‘Eating for the eyes’ in the age of smartphones
By Xin Yuan Wang, on 1 September 2020
Last month (August 2020), Chinese video platforms such as ‘douyin’ (TikTok) started banning videos of wanghong (internet influencers) who are known as ‘big stomach kings’ filming and broadcast themselves eating huge amounts of food in one go. The crackdown is a reaction to the call from the Chinese leadership to reduce food waste, as food security had become an issue during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as weeks of mass flooding across southern China. The popular eating shows have been criticised as not only promoting a very unhealthy diet but also causing food waste, as many broadcasters faked the eating process by secretly throwing up in order to consume more on camera (fig.1).
During my fieldwork, it was common to see such videos circulated among older people along with many other visual content where wanghong (internet influencers) play a significant role. Wanghong, which literally means ‘internet red’, was originally the Chinese term for internet influencers. Now, Wanghong can refer to anything that gains popularity and fame on social media. Among them, Wanghong food is one of the most common topics. On 65-year-old Caiyuan’s WeChat profile, we can find hundreds of photos of food, for example. One post (fig. 2) reads: “dinner on the Mother’s Day, a wanghong restaurant daka (checked).” The other one (fig. 3) reads “daka at a wanghong bubble milk tea shop, who can read the name of the shop?”
‘Daka’, the verb people always apply in posts, along with wanghong, comes from the popular action of marking one’s physical location on social media. Previously, placed people commonly marked were famous places one would encounter when sightseeing or even the airport. More recently, wanghong restaurants and shops appear more and more often on people’s social media profiles.
On a WeChat group called ‘Good taste in Shanghai’, which has 292 members and was set up by a retired civil servant, daka wanghong restaurants have become the routine: in addition to home-made dishes, members share endless photos of wanghong food and restaurants (fig. 4). It is also not unusual to see people posting a link of a wanghong restaurant and saying: “I want to ‘daka’ this one next month, anybody in the group want to come along?”
To put things in perspective, with or without wanghong, food has always been the centre of Chinese culture and social life. There is something else that should be known about the popularity of wanghong food and restaurants on people’s social media profiles. ‘Xiaofei shengji’, a term that translates to ‘an upgrade in consumption’ is something that characterises today’s rapidly growing Chinese middle class. Urban Chinese people in Shanghai, young and old alike, are keen to live a premium lifestyle, one that might include activities such as sophisticated dining. Given that people carry their ‘perpetually opportunistic’  smartphone with them at all times, this means they are always ready to visually capture various daily experiences, sharing such visual evidence with more social contacts. In this context, many places and products gain fame online mainly because their outstanding appearance. The term ‘gao yanzhi’ (high level of good-looking) is widely used in the marketing of wanghong. Unlike ‘conspicuous consumption’ of luxury goods, which is not always available to ordinary people, the consumption of ‘light luxury’ (qing she meaning ‘affordable luxury’), has become one of the most popular events documented on social media. ‘Light luxury’ can be a cup of wanghong bubble milk tea, which may be double the price of similar products (and for which people might need to queue for two or three hours) or a meal in a wanghong restaurant that one needs to book a couple of weeks in advance.
Visual content plays a significant role in interpersonal communication as well as self-representation. In fieldwork, I found that it is common that people’s consumption was inspired by their friends’ posts of wanghong on social media. On top of this to post photos of wanghong is also the main reason to go to wanghong.
Once, another research participant, Luwei (50 years old) was having a coffee with me in a wanghong café. When the cheesecake arrived, she found she had left her smartphone at home. “It is almost as if the cheesecake was eaten in vain if I couldn’t take photos”, Luwei sighed. As she suggests, having nice food is not just about consuming it but also about producing ‘social media-worthy’ photos.
During my fieldwork, I witnessed the booming of the wanghong economy, the new digital business model that converts social media fans and followers into purchases. In 2018, the total number of wanghong fans in China was 588 million, with revenues centred around the ‘wanghong economy’ exceeding $283 billion, almost 32 times as much as the country’s box office revenue ($8.9 billion) that year. Indeed, as a popular saying goes: ‘The good-looking is the number one productive force’ (yanzhi shi di yi shengchanli).
The wanghong economy, with its extreme focus on the ‘good-looking’ is, on the one hand, fuelled by the proliferation of the smartphone and social media. It also reinforces the significance of the visual content on people’s social media profiles. The ‘good-looking’ element has always being an important part of fine cuisine, as ‘people eat with their eyes’. From the big stomach kings’ wanghong videos to the ubiquitous photos of wanghong food, it is probably fair to say that in the age of smartphones, not only do people eat with their eyes but also for the eyes.
 Miller et al. (forthcoming) The Global Smartphone: beyond youth culture. London: UCL Press.