"Who wants to watch people eat?"
A good question from my 15-year-old son, a gamer who also struggles to build an audience on Twitch and YouTube. But then he answers his own question, leaning over my shoulder and looking at the "Social Eating" page on Twitch and at the viewer count for the five videos currently live, showing people eating cereal or snacks; drinking coffee.
"Whoa! 183 people are watching someone eat a watermelon?"
And that’s it, that’s the initial realization of a strange new thing on Twitch, the gut reaction and then, finally, the understanding of why it exists.
It’s an encapsulation of the sort of thing that happens multiple times a day when I mention it to people, but also, likely, a thing that must be happening online as well.
Hearing the people at Twitch tell it, that’s also sort of how the social eating experiment kicked off.
A few months ago, Twitch started to see Korean gamers on Korean Twitch channels taking breaks during their streams to eat in the style of meok-bang — a trend that has Koreans broadcasting what they eat as they chat with viewers, said Raiford Cockfield III, director of partners in the Asia-Pacific Region for Twitch. The company asked those streamers to move the eating to the creative section of Twitch’s many channels, and off the area where games are streamed.
But the company soon realized that the creative field — an area designed for people to show off creative talents, such as playing music or painting — wasn’t really the right fit either. So Twitch moved the eating streamers back to the gaming community and created an experimental area called "social eating," which is actually listed as a game when a streamer sets up their broadcast.
"183 people are watching someone eat a watermelon?"
Now that the area is live, Twitch is waiting to see how it evolves under the spotlight of a much more multinational viewership.
"Because this was born of the community, we don’t know exactly what social eating is going to look like in the long term," Cockfield said. "We know meok-bang is popular in Korea. We’re not worried about how our Korean community is going to see and use meok-bang. But what we like to do with our categories is see how they do internationally.
"The reason we say this is in beta is because we know that social eating is not necessarily going to be the same thing as meok-bang. We’re allowing the community to dictate where it goes."
Within some guidelines.
The beta category had a stealth launch initially free of any real guidelines.
That changed on July 1, when Twitch created a social eating FAQ that outlined some very specific examples of things a person can’t do in a broadcast. The list includes eating just junk food, drinking mostly alcohol, eating things not meant for consumption, eating to the point of excess, feeding others, eating in a car, and eating to the point of vomiting.
The last rule was broken the first day of the new area, when a streamer vomited during his broadcast.
Twitch and Cockfield say that’s exactly the sort of thing they don’t want the category to turn into.
"What we don’t want to see on social eating are eating contests, gluttony, abuse of your body with food," he said. "It’s meant to be sharing a meal with family and friends. Having that social experience."
While Cockfield acknowledges that Twitch probably launched the channel a little prematurely, he believes things are in hand now. The vomiting streamer, for instance, violated Twitch’s terms and conditions.
"That was handled by moderation," Cockfield said.
He added that the company is aware of the issues that come with eating, for some, which includes things like body image concerns, health and diet.
"We’re sensitive to the issues," he said. "We addressed it in the FAQ to make sure it’s being done as responsible as possible.
"We trust our community to act in ways that are in accordance with common sense and the rules on the site."
Cockfield reiterated that the category was born out of an activity that is very common on Korean social channels including, among other sites, Twitch.
"As a global company, we need to make sure we represent all of our values," he said. "It may mean that we need to explain a cultural activity, but not that we cut it off."