HOW TECHNOLOGY SHAPED THE WAY WE VIEW FOOD
Picture this: it’s 1993 and you’re chilling on the couch, flipping through the newspaper while the TV drones on in the background. A distinctly tacky 90’s-style piano jingle hits your ear and you look up to see Michael Jordan and Larry Bird playing a game of HORSE – first one to miss has to watch the winner eat a Big Mac meal. They’re huckin’ baby hooks from the rafters and suddenly, you’re suddenly overcome with an urge to run (or, you know, casually jaunt) over to your nearest Mickey Ds. Despite its silly premise, the ad was so sensational that most people didn’t even care or notice that the ad hardly contains a shot of an actual Big Mac sandwich.
This famed McDonald’s spot was so popular that they remade the ad in 2010 with Lebron James and Dwight “Likely not a Future Hall-of-Famer” Howard. The newer ad didn’t have the same impact as the original but the interesting bit is that many of us will remember first seeing the ad on YouTube rather than when it was broadcast on TV during the Superbowl XLIV pre-game show.
The above example highlights how advancements in technology have shaped both how and where we look for food and, in turn, how and where businesses market to their customers. Modern-day food decisions are now influenced much less by traditional mediums like TV, radio and print. Nowadays, we PVR TV shows and fast forward through the commercials or simply download them (again, totally ad-free). Interest-specific podcasts have all but replaced talk radio and we all know how well things are going in the print media industry. Yes, the digital age is one of endless content, choice and immediate gratification. McDonalds can try to beam a Big Mac onto my screen, but my ad-blocker will make sure that I never see it. If I want to look up burgers, I do it on my own terms. Welcome to 2017!
But enough talk about the Golden Arches. For this piece, we thought it’d be interesting to take a look back at how innovations in technology changed the availability of information and, we guess, where to find the most ‘grammable eats in town. Maybe we’ll hit a few nostalgic notes, maybe we’ll misremember certain events about the social media boom. Either way, it’s been a slice for us and will hopefully be edutaining for you.
THE BIRTH OF THE SEARCH ENGINE (1990’s)
What, you thought we were going to start the timeline with the introduction of Instagram Business accounts? With all the hype around social media, it’s easy to overlook one of the most significant technological advancements in history: the creation of search engines. In the early years, directories of downloadable files – extremely small text-only files – could be accessed only if the user knew a specific numeric address. I recall a tech-savvy uncle showing me a carrot cake recipe he accessed on what I can only assume was this kind of FTP-style index.
Even after the advent of the World Wide Web years later, web pages could still only be accessed if the user knew the specific URL address. Then along came the first true search engines: Infoseek, Webcrawler, Yahoo, Lycos, etc. In gaining access to a systematically indexed world wide web, people found new ways to connect with each other as well as businesses.
But how does this relate to food? Well, imagine asking your mom to name all the Japanese restaurants in the downtown area. Which ones have fresh uni on the menu? Do they have free parking? Do we know anyone who has eaten there before? When are their peak hours? Are they open on holidays? Google cares not how many questions you ask. Your mom, on the other hand? She’s about to hit you with an old slipper if you ask her one more question.
FORUMS AND MESSAGE BOARDS (1990’s)
The birth of the internet meant a unique ability for people to connect through various platforms. Although social media was in its infancy, people were still able to use platforms like Revscene (among other forums) to discuss different topics. Even though Revscene was based around the auto industry, discussion topics like food also existed. People would post things like “ideas for good sushi?” and “good date spots in Vancouver” and it would generate an entire thread of conversations from everyone in the area. This was a great hub for people to decide what was good, where to eat and links to restaurant pages. Just visiting the page now, I found a pho recipe thread that started back in 2001. This got the ball rolling in terms of changing the way we communicate with each other. With the presence of message boards, we could expand outside of our social circles and access new sources of information. Message boards are clearly alive and well today, however they’re less popular due to the popularity and convenience of instant messaging programs (ICQ!) and, more recently, mobile apps with group chat functionality (WhatsApp/WeChat). Let’s also not forget Facebook Groups, where users can share information and media just like forums, except with all the other features of Facebook.
BROADBAND INTERNET & WI-FI (2000’s)
The internet was not always kind to the impatient. Dial-up connections were a nightmare. Frequent disconnects and pitiful transfer rates were the norm. Many people installed a second, dedicated phone line in their home just to avoid accidental disconnects (e.g. if someone else in the house picked up the phone, the connection was kaput). The introduction of cable internet – a higher-speed, constant connection – seemed like the stuff of fairy tales. All of a sudden, the internet was now home to high-res photos, video clips and high(er) fidelity audio. The next great game-changer was the creation of wi-fi and roaming data networks, allowing us to access data without being tethered to a PC. Surely, TEAMPCHOMP could not exist if we were still on 56k modems waiting for photos to load in line-by-line. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
Having crested over the 2 billion user mark earlier this year, Facebook is still the king of social media platforms. Although there were social platforms before it, Facebook excelled by offering the best combination of social networking with photo sharing (including tagging) and the ability to plan events. For most people, individual “mini-feeds” were usually packed with posted photos of friends out celebrating a birthday at a then-popular spot like Richmond Sushi. This inevitably paved the way for others wanting to know more about what and where their friends were eating. Although Facebook has since evolved and lost its luster as a place for personal images/videos, it remains relevant as the jack- of-all-trades platform. It’s still rich with shared content (videos, memes, news) and now features the ability to ask for recommendations (via the status update box). The latter innovation is probably Facebook’s best in recent memory and makes great sense considering so many people were already using their status updates to poll their friends for recommendations on anything from restaurants to chiropractors.
Take one of the latest local food trends, millicrepe cakes, for example. An article about them came up in my newsfeed recently and I decided to check it out. I don’t remember who shared it or how else it could’ve ended up in my feed, but following this random link led me to information on the best millicrepe cakes in Vancouver, complete with photos and flavour recommendations. Within a few days I discovered places like Sugarlab (Burnaby) and L’otus (Richmond) simply because someone out there – maybe even a 2nd or 3rd degree connection – decided to share that article.
Yelp is the most commonly used “places” app created to date. Yelp is perhaps most accurately described as the lovechild of the Yellow Pages and a bunch of other now-extinct advertising mediums. Yellow Pages is the most obvious influence as it provides the basics – restaurant names, phone numbers and addresses. If you wanted to find some sushi in your area, you would’ve gotten that thick book out and started flipping pages. Now with Yelp, you can do all that and more. You can filter by geographic area, cuisine, price, location and read reviews in less time than it would take you to figure out if “sushi” is under “S” for Sushi or “J” for Japanese in the Yellow Pages. Beyond contact information, reviews remain as Yelp’s strongest feature. Back in the day, the only reviews you had access to were by word-of-mouth or in the paper. But the major problem with newspaper reviews was that the article was only useful if you were holding it in your hand. Unless you’re one of those lunatics who hordes stacks of old newspapers just in case such a dilemma arises, a review from yesterday is pretty much the same thing as if it was never written at all.
One thing newspaper reviews were good for though, was legitimacy; it was reasonably safe to assume that the writer was a verified critic with a culinary background. This leads us to the key knock on Yelp: anyone with fingers can submit a review. This means people with no taste buds, haters, and friends of the restaurant owner all have equal opportunity to leave their mark.
GOOGLE MAPS (2005)
Here’s another piece of technology that some people tend to take for granted. So you’ve read the Yelp review, visited the Facebook page to see if people are talking about the place and now you’re ready to head down there. Hold up, let’s print out the Mapquest directions first. Or better yet, let’s take the dusty folded-up map out of the glove box like a goddamn caveman. With the invention of Google Maps – specifically the location tags that are included in restaurant addresses – all you need to do is open up the app and follow the glowing blue line. There really isn’t any guess work in finding restaurants anymore thanks to Google Maps.
Speaking of Mapquest, can we just give them a quick shoutout for being the originators? There’s no shame in being run over by the Googletrain. (Side shade to Apple Maps, which routinely sends me to the wrong place whenever I plug my iPhone into my car. Always use Google Maps, kids!)
The kingpin of online video content. YouTube is the black hole of video content where the masses go to lose hours of their lives. Whether it’s cat videos, movie trailers or fail compilations, there’s something for everybody on YouTube. Well… except sex and stuff that children shouldn’t see (my friends tell me there are other websites for stuff like that).
Earlier this year, YouTube stated that active monthly viewership reached 1.5 billion users with the average user watching more than an hour of content per day. How has it changed the food game for us? YouTube is bursting with content from vloggers, cooking shows (including clips and extra content from Food Network shows), and food hack channels. There’s no shortage of influencers that can point us in the direction of the latest trends. Perhaps the most important feature is the fact that you can pause, rewind, or jump to any point in the video that you’d like. Prior to video-sharing sites like YouTube (and the invention of the PVR), novel food ideas came in the form of a cooking show where the host would take you through a single recipe. You either had to write REALLY fast or hope that s/he would plug his new cookbook so you could go out an buy a copy. Now you can watch recipe videos to your heart’s content, jumping backward or forward to any point in the video and re-watch them any time you want. If you’re travelling to a new country and want to know where to eat – just lookup a local food vlogger and check out what’s good. And if you’re the thieving type, you can even download/grab videos and keep them for yourself forever. For the record, illegal downloading is bad….. but this is an article about technology. Technology doth giveth and technology doth taketh away.
Twitter has had a low-key but equally significant hand in changing food culture. Think back to newspapers, magazines and junk mail. When you wanted deals, you had to dig. Whether it was those beautifully outlined cut-out coupons in the newspaper, coupon cards included in your monthly magazine subscription or Church’s Chicken coupons on the back of those weird real estate ad bundle, coupons were not easy to come by. Now if you follow any restaurants, chains or businesses, you can get flash deals, codes and instant news about what’s going on. Just recently I actually came across a Tweet that gave users a 20% off coupon to Safeway’s meat department. I mean, 20% off meat at Safeway isn’t anything new, but now you don’t have to wait for monthly flyers – just pay attention for the tweet!
Twitter also excels as a direct line to other users, which can include businesses and restaurants. If you see your friend tweet a restaurant with, “Hey @SimpleClucks, you guys served me raw chicken and the waitress called me a cheap prick after I left only a 5% tip. #iwaswithmychildren #nevercomingback”, then that might influence you and your friends to avoid going there. Tweets like this have a ripple effect and can be just as damaging as a bad Yelp review. Conversely, a positive tweet might be the nod of approval that causes others to flock to them: “Hey @SimpleClucks, your wings are on point and thanks for the free birthday cake! #socluckinggood”
If you’re still reading this, congratulations for being in the minority of people with attention spans long enough to *gasp* read content rather than leaving once you realized there’s no 30-second video to neatly sum everything up. For the rest of the world, Instagram continues to prove that people just want to devour images quickly and move on. In the past, this was the forte of magazines, whose appeal was the beautiful colour photography that newspapers lacked. Instagram gives users an avenue to share their photography as frequently as they want instead of being bound by monthly or quarterly installments typical of magazine publications.
Of all the social media apps mentioned, Instagram has had the most profound impact on how we view food. It’s a hub for foodies, food bloggers/vloggers and food businesses alike. The allure of being the one to capture or create the aesthetic “pull” of a place or specific dish has a ridiculous influence over where and what we eat. Many of us now make decisions based on the visual appeal of a restaurant’s dishes, often foregoing taste or quality in favour of a gramworthy photo. What if a place serves delicious food, but the lighting sucks and the food looks like it was shot out of a cannon? If you’re in need of a solid post, you might bite the bullet and just “do it for the ‘gram”. In 2017, this is a legitimate dilemma faced by foodies far and wide. Somewhere, old people are gripping the sides of their computer monitors and screaming “EAT THE TASTY THING YOU FOOLS!”
Also with geotagging and hashtagging, people can now look up a restaurant’s feed or posts that others have tagged them in. Free advertising and an ever-growing photo showcase of their most popular dishes? It’s a win-win for both consumer and business owner. Egocentrically, people are insatiably driven to be the first to ‘gram from the newest and hottest eateries. The cycle continues and the culture further evolves to accommodate the mantra: “the camera always eats first, fam!” (everyone’s favourite passive-aggressive way of telling you not to touch the food until they’re done taking 700 photos).
How can technology take things further? How about the ability to get almost any type of food delivered right to you? Paying restaurants to bring food to you has obviously been around as long as there have been restaurants, but apps like Foodora, Just Eat and Door Dash are now booming because they address the gap in the market created by restaurants who can’t or won’t offer their own delivery service. This trend further illustrates our societal demand for choice and immediacy (and probably laziness). If you want to enjoy a savage dinner of chicken shawarma, ahi tuna tacos and, oh I don’t know, a large order of baked beans from Memphis Blues all in the comfort of your living room, no one’s going to stop you. Skip them dishes and get ready for an evening alone smelling your own farts!
In the grand scheme of things, these technological changes are a relatively recent development. Things progress at such a rapid rate that we don’t really have a chance to master anything before it evolves again. But what we do know is that we certainly couldn’t go back to the way things were before (imagine life without the internet?). Most of us are still trying to figure out how Amazon Prime works, and they’ve already levelled up to delivering pizzas using autonomous cars. Now imagine what life will be like when Amazon starts delivering food using drones (not just pizza like Dominos).
Me: I could use a fresh donut right now… from Blue Star in Portland.
Amazon: A drone has been dispatched.
*an hour later… a box of donuts parachutes down my chimney*
Me: (never leaving my house ever again)
That’s what we’re talking about, son! Send the drone and drop the goods in my food shoot.
Embrace the change ya’ll, what do you think will come next?
Written by: Christopher-Ryan Yu & Doug Chan
Photography: Rich Won