Eating alone with friends
Fourteen-year-old Jung-pil Choi sets his daily alarm to catch BJ Bumfrica’s broadcasts. “It’s not fun eating with family. We don’t talk when we eat. Eating is just for filling my stomach.” Watching the broadcast jockey’s show online every day, on the other hand, is both entertaining and fulfilling. “I get full just by watching him eat.” The “him” in question, Dongbum Kim (aka Bumfrica), is a Busan native hosting a popular “meokbang” show on AfreecaTV’s (“A Free Casting” TV) free online channel.
Meokbang, short for meokneun-bangsong, is an eating broadcast. But contrary to what Time magazine reported a few months ago, it’s not a new phenomenon in South Korea; even before the movie “The Yellow Sea” (2010), where actor Ha Jung-woo is said to have initiated the desire to see more eating on television, watching people eat has long been a popular pastime for viewers on AfreecaTV.
A social network
On Jung-pil’s phone I can see that crab is on the menu tonight, with Bumfrica chatting about his day as his fans watch him eat from somewhere in Busan. Speaking in a heavy South Gyeongsang dialect, BJ Bumfrica swears a lot and opts for more of an honest image than a polite one. Maybe this is why he’s the best-known host.
BJ Bumfrica’s meokbang is just one of the many on AfreecaTV — actually, there are more than 4,800 of them. There is 14-year-old BJ Patu, who sometimes holds spicy ramen eating contests with guests, and even the rare female meokbang host BJ Diva has an inhumane appetite and can eat two king crabs plus dessert. But no matter the personality behind the plate, no matter the food, the basic idea is the same: Fans tune in and watch a stranger eat and talk for hours.
Hosting a meokbang broadcast can also be quite profitable. Viewers can send the BJ “balloons,” or convertible digital currency, which really add up: BJ Bumfrica’s monthly net income is more than 30 million won (he got 40,000 balloons from a fan one night — nearly 3 million won). But for many — viewers and the broadcast jockeys alike — the appeal of meokbang isn’t monetary; rather, it’s the community created around the food. “I started meokbang because my parents both worked late, so I would often skip dinner,” says 14-year-old BJ Patu, or Kim Sung-jin, from Bucheon. “I didn’t want to eat alone. I love playing with my fans because they respond in a fun way, even when I’m talking to myself. It’s better than playing with friends because with them (my friends), it’s just soccer or the PC bang.”
AfreecaTV’s meokbang programming is often described as an outlet for loneliness, with viewers and broadcast jockeys both identifying with not wanting to be alone. Though the community is still small in comparison to networks like Facebook, it still shows how technology is changing the way we understand solitude and togetherness.
`There's nothing to do outside'
The root of meokbang culture is still unclear, but might stem from the intersection between an increasing sense of social isolation and a growing comfort with online culture. According to the OECD, for example, South Koreans work 2,163 hours a year, the second-highest rate in the OECD (the average is 1,773 hours). In addition to spending longer stretches of time outside the home, Statistics Korea has reported that more Koreans are not coming home to anyone, with the number of single-person households jumping by 20 percent in the past 30 years. And even if a household does include children, a 2013 article published by World Education News and Reviews reported that kids are busy, too: The average Korean child spends 13 hours a day studying.
When these shifts in household social dynamics are combined with the country’s explosive growth in technology — KISA estimates more than 70 percent of the South Korean population above age 3 are smartphone users — one can’t help but acknowledge that the way people interact with each other is likely in a state of flux.
The broadcast jockeys on AfreecaTV are in the right place at the right time, and the fans are eating it up. Minsuh Kim is a 13-year-old fan of meokbang BJ Patu who says she prefers watching meokbang to eating with her family because there’s nothing novel about the latter. “Reality isn’t as fun as the broadcasts,” she says. “There’s nothing to do outside.”
BJ Patu agrees. “There are good things but also bad things (about meokbang) but in broadcasts, it’s always entertaining … the fans respond to everything I say. Online, I’m always happy.”
In a country like South Korea, meokbang offers not only a momentary solution to loneliness, but also an entertaining opportunity to escape physical reality. Sometimes the two bleed together — for example, BJ Patu once organized a “Running Man” game event in his hometown, and BJ Bumfrica invited a few of his fans to participate in the interview for this story — but for the most part, all the community’s interactions remain anchored in the virtual world.
Beyond an epidemic of loneliness, however, the meokbang phenomenon also taps into an increasing tendency to avoid the complexities of human relationships altogether, sidestepping the tiring, awkward and boring aspects of connecting with people and instead reaching out to a simpler, always-entertaining world in the palm of your hand. Humanity is there. All you have to do is tune in.