While I know many millennials regard me as a dinosaur, and while I fully admit that I am perplexed by the crassness of many of the uses to which these new technologies are put, I must confess that I am a fan.
My Canon today sits on some dark shelf gathering dust because for a strange sentimental reason I can’t bear to throw away such a sensuous piece of antique technology. I love to run sweatily through Hong Kong’s mountains, able to take wonderful photos of butterflies, flowers, snakes and wild boar as I bump into them. My clunky Canon would never have managed that, even if I had had the strength to carry it. I love to be ambling through the Umbrian countryside, able to send photos in real time to friends and family getting ready for bed in Hong Kong.
But you must give me one indulgence. For the time being, I want to remain among the dwindling minority who prefer to eat lovely food rather than take photos of it.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view