Looking at Food Bloggers in Boston via @TwoHungryBostonians as Accidental Influencers

To those who hold fine dining in high regard, Boston is held back from being considered a “world class city” due to its lack of Michelin Stars and rumored reclusive food scene. I grew up in Boston and am often confronted with people’s perceptions of Boston’s food scene. They envision eating lobster rolls near a wharf, or can imagine how their tongues would feel pressed against the roof of their mouth as they ordered clam chow-dAh (emphasis on the hard A-sound). However, the Boston food scene is softening into a much more palpable and exciting form from the energy of its academic electricity and gritty work-hard mentality.

This ambition has spilled into the realm of food blogging. @TwoHungryBostonians is a food blog on Instagram that has evolved from a few friends who just enjoyed going out to eat together and posting on social media, to one of the main social media influencers of the Boston food scene.

Instagram account for Two Hungry Bostonians

“We gained a lot of attention and it became fun after the realization that we could actually document Boston cuisine,” one of the women behind the Instagram TwoHungryBostonians confessed “It was something we never considered because Boston seemed to be boring as a food place, but actually there a lot of restaurants that we have not yet been to, [and that is exciting]. We think most people only go to a few [restaurants that are the most immediate results] on Yelp or searches like that.” And with over 21K followers as of early March 2017, many curious eyes and hungry stomachs are looking to the account’s content to find the next best place to eat is within the curving streets of Boston.

But do not be mistaken; the TwoHungryBostonians Instagram account is not here to replace the critical voice of restaurant reviews, either informally like Yelp or formally like The Boston Globe’s Food & Dining section. When asked to describe the TwoHungryBostonians Instagram account and its content, the blogger described it as simply, “Pretty pictures of food from Boston.” To a certain extent, TwoHungryBostonians is limited as it is just an Instagram account with no other web presence. To think of the account as a mere compilation of food images is to limit the scope of both their Instagram-based food blog and the whole phenomena of visual food media. There is something else going on here.

All of the images on their Instagram account are of food, and the captions often make world play based off of the foods featured or ignore the food-nature of content of the photo altogether. “In our captions of the images, we won’t talk about what dish is at the restaurant… We don’t rate the dish, and we don’t critique it. If a restaurant is not good, we just won’t post it.” Curation of the images and the conversational captions get woven together to create a narrative of dining where food becomes the center of a greater experience rather than the sole purpose.

Dining is such a visceral experience with the smells wafting across tables and textures mashing against teeth, but eating can often feel like a utilitarian function. Despite our bodies’ need for nutrients, our minds and hearts have a way of bringing us to restaurants to additionally satisfy social and exploratory aspirations. The blogger points out that they work hard to make sure they are profiling a variety of restaurants instead of just popular chains, as that is, as she puts it, “part of the job of the influencer.” By influencer, she is referring to the marketing-based term used to identify individuals who have established themselves as holding credibility and perceived expertise within a community. In that way, food bloggers have positioned themselves as authorities on where one can find the most satisfactory of gustatory experiences.

“[If you look at the statistics of our Instagram account activity,] a lot of users are actually just tagging other users or sending a private message to other users [with our content]. So, people are just saying, ‘let’s go here if it is better’… so I think the appeal is having Instagram access as an introduction to different types of food or new places that they could go to in the future.”

Check out the comments: Instagram users tag their friends and discuss “wanting to go” to the restaurant featured

Tagging friends on and messaging them the content then extends the conversations from being just between the content creator and the viewer, but instead creates a web of past and future experiences of not only the restaurants but experiences that extend the restaurants. The social aspect of these visual food experiences is not to be understated. While these likes and tags are outwardly social in aim with the end goal of eating at new restaurants, the blogger insists that their audience finds their food media by looking for media unrelated to food.

“The hashtags that consistently for us are ones similar to #lifestyle or hashtags not referring to a specific food…. Such as #eatingin, #foodporn, #aesthetic… just hashtag things that young people look up.” She says, pointing out that Instagram users are not searching for hashtags of food directly, such as #scallop or #salad, but instead broader lifestyle-oriented hashtags. In that way, Instagram becomes a porthole into a deep abyss of aspirational portrayals of “real” life experiences.

For example, a post from the middle of February features a flambéed dessert with the caption “It’s lit,” a reference to both the flaming nature of the food but also the colloquial expression for when something is exciting or amazing, and the hashtag #lastfridaynight. “They find us when they are looking up things that they want to see. So food is part of a lifestyle [idea] that appeals to a population who want to be seen as [being a part of a] eating out lifestyle… A nice food aesthetic lifestyle.”

Caption reads, “It’s lit @yvonnesboston #lastfridaynight #twohungrybostonians”

What is this “nice food aesthetic lifestyle?” How does one compose an aspirational food image? The visual language of food bloggers, such as image styling or captions, is a language that bloggers see as an informal framework. This style is not directly taught, but instead learned by seeing what other successful content creators are doing. Perceived quality is therefore established by the creator’s earned feedback. That is, proof that content is “working” is gauged by the number of followers and likes on their content. The composition of the images and their complimentary aesthetic then spreads across multiple users and the whole phenomena of visual food media.

“Well certainly… there are certain types of shots that everyone across social networks use. One is the top down shot, which is the overview with a couple of central dishes, one or two central dishes that are fully in view, and a couple of dishes that are half way cut. Then there is the option that just a view of the table with no angle, [just looking directly at the dish]. And then there is the cheese shot that is, for example, for things that are sticky or liquid-y. It is preferable to get a video generally because you are pulling apart something that has cheese and that is so satisfying to see, see that string.

Video of caramel being dribbled over a stack of cookies

“But the most important consideration is lighting and quality of the photo, so if the photo is bad, no matter how good the restaurant was or how pretty it looked in person, we won’t post it because that’s just guaranteed to get less likes on our Instagram account.”

With that in mind, a food blogger’s images stand not only to act as stark records of a meal, but instead more of an affective tool for communicating a “vibe” and story. In the world of food blogging, success is ultimately judged by getting other users to buy into the story one is telling, and to do so in a way that their fingers double-tap on the image. Without this feedback, food bloggers can feel as though their content is self-serving and uninteresting to other people.

This idea of seeking positive feedback of posted content is relevant to TwoHungryBostonians’ humble beginnings. As TwoHungryBostonians is actually three hungry Bostonians who are college students in non-food and media related majors, their methods started and remain slightly loose. Notes about content creation efficacy are traded through Facebook message threads, and tricks of the trade are learned through on in the field experience and observation from other successful food bloggers. Success in this arena therefore justifies more time and effort in this hobby-like endeavor for the group.

But also, in the same vein, the blogger I spoke with remained skeptical to refer to herself in more professional leaning terms, often prefacing responses with remarks such as, “This is definitely not a professional opinion but…” This perspective of a food blogger who fell into this media creation position points out the more wide-reaching angle of social media sites as spaces for people to transform their perspectives into ones of influence.

“I guess from my point of view, despite the fact that I do the whole food blogging thing, I’m not really a food expert, you know what I mean? I feel that TV, newspaper, and book publications are for people who are really into that… And I don’t have a specific interest [or expert positioning] in a way that is alienating to users who would just be satisfied seeing this [kind of food content] briefly,” she points out.

However, she does take a moment to realize that while specific food media channels are certainly formalized in a food-focused cultural sphere, there is a clear space for her and her colleagues to share their perspective.

An Instagram video from Boston Eataly’s preview event

“We were [at the Boston Eataly preview] event amongst actual TV stations who had signed up as representatives, and other media people and reporters. But here I am, just an Instagram blogger… but at the same time, to look it from a different perspective, actually our Instagram blog most of the time gets more attraction than some TV or radio stations even though they’re more funded and more officially established, so to speak. Because of the user base and what the user base uses. Instagram is instant and easy.”

Another day, another meal, another like, another meal, another follower, another post… The Instagram newsfeed continues to scroll on as people feed their eyes on oozing and glistening food representations of imagined realities.