10 February 2011

Gastronomy and social media

"Le media, c'est la table, le social, c'est la bouffe.
The media is the table, the social is the food. 

I went to a fascinating panel discussion on gastronomy and social media here in Paris tonight, which was part of Social Media Week, currently ongoing here as well as in New York, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, London, Hong Kong, Istanbul and several other exciting places. I initially decided to check it out because one of my favorite food bloggers, Clotilde Dusoulier of Chocolate & Zucchini was announced as part of the panel. Held at a cool collaborative workspace/cafe called La Cantine, what ensued was a very rich discussion on the social impact of food-related blogs and some interesting new initiatives in this realm, the thorny topic of restaurant reviews in the blogosphere and the potentially anti-social aspect of the relationship between gastronomy and social media.

The discussion was of course a timely one considering all of the buzz around social media these days. The universe of food-related blogs in particular is vast. Technorati estimates that there are at least 33,000 such blogs out there in cyberspace, but the fact is that no one can cite an exact or even approximate number. Social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon and BlogHer provide valuable means for bloggers to connect with each other and share their content, while food-specific communities such as FoodBuzz (and countless others!) offer even more targeted networking. Add to this mix sites where users can post their reviews of restaurants, food shops and markets, such as Yelp, Chowhound and TripAdvisor and it becomes clear that the social media space related to gastronomy is virtually endless.

 Other than the lovely Ms. Dusoulier, the other panelists who weighed in tonight were as follows:

The overwhelming message on which all the panelists seemed to agree was the opportunity that social media provides to those who are passionate about food to share that passion and their knowledge and experiences with others. The joy in sharing and helping others to discover new things was constantly echoed. Both Dusoulier and Weeks also spoke about their blogs being motors of curiousity and creativity, constantly leading them to new inspiration and encouraging them to discover new things to share with their readers.

Desmoulins of SuperMarmite mentioned the paradox between wanting to eat well and our modern, busy lives which often constrain the time and energy at our disposal to do so. It was for this reason that Desmoulins created SuperMarmite (initially just here in Paris, now expanding to the rest of France). The concept is simple. You're baking a big batch of cupcakes and know that you won't (or shouldn't!) finish off all 24 of them yourself. So you offer the extra 12 on the SuperMarmite website, allowing others to buy them at the (typically very modest) price named by you.

The "buyer" is then connected with you the "seller" and makes arrangements to come chez toi to pick up and pay for the goods. Or...another scenario. You're working late one night at your office near the Bastille. You're dying of hunger and need to pick something up on the way home. You definitely don't want McDonald's or a crêpe off the street. No, in fact you're craving a good boeuf bourguignon. With SuperMarmite's search engine, you can actually look to see who might be cooking up a batch and willing to sell their extra portion(s) close to where you are. It's a pretty neat concept, I think, and is a great example of how social media can be used for gastronomic purposes. I haven't tried it out for myself as of yet, but will soon...

The panelists also had a heated debate on the topic of restaurant reviews and the fine line between professional reviews and the thoughts of the thousands of bloggers who weigh in on restaurants. As we all know, anyone can log onto a site like Yelp or TripAdvisor and share his or her impressions of a particular restaurant or café. Some write comprehensive posts along with photos detailing their dining experiences, including the food, ambiance, service, wine list, you name it. Others such as Aude Baron have entire blogs devoted to restaurant reviews.

So where is the distinction between all of the opinions out there in cyberspace and formal restaurant reviews written by journalists in newspapers and food magazines? Some such as Bruno Verjus insisted that the two are worlds apart ("un avis n'est pas une critique", he said). For me, the distinction is pretty clear. Classic reviewers are generally journalists and follow a certain protocol, including visiting the restaurants that they review several times, ordering and tasting several dishes, striving to remain anonymous, etc. Those of us who informally offer our thoughts on restaurants generally have neither the time nor budgets to be this rigorous. I have a fledgling little page on restaurant experiences, but this is why I clearly state there that my restaurant write-ups are simply my impressions rather than proper reviews.

But I think that Dusoulier summed it up best during the panel discussion: gone are the days when a review in a newspaper or food magazine was the sole or even primary source of information on a restaurant. In these tough economic times, most people want to get the most out of their seemingly less frequent visits to restaurants. They thus triangulate review information from several sources, the main ones in this day and age being blogs and user-driven opinion sites. Bloggers who review restaurants have to take special care to consider their responsibility vis-a-vis their readers and strive to always be objective (which means picking up their own tab in the opinion of most of the panelists, or at least disclosing that they were invited by the restaurant if this is the case). These are tough issues, but there's no denying that most people turn to social media outlets when they decide where to go out for dinner! 

The panel also featured an interesting exchange on the potentially anti-social aspect of food and social media. "Tweeting at the table," in the words of one panelist, can be anti-social. I was amused by this...uh...very French point of view. As most know, the French have traditionally accorded great importance to the social aspect of meals and sitting down together at the table (for which they were recognized by UNESCO). The perceived risk as stated seemed to be that social media users are now devoting more time to Tweeting, Facebooking and Flickring their food experiences than to the gustatory pleasures of savoring that food. In reality, I think that most of us do this either before (e.g. while cooking and preparing a recipe post) or after (letting everyone know about the great bistro we discovered the night before) rather than during.

But actually, does it really matter? The thing with social media is that it has simply enlarged the concept of what is social. Bloggers and Internet aficionados now share their meals and discoveries with the global village rather than just their families and immediate circles. Friendships are forged across borders, questions answered by complete strangers on the other side of the planet, tips shared between people who have nothing in common other than a love of food. What could be more social? I for one love being a part of it!

P.S. An interesting aside - several of the panelists mentioned that they felt that "Anglo-Saxon" (I won't rant now about how much I hate that word, they simply mean to say English-speaking) blogs are much more analytical and interesting than those in the French-speaking blogosphere. I don't read enough blogs in French to have an opinion on this particular issue, but would love to hear from any of you who do!


  1. Thanks for this interesting summary of what sounds like a fun event. Good to read opinions and ideas from across the pond!

  2. what a fascinating discussion - thanks so much for posting this. I love the idea of Super Marmite. It would be nice to see it expand outside of France. Hopefully that will happen one day.

    As for the anti-socialness of social media at the table, I have to admit, I have many friends who DO tweet and FB at the table while out for dinner and I hate it. Unfortunately, I have been guilty of it once or twice myself in the past but now I find it hugely annoying. Love the people you're with! Tweet when they're in the bathroom!

  3. in echoing the sentiments above, thanks for sharing this. it's always great to learn about new things/ideas happening in the food world. this website you mentioned is very interesting. i wonder, though, what proportion of people would be interested in purchasing food from strangers in their neighborhood. that kind of turns the restaurant concept upside down.

  4. Melissa - I just noticed that Super Marmite has an English version of its website (some pages at least) and I vaguely recall reading something a while ago about the concept expanding to England and other countries. So maybe it's just a matter of time! I've been guilty of Tweeting/FBing at the table myself...sometimes I've gotten so excited about what I'm eating that I couldn't help myself from sharing it in real time!

    Veggietestkitchen - You definitely have a good point about the purchasing food from strangers. I don't think that Super Marmite is trying to replace the restaurant experience by any stretch but rather to offer an alternative to fast food or a frozen dinner from the supermarket. I didn't have a chance to ask the Super Marmite guy how successful the concept has been so far, but a recent article notes that 4700 people (including myself!) have signed up as members and that they are expanding beyond France as noted above. There has been more and more buzz about this and mostly largely positive. I'll keep on eye on this and let you know more!

  5. Wow, what an excellent post. I do love SuperMarmite's idea!

    Like you, I love the effect that Social Media's had on food blogging. I know I am so inspired by others and learned so much in 10 months I've been blogging and reading blogs. Thanks so much for sharing your experience! Amazing.

  6. Thanks for this informative post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  7. I agree with the several comments about how much I hate it when people whip out their Blackberries or iPhones at the dinner table to tweet or post. It is definitely a catch-22 as you want to share your dining experience. I think it is good etiquette to do it before you eat and letting your guest know in advance.

    Super Marmite definitely has a great idea going. I'll have to check into that in NYC. Anybody in the area know anything about that??