The Zen koan asks if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Apparently, the same came be asked of cupcakes. If you don’t tweet or otherwise post it, was it sweet?
According to Blogher, the predominant topic for blogging (and related tweeting and facebooking) is food. This book explores “prosumption”—“the conflation of production and consumption” that makes everyone and every cupcake a participant in the online food conversation.
Rousseau says it is a phenomenon that raises new questions about copyright, information overload, oversharing, and food fatigue. For example, while recipe copyright has always been a slippery rule, social media seems to make any law irrelevant by supplanting the value of ownership with the value of personality. As Rousseau puts it, the value comes from not only knowing, but being known.
Likewise, the Internet has upended ideas of ethics in crediting work. For an open community of people blogging without pay, lifting work seems okay. But as Rousseau recounts, when print magazine, Cooks Source, lifted a blogger’s work without permission and responded to her request for credit with an arrogant letter, the online blogging community swiftly and snarkily enforced norms. Cooks Source was out of business within the year.
The community conversation continues—about loving or hating Julie/Julia or in a more positive worldwide discussion prompted by a site like, What’s Cooking In Your World, meals from every country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. These conversations can be fulfilling and liberating. As (former CHoW speaker and economist) Tyler Cowen is quoted, “The Internet liberates us from the ‘tyranny of place.’”
But, as Rousseau points out, the Internet offers a “chaotic and contradictory liberty.” So at the same time chef Jamie Oliver runs and anti-obesity campaign and Johns Hopkins researchers track tweets about weight loss as a potential public health tool, the Internet offers lots of information, often with little depth and unclear sources of authority.
If we are all prosumers, everyone is a critic, which twists the positions and responses of both chefs and traditional media critics. Chefs are subject to Yelp and Urbanspoon and often lash out at bad reviews. Others dive into the fray by posting bad reviews and using them to improve both service and their image. Critics who write for established media outlets often have no more expertise or experience than the average blogger, and in fact may have significantly less than an obsessive hobbyist who had made food trucks or ramen their specialty. Cultural critic Neal Gabler sees this crowd wisdom as part of a longstanding American tradition of “resistance to cultural elites.” And as Rousseau warns, as media outlets expand and change, so will the speech—apps are next.
But crowds can easily turn into mobs, as the one that took out Cooks Source. Along with scholarly references, Rousseau marshals plenty of anecdotes that make for enjoyably voyeuristic reading. But even within a shifting media landscape, it’s hard to deny that social media has clearly linked food and pleasure—through adventures, experiments, pictures, and memories. And it has done what food has always done—bring us together.