Eating on the Wall

So I tend to go out to eat a lot, particularly when I end up back in Philadelphia (even if I’m there for only an hour and this is why). This is one of those central things my significant other and I agree upon, though I do sometimes frustrate her with my constant desire to eat a whole meal at literally any time of day.

As of the first paragraph, I’m actually doing that right now. For atmosphere, put this on in another tab, wait through the ad and the promo (because apparently noise can’t sell itself), and then come back. We can pretend to be in a coffeeshop together.

You done? Okay. Fiddle with the volume. I can wait. Ignore the sidebar–Youtube is trying to distract you with paid content.

All the time in the world here.
All the time in the world here.

Anyway, full disclosure: the S.O. uses Instagram (and no I don’t have the link to her profile). Her fascination with Instagram has made her a rather good photographer, doubtlessly in some small part due to a family tradition of taking artful pictures all the time. This practice extended to our frequent mealtimes, and created a ritual I have come to call Saying Hipster Grace. It this daily ritual, the adherents await the presentation of the meal, at which point the participants make a ritual ablution with their phones, where they aggressively rearrange the table to get all the food in frame and then use their cell phones to take a picture.

The food then begins to cool as they select filters and post to Instagram. A sigh of satisfaction signals the end of the ritual, as the picture uploads and the phone goes away.

My being rather agnostic about Saying Hipster Grace (I refuse to get baptized into Instagram, and just store pictures of good meals on my phone) is uncharacteristic and difficult to explain. In Standage’s terms, where we’re all Romans running down to the dock to get our mail (26), I’m the literate plebe that taught himself how to swim. I need data, all the time, and as many of you found out today, I’m constantly trying to keep my social media presence organized.

But I just won’t share my frankly spectacular meals on social media. Something about that just seems like oversharing, like Cicero tweeting from the restroom. And this makes me meditate on Standage’s assertions throughout Writing on the Wall that social media has, in some form, “been around for centuries” (250)–and I agree, it certainly has, even if sometimes his history chaffed the postcolonialist in me for being really traditional, Eurocentric and a bit self-fulfilling. But I can’t help but think that, as Standage himself notes, there’s something a little different this time around (239), something more pervasive, and more centralized (248).

My S.O.’s picture of cinnamon bun french toast from two days ago on Instagram was linked by 49 people in 4 hours, and by noon had been incorporated into the restaurant’s online marketing presence, all without her explicit permission. Like Cicero’s letters, she’s happy to have it reproduced and used (the dish was lovely, after all, and the attention is her gift to the restaurant), but unlike Cicero’s letters, her social media is being used for a pretty thoroughly centralized, wholly commercial end. This is Facebook Corporation via Instagram, not Cicero’s scribe, and breakfast ads don’t usually save the Roman Republic from ruin. Something is different here, but I’m not sure it’s just corporate centralization (one of Standage’s constant perils).


I take pictures of my best meals because I want to remember them, not to share them. I get the impression I’m carrying around a model of “what is important information” that Standage might attribute to the broadcast media age–that magically approved authorities like CNN (which constantly posts pictures of food) have a greater claim to talk about their lunch than I do. Sponsored results like the ones at the top right of the Youtube video I’m having you listen to, and the annoying voice-over at the beginning of the video, perpetuate this broadcast-privilege model of importance–the business that provides this service has more authority to sponsor or review than the average user, despite my profligate linking to things I like. Despite Standage’s closing note, I still feel like I have to “squeeze through the bottleneck of broadcast media” (250) despite not actually being dis-enabled from having that scale of web presence. This rebirth of social media is having some trouble shaking off its broadcast media phase, like a horrible Nazi-connected (202-203) puberty that has left its marks. That might be why a lot of people (and the language of twitter, with “followers”) imagine a me-as-central-broadcaster-to-audience model of social media, even though the constant desire for response and “likes” (and followers talking back) shows how this is different and interactional.

I guess, to declare my independence from broadcast-media thinking, I should take and post a picture of the cappuccino I was drinking in Elixr as I wrote that last paragraph, but I logged out the coffeeshop without logging in to take a picture.


4 thoughts on “Eating on the Wall”

  1. The more and more I think and talk about this book (especially our conversation the other day, Michael), the more I find myself disagreeing with this distinction Standage is making between social and mass media. I think your post highlights a great example of the weird ways they interfere and interact with each other.

    Even more than that, though, I question the distinction entirely. I think that he oversimplifies mass media like radio or television when he describes it as a wholly one-way, passive experience, and I think he overestimates social media by thinking of it as a fair and evenly structured sharing system of texts. (I don’t mean to leave out people who are saying the same thing–I know Kiley’s post really gets at this question of “vertical” versus “horizontal.”)

    Instead of dividing it into two categories, wouldn’t it be more accurate to place certain types of media, text, and/or technology along a spectrum of interactive-to-prescriptive?

    Or, perhaps even better (considering the way that even reading by itself can be social, active, and/or tactical), shouldn’t we examine specific moments or texts instead of trying to generalize whole eras and practices?

    1. And now I’m just mad about it, because what the book ultimately does is pick specific types of media/texts (graffiti, coffeehouses, poems, etc.) to open up and explore, and not only allows but furthers the flattening of others (television).

      I’m not saying he isn’t right to make some distinctions, but they need to be so much more specific and concerned with all of the social possibilities in mass media as well as uneven power structures in social media. The line between the two isn’t so easy or immediate.

      1. I also did not appreciate how Standage totally shat all over television’s table. I’m not here to get on a soapbox and champion the medium, but I’d like to think that without it we wouldn’t have many of the other technologies we have now.

        Besides, since his book was published within the last year, I’m shocked and a little frustrated (read: very) that he didn’t acknowledge anything about all the interactive TV prototypes out there these days that are trying to “revolutionize” the television viewing experience.

  2. Michael,

    I think you make an interesting distinction between using media to share or to remember. (And maybe also to work through?) And I have to admit to being intrigued—and, like you, a little repelled—by the recent interest in sharing photographs of food. I could see exploring this cultural phenomenon as a subject for a digital essay.

    And Christopher and Callie—I’d like to hear more about what you would defend about TV.


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