Mukbang Culture – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

In the 15 years since its founding, YouTube has seen consistent and often surprising changes in video trends created and popularized by its users. One craze that has been ongoing on the platform for almost a decade is mukbang – a trend originating in South Korea, in which YouTubers (or BJs – Broadcast Jockeys) live-stream themselves eating copious amounts of food in one sitting. The term is a combination of two Korean words – muok-da (eating) and bang song (broadcast), – and mukbang videos are often accompanied with ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) sounds of the person chewing, slurping, and making other “satisfying” eating noises. The supposed original intention of mukbang was to eliminate the sense of loneliness experienced by people who usually eat alone: the person could instead turn on a video of their favorite mukbanger, and feel that they are dining in the company of a friend. This is especially prominent in Korea, given that the eating culture there, as in most of Asia, is inherently social. Plus, the majority of video streaming happens through smartphones, allowing users to tune in anytime, anywhere, and with this media ubiquity, mukbang content creators are bound to earn thousands from their broadcasts.

Screenshot 2020-02-18 at 17.28.58

Over time, the mukbang videos were repurposed and their original idea has changed. Moreover, the popularity of mukbang videos hasn’t decreased. The mukbang culture dominates on various social media platforms, and especially on YouTube. The idea to analyse mukbang culture was inspired by the trendiness of these videos on YouTube and other media platforms. Although these types of videos are usually seen as simply entertaining, researches reveal that they may also be viewed in a negative way. Despite their entertaining and funny presence, the mukbang videos have faced a lot of controversies, concerning cultural appropriation and eating disorder problems. We found it interesting how these seemingly  simple and innocent videos caused such serious public debates. In our further investigation, we will look at the mukbang culture on YouTube more closely and analyse how the data we obtain will correlate with the above-discussed issues. The purpose of this investigation is to find out how the public reacts on the mukbang videos, and whether these reactions differ between South Korea and America – and if so, why is that?

The first step of our methodology is to use the YouTube Data Tool’s module, Video Networking, which will provide data from the search query words ‘mukbang’ and ‘eating’. We will do two queries, as we will be investigating two countries: America and South Korea. The investigation will be a comparison of these two countries’ most popular videos concerning this topic. Following those results, the most recommended videos, we will pick out the most popular videos and analyse them using a second module, Video Info and Comments. In addition to the investigation, we will also be doing interviews to find out more about what the general public thinks of the topic and how they are relating to mukbangs.

According to Alexa Internet, YouTube is the world’s second most visited website. The status and power this brings are important to keep in mind for this tool selection since the mukbang phenomena is easily accessible and highly popular on the site. We will be using YouTube Data Tools as our tool for gathering information on the videos we are interested in. The tool was created by Bernhard Rieder as a part of the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam. It allows researchers to access YouTube video -data lists, which can be further customized by altering keywords and other variables.

We are going to start by using the ‘Video Network’ – module of the tool to analyse the connections between the videos in different countries. We will then look at the most popular videos and use the ‘Video Info and Comments’ – module to dive deep into the channels and possibly find controversies or interesting opinions. Using the YouTube Data Tools gives us an opportunity to experiment with the data ourselves and tag it, allowing us to explore the data more freely.

As mentioned, one reason why mukbang videos are so popular is because they replace eating partners for people who regularly eat alone. In the US, 46% of all adult eating occasions are alone, according to Hartman Eating Occasions Compass. This reflects a growing trend in eating in the company of one’s phone rather than another person: 66% of Americans feel like they’re not eating alone when they’re using their phone. Despite the traditional eating culture in Korea, the numbers of those eating alone have also risen. Koreans call solo-dining behavior ‘honbap’(“hon” – alone, “bap” – meal). This trend appeared with the increase of single-person households, which reached about 30% of the total population in 2019. Statistics Korea showed that 91.8% of these tend to dine alone.

A study called “Development and Validation of the Mukbang Addiction Scale” used 236 university students answers to research their idea on the Mukbang Addiction Scale. They did this by creating an online survey, where the participants’ ages varied from 18 to 27, the median age being 20,50 years. 62% of the participants were females. Specific information on the students was asked in the survey such as age, gender, weight, etc. After calculations, that took into consideration all the provided information by the students, they were able to validate the use of the Mukbang Addiction Scale and test it out with favorable results.

After a governmental attempt to diminish over consumption, followed by an economic crisis in Korea, consumption culture once again became a large part of Korean social convention. This has led to the glorification of food consumption and sent the consumption culture to the forefront of priorities in Korea. Mukbangs have also facilitated another step taken by the nation in the general direction of consumption culture, with a statistical increase of overweight men and women, along with a growing frequency of reported cases of eating disorders soaring to 25% in the country as of 2012. Especially young unmarried men.

Option A – General Public

We would like to ask the general public about their views and experiences with mukbangs. We would do this by mainly focusing on our own circles of friends and acquaintances who might have some relation or knowledge about the genre. Of course we are aware that this option of interviews would be limited  due to the fact that it considers people who don’t have academic knowledge and information on the topic such as experts. Another option like A and/ or C would provide a level of engagement that would be useful in terms of the government legislation and health benefits. Nevertheless, the questions we would propose to the general public would be:

How did you discover this video genre?
What did you think when you first watched a mukbang video? Which YouTuber was it?
Why did you continue to watch mukbangs, if you did, and why, if not?
Do you think it helps you or makes you feel better when you watch these videos? Why?
Do you think there is a correlation between mukbang and increasing obesity rates?

Option B- Mukbang Creator

We messaged three mukbang creators: Hungry Mei (YouTube), Stephanie Soo (YouTube, Instagram), and Zach Choi (YouTube, Instagram). If they reply to us, we would like to ask them following questions:
What inspired you to start creating mukbang videos?
Which geographical area do you get the most engagement from?
What is your opinion on the South Korean government’s decision to restrict or place guidelines on mukbang broadcasts (based on increasing obesity rates in Korea)?
Do you get a lot of negative feedback from your viewers?
Do you think there is a correlation between mukbang and increasing obesity rates?

Option C – Nutrition Expert’s Opinion (JJ Lim)
We contacted a Medium writer, whose bio mentions that he is pursuing a PhD in Human Nutrition. He wrote an article on how mukbang influences the “mind, body, and soul”.

What is your opinion on the South Korean government’s decision to restrict or place guidelines on mukbang broadcasts (based on increasing obesity rates in Korea)?
In your article, you mentioned that you personally do not encourage people to watch mukbang while having their meals. Why is that?

How does mukbang affect people with existing eating disorders, in your opinion?
Do you think there is a correlation between mukbang and increasing obesity rates? If yes, how?
In what ways might doing mukbang as a full time job affect the health of mukbang creators?

Posted in Data Journalism 2020