Theorizing the Web, an interdisciplinary gathering of both academics and non-academics interested in the digital that took place over the course of two sunny, late-April days, seemingly had nothing to do with food. After all, the writers, graduate students, artists, tech enthusiasts, and professors who gathered in a repurposed Brooklyn warehouse were there to engage in an intellectual discussion about virtual spaces, big data, and online worlds, not to leisurely dine or rethink our foodways. But they did both.
It’s around 2pm, and I’m sitting in the dark, icy cold Studio C – it’s easy to overlook the importance of physical spaces when you’re so focused on virtual ones – listening to presenters discuss thanatechnology, virality, and algorithms. This is the second session for the day, it’s around lunch time, and the food break isn’t scheduled for another few hours. I see a woman sitting in the row in front of me hand her colleague an energy bar, and I discern the words “nut crunch” printed on the pink wrapper. Carefully, not to disturb the presentation, the friend attempts to silently unwrap it. At the same time as she succeeds and bites into the treat, the man sitting next to me is less lucky: we hear a loud pop when he opens his can of soda. He tries to make up for it by releasing the pressure from it very slowly, but that only prolongs the sound. Both of these actions speak to the taken-for-granted conventions of social interaction we don’t pay much attention to; they show the result of a civilizing process, as Elias terms it, disciplining us in how we go about feeding ourselves (at semi-academic conferences). We must minimize noise, noise from chewing, noise from unwrapping, and we must draw as little attention as possible to satisfying something as lowly as a physiological urge. But the session was far from over, and brain fuel was necessary. What’s better than the immediate alertness from the sugar rush of an energy bar or soda? (Yes, there was free coffee.)
Later, after the session was over, I noticed a woman with a giant box of donuts glazed in pastel colors sitting on the couch behind. I don’t know what happened to the donuts. She couldn’t have eaten them all by herself, but I also haven’t seen them shared. Many other meals during the conference, however, were shared. The Friday 4:45 to 6pm food break gave old colleagues and new acquaintances an opportunity to discuss more in-depth the day’s events and ideas (and the neat conference program gave them a handy list of nearby eating establishments in which to do so). After the conference was over, there was mingling over pizza, the lowest common food denominator, an unifier. It says something participants weren’t invited to a canapé party: pizza is a quintessential signifier of New York, but also of everything simple, undemanding, and universally accessible. This is in line with the philosophy of the conference, which, as the program states, “consider/s/ insights from academics, non-academics, and non-“tech theorists” alike to be equally valuable in conceptualizing the Web and its relation to the world”. Its call for papers explicitly invited abstracts that would reach a general audience, and presentations that won’t require expertise in the field to keep up with the argument. So pizza was consumed, and not with forks and knives. Take that, the civilizing process.
But web theorizers didn’t just break social conventions and eat, they theorized about food on the web too. Two presentations dealt with the ways in which eating, and drinking now have an online presence and interact with the physical reality of food consumption.
Wesley Shumar, Nora Madison, and Tyson Mitman grew an ethnographic project out of Shumar’s habit of getting a glass of beer in one of Philadelphia’s bars after class (he’s a professor, so he’s allowed to do that). Noticing the beer menus were becoming more and more locally- and craft-oriented, Shumar with his coauthors decided to dig deeper into why that’s happening, and ended up attending beer festivals and interviewing brewers offline, and perusing beer reviews and beer appreciation websites online. The team is interested in the ways real world and online beer experiences interact for craft beer consumers (you won’t get to taste the really good malt unless you keep up with tweets leading you to the right bar after a festival), how affinity spaces are created (share your offline interest with a virtual community), how new forms of social capital arise (show off your expertise by rating beer on online portals), and how a new kind of production logic is ultimately shaped (for “prosumers”, craft trumps profit). While they used no academic jargon in their presentation, Bourdieu’s habitus and the cultivation of taste, and Campbell’s craft consumer immediately come to mind for those of us more academically inclined.
Next, Laura Noren (whose talk I actually missed because there were no hints to food in the title of her presentation! Luckily, you can expect videos of all presentations to be promptly put online after a conference like this) borrowed from Sara Ahmed the term affective economies and explored the ways in which they are built through linking, commenting, and posting appetite-inducing content on personal food blogs. Like Shumar and his team, she was interested in the intersection between the on- and off-line (a successful food blog might eventually get you a book deal), but paid more explicit attention to the reward structure and socioeconomic inequality that comes with food blogging. She argues for a winner-take-all effect, also known as Matthew’s effect, in which those who play the game right – and who are more likely to have the means to do so in the first place – reap both its economic and affective rewards.
Like craft beer brewers, food bloggers form vibrant virtual networks, and a comparison might be in order. Shumar and colleagues didn’t mention this, but craft beer brewers lead successful food blogs too. Sometimes, they’re even married to successful food bloggers (I know, I’m guilty of following plenty myself). How gendered are these spaces? (At some point during the conference, the line for the men’s bathroom was longer than that for women’s. But only for a little while.) Do their authors transition between online and offline spaces, and interact with their audiences similarly? Are there differences in the way they translate something so physical – our daily nourishment – into ones and zeros? Are their translations successful, and where do they fail?
This year, the tech-data-online-oriented Theorizing the Web gave us plenty of food for thought. Even about food.