Intelligent Machines

Big Data Reveals the Anatomy of the Global #Foodporn Fetish

Does #foodporn encourage unhealthy relationships with food or more positive ones? The results of the first global study may surprise you.

Back in the 1990s, a TV cookery program called Two Fat Ladies took the U.K. by storm with its irreverent dismissal of healthy-eating advice. The two female presenters delighted in recipes filled with clotted cream, lard, and fatty meats. Indeed, the show’s producer said the pair took a “pornographic joy” in using vast quantities of butter and cream.

The show was part of an emerging trend that has led #foodporn to become one of the most popular hashtags on social media. The phenomenon involves sharing glamourized images of high-fat, high-calorie, or otherwise artery-clogging grub. The photographs often show food provocatively, using similar techniques to glamour and pornographic photography.

That has led to significant controversy. The question at the heart of this hullaballoo is whether the #foodporn phenomenon leads to an unhealthy relationship with food in the same way that pornography leads to an unrealistic view of sexuality.

Today, we get a unique insight into the debate thanks to the work of Yelena Mejova at the Qatar Computing Research Institute and a few pals who have analyzed the anatomy of the #foodporn phenomenon on Instagram for the first time. These guys say their analysis reveals an overwhelming obsession with chocolate and cake all over the world, but also encouraging signs that #foodporn is not entirely unhealthy.

The team began by downloading all the posts tagged with the #foodporn keyword that appeared on Instagram between November 2014 and April 2015: a total of almost 10 million.

Surprisingly, some 42 percent of these posts contained geolocation information. By comparison, Mejova and co say that only 6 percent of Twitter posts with the same keyword are geolocated.

The Instagram posts come from 222 countries, of which the team selected 72 with more than 500 unique users to study in detail. “The reach of #foodporn hashtag across the globe is difficult to understate,” say Mejova and co.

The data set contains posts from 1.7 million users who posted at an average rate of 62,000 posts per day. People in the U.S. dominated the conversation, followed by users in Italy and the U.K., although these numbers are probably biased by the fact that #foodporn is an English-language term.

Nevertheless, Mejova and co say the data shows that Asian countries have by far the largest proportion of users dedicated to tracking their #foodporn experiences.

The geolocation data allowed the researchers to study how #foodporn preferences vary around the world. Many countries have unique local delicacies that are linked with this hashtag. In Argentina, for example, the top #foodporn dishes include dulce de leche, a milk-based caramel, and merienda, a light afternoon meal consisting mainly of sweet dishes. In Canada, the top #foodporn dishes include poutine, a local concoction consisting of French fries and cheese curds topped with a light brown gravy. And in the U.S., the top dishes include shrimp, bacon, tacos, and sushi.

To get a global overview of #foodporn preferences, Mejova normalized the hashtag frequencies per country and then ranked the resulting foods. This list is dominated by foods with a high energy density, such as chocolate, cake, Nutella, and so on. “Globally, we find that users are most excited about sweets and fast food,” say Mejova and co.

However, this list contains significant numbers of non-sweet foods. The most popular are pizza, salad, sushi, and burgers; the top drink is coffee, the top alcoholic beverage is wine, and the top fruit is strawberry.

That allowed the team to explore the proportion of healthy to unhealthy dishes labeled #foodporn in each country. They did this by looking at other hashtags associated with the food posts and by analyzing the sentiments they convey. They then counted the number of hashtags used in each country that convey different sentiments

By this reckoning, the most health-conscious country is the Netherlands, with 25 of the top 50 hashtags related to health and fitness, such as #fitgirl, #fitspo, #eatclean, and so on. In general, the most health-conscious regions are Northern and Western Europe, along with Australia and New Zealand.

By contrast, Brazil, Argentina, and France have the highest rate of unhealthy tags. These include #gordice in Brazil, which derives from “gordo” (meaning “fat”), and #gourmandise in France, which means “gluttony.” “These three countries have 5 healthy tags in their top 50 between them,” say Mejova and co.

Finally, the team looked at the social approval associated with posts labeled #foodporn. They find that the rate of approval—of “likes”—is higher for healthy foods than for unhealthy ones. “The heightened social approval of healthy tags suggests that the community is already self-policing in promoting a healthier lifestyle,” they say.

That’s an interesting conclusion. It implies that far from creating an unhealthy relationship with food, the #foodporn phenomenon may be having the opposite effect. “The sentiment associated with #foodporn indicates that it is used to motivate healthy living, especially in countries with high GDP per capita,” say Mejova and co.

That throws some much-needed light onto an issue that has been dominated by anecdotal evidence. And it is part of a broader idea that social media is a “persuasive technology” that not only records habits and sentiment but can change them, too.

More work is needed to study this phenomenon in detail, but Mejova and co have created a promising platform that would probably horrify the Two Fat Ladies.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1603.00229 : Fetishizing Food in Digital Age: #foodporn Around the World

 

 

 

 

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