I am frequently asked why Koreans are so weird. Just as soon as I think I have an answer, some new trend materializes that subverts all previous theories. Take, for example, mukbang, a uniquely Korean trend of people getting paid to eat large meals in front of a webcam for a live-streaming broadcast. Wow, the future really is now.
Mukbang is a portmanteau word that combines the Korean word for “eat” (muk-da) with the word for “broadcast” (bang song). The top mukbang earners can earn as much as $10,000 a month by some accounts, not including sponsorships. The oddest part of their payment structure is that it’s not pay-per-view, ad-based, or salary-based. Rather, ordinary viewers voluntarily send their favorite BJs (which stands for Broadcasting Jockey, a uniquely Korean use of this acronym) money in the form of “star balloons”—a type of proprietary virtual currency that can be bought and sold with regular fiat cash.
What’s the appeal? It might make more sense if the broadcasts were, for example, of a competitive eating event in which someone eats 97 hamburgers. But mukbang is not even that. Sure, the volumes of food consumed in a typical mukbang broadcast are pretty alarming. One of the most popular mukbang BJs is a middle school-aged boy calling himself BJ Patoo; he devotes an episode to eating five packets of ramen, all cooked together in one pot. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t even finish, giving up after 18 minutes.
In other words, mukbang is utterly banal, but strangely… not unwatchable.
Structurally, a mukbang video is not dissimlar to a “haul video”—the genre of web show popularized by the 20-year-old jillionaire YouTube star Bethany Mota, in which someone brings out a bunch of shopping bags and shows you each item she bought, one by one, with some pretty insipid patter. Along similar lines, a typical mukbang episode will have the BJs enumerating the array of food items neatly before them on the table, before eating the food at a leisurely pace. Sometimes it’s large quantities of a single item; fried chicken is a popular mukbang sub-genre. Others, like the famous “BJ The Diva” (Yes, you have to include the article “The”; and yes, “The” has to be capitalized) have a spread of seven or eight double-portion dishes.
One explanation, a somewhat grim one, is that mukbang is the apotheosis of humankind’s trajectory away from face to face interaction. Michael Hurt, director of cultural studies at the Busan University of Foreign Studies, told Quartz: “[Mukbang] is a part of the spectacle culture in the sense of [French Marxist] Guy Debord [author of Society of the Spectacle]. Korea is a society of the spectacle, and it’s gotten to the point where social interaction can’t happen—can barely be understood—without being mediated in some way.” He adds that in the Korean context, mukbang is not so peculiar. “They have a different understanding of how media is used,” he said. “It’s become truly a part of life.”
In order to understand Korea’s integration of media into all aspects of life, you have to understand the extent to which Korean video streaming has moved away from desktop and toward mobile technology—unlike the West, the majority of Korean video streaming happens on phones. Thus, media in Korea really is one’s constant companion, like a second shadow.
The ubiquity of mobile is aided by the fact that the country has had the world’s fastest internet for several years running. By 2020, if the Korean government sticks to its current plans, users will be able to download a whole movie in a second, as The New York Times reported. Already, a single car in the Seoul subway has multiple wifi hubs, with enough bandwidth for every commuter in a sardine-packed car to watch their favorite shows, in HD if needed. The West trails far behind. Case in point: I’m writing this article from the South of France and I literally cannot load Afreeca.kr videos in their original form because they’re too hi-def; I instead had to watch the less popular, lower-def YouTube versions, like some third worlder.
An Occam’s Razor explanation of the mukbang phenom was offered by Jeff Yang, Asian-American cultural critic and senior vice president of the global research firm The Futures Company. Yang told Quartz that mukbang had its origins in “the loneliness of unmarried or uncoupled Koreans, in addition to the inherently social aspect of eating in Korea.”
By this explanation, people watch mukbang so they can pretend to be dining with a friend. Personally, my rearing would prevent me from dining with one of these mukbang BJs, either online or in person. A hugely important aspect of mukbang is the noise made while eating: the slurping, chewing, smacking, and swallowing noises. The sound equipment used in mukbang videos is way better than it needs to be, and I can think of no other reason for requiring this kind of sound fidelity other than that it captures mouth noises.
My mother was really against noises made while eating. Children were to be seen and not heard, and definitely not heard eating. But then again, this is a woman who was heavily influenced by Yankee WASPS (the first American city my parents lived in was Boston, where they attended grad school), and she enforced etiquette that made no sense in a Korean household: no elbows on the table, conversation severely limited to certain anodyne topics, and no noises that might betray the fact that mastication was taking place. Dinner at our house was like a pantomime of eating, or a dead dull pretend tea party with dolls and empty cups. Basically, the opposite of mukbang.
Which is another way of saying that I object to mukbang on classist grounds, and am hard-wired to do so. There are very few excuses for bad table manners, and being on video certainly isn’t one of them.