Those food shots you see on Instagram aren’t about eating what’s in the photo. Instead, they showcase the privilege of being somewhere where such food exists to begin with.
Food thrives on social networks because of its easy, graphic appeal and pan-demographic interest — we all have to eat, right? But while Facebook has become a repository of time-lapse recipe videos for quick weeknight dinners that often prominently feature, for some reason, canned biscuit in dough, and Pinterest traffics largely in mason jars, do-it-yourself projects and the protein-packed simplicity of an egg baked inside half an avocado, Instagram has thrown its lot in with spectacle.
Over-the-top, intensely trend-driven, and visually arresting, Instagram food is almost always something to be obtained, rather than cooked or created. It’s elusive and aspirational, something instantly recognizable yet only minimally available, the product of a long line (a ramen burger or matcha croissant) or a trans-continental flight (going all the way to Tokyo for a Gudetama waffle). Its appearance in your timeline signals status: You went to the place. You got the thing. You’re the kind of person who lives that kind of life.
This is why Instagram stunt food works: It transforms an indulgent meal or snack from a physical activity to a status performance. In the most successful of Instagram food operations, the posting of a particular item signals both affluence and leisure. Lines can stretch for hours for rainbow bagels with birthday cake cream cheese, or milkshakes bedecked with an entire movie theater snack counter’s worth of candy, so if you’ve obtained one, not only did you spend $15 on a pile of novelty sugar, but you can afford to spend two hours on a Tuesday waiting for it, not to mention the time required to lovingly photograph it in natural light.
The most notable thing about these feats of digital culinary showmanship, though, is what they don’t signal at all: the actual eating of food.