Food Has Eaten the Internet and It Tastes Like a Vampire Taco
On a lazy Friday afternoon, I fell down a hole filled with food.
I was supposed to be writing. Instead I found myself in a waking Facebook dream of cheesy French pull-apart bread and whiskey iced tea, ice cream donut holes and pulled pork porchetta sandwiches. Easy-bake artichokes zipped past; honey BBQ chicken wings and strawberry cotton candy cocktails beckoned. As for the deliciously greasy-looking vampire tacos, I’m still not sure why they’re called that.
It doesn’t matter. What’s important is I watched clip after clip of anonymous hands crafting perfectly plated dishes. I wasn’t particularly hungry. I wasn’t particularly bored. And I definitely won’t be making any of them myself. But none of that mattered. I was captivated—and so is the Internet.
Food videos have taken over the web and rule social media. Like dirty bowls in your kitchen after baking, they are everywhere, chalking up billions of views each month. A chef on YouTube prepares an entire bacon-and-egg breakfast tart with one pot. A cook on digital food network Tastemade whips up kale chips (“raw, vegan, not gross”). On Vine, you can watch a culinary artist spin together seafood pasta in just six seconds (#foodporn).
More visibly than anywhere else, though, food videos have taken over Facebook. As the tech giant prioritizes video in its News Feed, media companies scramble to produce enough to meet the voracious appetite. With more than 1.5 billion people checking in around the world, Facebook is an essential way for publishers and entertainers to reach an enormous audience. Turns out, people love watching short, fast videos of people making food.
That, of course, isn’t a huge surprise. From Julia Child to the Food Network, people have watched food on TV for decades. And it’s a near-mathematical certainty that you have friends who’ve posted pictures of their breakfasts on Instagram. But the hunger today is for professionally crafted videos shared on social media. The companies most successful at feeding that need have set the standard for success at cooking up content for today’s hyper-competitive attention economy.
“I’ve been doing this for nearly 10 years,” says David Chilcott, the titular chef on popular YouTube channel OnePotChef, “and the popularity just keeps getting higher.”
‘Everyone Has to Eat’
People love food. They love cooking food. They love eating food. And, it seems, they love watching people cook and eat food. “Puppies are universally cute, but not everyone is a dog person,” says Paul Verna, an analyst at digital media research firm eMarketer. “Everyone has to eat.”
As cable networks proliferated in the late 1980s and early ’90s to serve increasingly niche interests, the Food Network took off. But its heyday has passed, at least as a destination for people seeking the elemental experience of seeing food being made.
Now people are getting their food fix on social media, where the simple act of friends sharing photos of their brunches has become professionalized. And no company has figured out how to bring food to your smartphone screen better than the viral masters at BuzzFeed.
At the company’s studio in Los Angeles, a team of producers has perfected a formula for food videos so popular they’ve become their own brand. The Facebook page for Tasty has 55 million likes—more than The New York Times and Kim Kardashian. People viewed Tasty’s videos 2.2 billion times in March alone, according to video metrics site Tubular, making Tasty the top video creator on Facebook that month. The secret sauce? Simplicity.
“At BuzzFeed, we do a lot of experimentation on a video-by-video basis, trying to boil things down to their basic components,” says Andrew Ilnyckyj, one of Tasty’s senior producers. Ilnyckyj says Buzzfeed stumbled upon a singular format that just seems to work.
Tasty’s culinary shorts deliver overhead shots of hands preparing a recipe—”your POV,” Ilnyckyj says. That’s not exactly new. But it’s the Facebook-friendly details that make this classic cooking show format compulsively watchable. Capitalizing on Facebook’s autoplay feature, the videos are designed to appeal as you casually scroll through your Facebook News Feed. They dive right into the action and use text overlays to make sure you understand what’s happening even without sound. They zoom through boring parts. And you don’t wait more than a minute to see the end result.
Nom, Nom, Nom
As video becomes more prevalent on social media, other content creators hoping to score big video hits can learn a few lessons from Tasty. First, think cheap. Video costs a lot compared to other formats, says Susan Bidel, an analyst at Forrester Research. But food videos are among the easiest and cheapest to produce. At BuzzFeed’s studio in LA, for instance, the Tasty team has cameras set up so a lone producer can make a food video.
Meanwhile, Tasty’s Ilnyckyj says the team creates its own food recipes based on what they know about food and what they like to cook. The time and money required for research and production, in other words, are minimal. Producers can easily make a video in an afternoon. These videos are easy to export everywhere. Though optimized for Facebook, Tasty’s videos are easy to run on Twitter, Vine, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, even on Tasty’s own app.
The popularity of these videos perhaps inevitably raises the occasional accusation of recipe theft. And it’s easy to see how the pressure to constantly churn out new content could make copycatting tempting. But even here, food videos enjoy an out: generally, recipes are not protected by copyright law. After all, who first thought of, say, waffles, and do small changes to a recipe make it something new?
In the meantime, digital food videos’ bite-sized portability provides another distinct advantage over cable. They don’t require the same time or dedication to consume, says food video site Tastemade’s cofounder Steven Kydd: If you’ve got a few free minutes, you can watch a food video.
But for others looking to Tasty for a template, they may struggle without one crucial ingredient: food. Media companies have tried to use the food video model for other stories and subjects. But food videos connect with people in a way that transcends any practical or edifying considerations—and, crucially, in a way people want to share with their friends. Instructional food videos are perhaps more than anything about feeding a fantasy.
“A lot of people who watch them will never make them,” Chilcott says.
And as far as the companies making these videos are concerned, that doesn’t matter so long as you watch. Advertisers, like audiences, love food videos. The content isn’t controversial. They’re great for product placement. They can even be ads themselves.
Also, much like the bite-sized comfort foods in which so many of the videos revel, you can’t stop at just one. In one sitting, I’ve watched crunchy taco cups, s’more funnel cake fries, and almond meringue peaches. I’ve considered chicken and broccoli alfredo-stuffed shells and grimaced at mini steak-and-ale pies. I’ve shared eggs in clouds. These videos are the pinnacle of media optimized for the Internet: short, seductive, shareable. I may never make a vampire taco. But I’ll happily watch someone else make them.
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