How social media killed the food critic

Exploring the murky world of influencer marketing in the food business

May 18, 2018 12:56 pm | Updated 05:33 pm IST

“No one really reads what you food writers write in newspapers, you know,” says a friendly PR conspiratorially to me one fine evening, whispering across our drinks. “Er… but you are different,” she hastens to assuage any ruffled feelings. “People don’t know what you will end up writing on your social media, so they are scared,” she explains. For someone who has built a career writing about restaurants and food and drink for publications like this one, it’s a bitter pill — or, well, cocktail — to swallow. Is a flippant, off-the-cuff social media post really more valuable than the sweat, deliberation and tears of a researched story or insight you struggle to build into an opinion piece?

From the reactions of dozens of PR and marketing people that I regularly meet as part of my job, it may appear to seem so. But then again, social media has changed the game so much that no one knows anything any longer with certitude, least of all PR wallahs and marketing men. Who is the audience, is the message really reaching the target audience, does a zillion “likes” really mean that people have been “influenced”, will said influenced ever visit any restaurant or are they jobless idlers liking away everything, or worse, bots and boughts? Brands have not delved at any length into these trifles. Right now, what matters is numbers. How many numbers a card carrying “influencer” has on her social media and how can she thus be persuaded to endorse a particular restaurant or butter chicken khichdi for that matter?

The influencer food chain

From the many stories I hear, fashion “influencers” are a more demanding lot. They demand free clothes and get to choose the most complementing complimentary outfits to keep. But they also demand fat fees ostensibly from designers and brands per post and quite a few get these too. Travel influencers get free travel and sometimes, if they are smart, the latest smartphones to take pictures of their travels with. Food influencers, on the other hand, come off relatively poorly. An inordinate number are called to convene at special “influencer tables”, where they are herded together, expected to take pictures, and then split one dessert!

The many degradations notwithstanding, there are now armies of food “influencers” out there taking pictures of rainbow waffles or of themselves at the latest wine launch. So glamorous is this “career” that many have left everything else they were doing to post pictures on Instagram and buy followers on Twitter. Perhaps they did very little of anything else before being so gainfully employed and launching themselves or their food groups to heady stardom, but let us not judge.

Fates intertwined

“You only call me because I take pictures of your parties,” says someone I know in a rare moment of self introspection to her host at a wine soiree. The host doesn’t know what to say and giggles, the influencer joins in and they take more selfies. Tomorrow is another day when the influencer will have other battles to fight— namely getting herself invited by hook or crook to the city’s happening dos. Should an invite go missing, she will call up the hosts or chefs and demand to be invited. In the battle of the influencers you have to be pushy, I am told.

Meanwhile, marketing, PR and restaurant managers are the new gods. They decide who to invite and whose “career” to promote. A lot of times they dictate what goes into a post as well. So, if you see two dozen Insta posts or tweets of the same brand of gin or whisky worded in exactly the same way, recognise the brilliance of a marketing strategy that does not have to shell out millions in advertising. A going rate ostensibly is ₹2,000 per post, though there are influencers and influencers, and some that I have met claim to be “on the boards” (or may be they just mean on-board) of food or beverage companies, working on fancy retainers.

Keep it short

Anyone can be an influencer — from a celebrity chef cutting smart deals with brands to do engaging plugs for lakhs of his followers to the boy next door with no summer job looking for a free meal at a fancy new restaurant. You don’t even have to write a blog any longer. That is a profession in decline because millennials are not reading anything longer than 240 words. For anyone who aspires to be an influencer, “social media strategists” suggest upping the game on Instagram, buying followers “because everyone does”.

At a new restaurant in Delhi, an old-fashioned blogger who had gone to review the place anonymously, paying for his meal, came back with this account of how the restaurant manager was telling a group of Zomato “bloggers” to write “very short reviews” using the “right words”. In another life, this restaurant manager could have applied for a sub editor’s job at a newspaper. But then he would have had to go to school to learn such things as grammar, punctuation as also journalistic objectivity, integrity and why the editorial voice should always speak for its readers, not endorse products, places or people.

What social media has done is more than democratise everything, give voice to the common man, take power away from gatekeepers of power and influence that traditional media often functioned as. It may have done all this, but like with politics, sociology and history, it has opened popular culture up to manipulation by businesses as well.

The history of food writing is littered with stories of unscrupulous and sometimes very mediocre writers and critics — biased, using “connections” to lead fantastically privileged lives, those who were bought out. Social media has made their dodgy power wane. That is a good thing. On the flip side, by killing the critic it has done us a great disservice too.

A competent and above board critic could shape public opinion and inform and educate readers about food history, context and really how to critique or discern the “good” from the “bad” in terms of clarity of concept, technique, flair, ingredients and flavours. In a day, when everyone is a “critique” (for the last time, it is “critic”!) on social media, all we find is “awesome” and “food porn”. In the meanwhile, third rate restaurants keep sprouting because they can trend (even if they eventually fade out because no restaurant can really survive on “buzz”). Chefs get assignments on the basis of how many social media followers they have rather than on cooking skills. Influencers cut book deals not because they can write but because languishing publishers want business, and Instagrammable dishes become valued more than those that show skill and flavour. What is sacrificed in the process of this dumbing down is good taste.

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