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This Company Thinks America Will Love Watching Strangers Eat Online

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In late June, Twitch, a social livestreaming video service, launched a “Social Eating” channel aimed at letting users broadcast their meals. The company modeled this new vertical after the South Korean social phenomenon of mukbang, literally “food broadcast,” in which netizens livestream their meal-eating for viewers. South Korea’s mukbang has proven to be a matter of great fascination stateside, with trend pieces and in-depth documentaries to boot.

Twitch began as a way for video gamers to broadcast their own gameplay. Since being acquired by Amazon two years ago for $1 billion, the company has diversified its approach to what it lets users broadcast. Right next to each livestream is also a live chat in which users, many of whom hide behind veils of anonymity, engage with the broadcaster.

Yesterday morning, I spent thirty minutes watching the “Social Eating” channel. Earlier this week at TechCrunch Disrupt, a conference highlighting ascendant tech companies, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear restated why the company began a “Social Eating” channel in the first place. “We’re doing our part for cross-cultural exchange,” he claimed. This new channel is clearly an experiment for Twitch—it’s still in beta—yet it’s one that Shear expressed a lot of confidence in, noting an unexpected uptick in American and European adoption. (Twitch credits the birth of this channel to the demand created by its South Korean users.)

Twitch states the channel’s “main purpose is to enjoy food in a social setting, much like going out to a restaurant with your friends, providing interactive entertainment around mealtimes for anyone watching.” I walked into this exercise, perhaps foolishly, with the expectation it'd meet those aims.

The first channel I stepped into was that of RomaniGaming, a U.K.-based couple. It featured Kasia (pictured above), a Polish immigrant of Romani descent who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that severely impairs one’s vision. Because of her condition, she had trouble immediately registering the comments coming her way, asking for her husband’s help (he was off screen, so I could only hear his voice).

There were three registered members watching Kasia’s channel when I came in, but it ended with nearly 30. “Helloooow! Welcome to the stream!” she crowed upon each person’s entry. Kasia was eating beef casserole mixed with mashed potatoes and carrots. It was hard to determine whether the food itself was appetizing; the meal was out of the frame.

Over the course of fifteen minutes, I witnessed the comments targeted at Kasia careen into a torrent of harassment. One commenter said she looked “like my brother”; another claimed that while Kasia “may currently be physically present in England,” she is “not English and will never be.”

Kasia took these insults gamely—”Of course I’m not English! Originally from Poland! But England is my home!” she responded to one—yet this felt like perverse exhibitionism aimed at watching someone suffer online. It was honestly difficult to watch, so I went to two more channels, both of which were pretty boring. Both featured men who signed off within minutes of finishing their meals, neither of which I saw. Thrilling.

Was this really it? I wanted to believe that this burgeoning social phenomenon had the appeal Shear spoke to—so I logged on again later that afternoon. I visited the room of a blonde, white woman making pizza. Some nasty comments were leveled against her body, but she didn’t engage. Another was of a Swedish gamer taking a break from his play to wolf down some lo-mein, and he wasn't exactly an engaging screen presence. Food wasn’t central to any of these broadcasts; it was relegated to the background.

I couldn’t quite shake the memory of that first experience. I wondered if South Koreans faced the same kind of harassment that I saw, but Western coverage of mukbang has offered no such conclusion.

Will Twitch be proactive about combating abuse? Like other platforms, Twitch has a lipservice-y Rules of Conduct page that details what kind of speech is expressly forbidden on the platform. It's also got a handy how-to-guide for broadcasters on how to respond to harassment themselves. Live chat, given its rapidity, is clearly a difficult medium to tame this behavior.

I’m not opposed to logging in and watching Social Eating again. Yet I'd step into it with an adjusted set of expectations. In theory, the appeal of Social Eating is that it'll drum up the same intimacy you'd get from eating beside someone at a restaurant, but it'd still allow you the comfort of remaining antisocial. The perfect balance, as they say.

I’m reminded of Twitch's stated aims for the channel—to reproduce the same joy you get from going out to a restaurant with the people you love. My experience was more like watching a stranger brush off insults from the dudes sitting next to her. Is this something to derive pleasure from—to see someone reduced to a state of helplessness, all while they're just trying to eat?

Ever log in to Twitch's Social Eating channel? Does it sound like something you'd be willing to try? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: Entertaining, Long Reads, Food News, Pop Culture