Social media platforms like Instagram are undoubtedly changing society. Last year, Serene Nekoui, one of our MUSE online contributors, explored this topic in her article, “The Power of Social Media.”  Social media has been commended for its ability to provide a platform for self-expression and create communities of like-minded individuals. But, it has also been heavily criticized for its negative impact on our mental health and self-esteem. Instagram has notoriously been labeled the most harmful social media platform in a 2017 study.

As a larger discussion surrounding the impacts of social media emerges, its more subtle influences are often overlooked. Social media platforms, most notably Instagram, have significantly changed the overall dining and restaurant experience.

What we post online is usually a reflection of who we want to be seen as rather than who we actually are. We want to be seen as the world traveller, the fitness fanatic, the outdoorsy camper and quite often… the foodie. In fact, according to Zagat, a national restaurant review site owned by Google, 77% of people are self-proclaimed foodies. Just a quick search on Instagram and you’ll find more than 150 and 270 million posts under the hashtags #foodporn and #food. Clearly, I am not the only one who takes pictures at brunch.

#FoodPorn in Relation to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Food and clothing are at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and consequently unite us all. While everyone eats food and wears clothing (sorry, nudists, I’m trying to make a point!), we each have widely different tastes. Through fashion, we use clothing as a means of differentiating ourselves. It is a visual depiction of who we are. Before the age of social media, our food choices were largely invisible. Unless your friends were vocal about their diets or you had gone out for a meal together, you were largely unaware of what they ate. 

With the advent of social media, this has all changed. Like fashion, our meals can be viewed as an expression of our values and aesthetics. We attempt to elevate our own personal brand by associating ourselves with hip restaurants, trendy diets or eye-catching foods. For many millennials, social media provides the perfect opportunity to do this. One study conducted in England found that one-third of 18 to 34-year-olds regularly post pictures of their food on social media. Another study found that 60% of diners admit to stopping their friends from eating until they have taken a picture of their food.

Social Currency: A Necessary Ingredient for a Restaurant’s Success 

Nowadays, social media posts are vital to a restaurant’s success. Restaurants rely largely on forms of social currency like online posts and word of mouth. Social currency is the “pull or influence that a consumer has among their peers.” Instagram posts are an excellent example of social currency as 75% of diners admit to choosing a restaurant based solely off of photos they’ve seen online.

Although we cannot accurately quantify the impacts of social media on a restaurant’s popularity, there is a reason why we call popular Instagrammers “Influencers”.

Given millennials spend more on dining out than any other age group (roughly $174 a month), restaurateurs are doing everything they can to get us seated at their tables.

Social Media’s Influence on Restaurant Decor

The introduction of social media and #foodporn have significantly changed how restaurants are designed. Pre-Instagram restaurants were focused on their ambiance. Dim lighting enhanced the restaurant’s overall mood. Phones were expected to be turned off so that diners could engage in interesting conversations.

Today, restaurants not only cater to hungry diners but also to content-hungry Instagrammers. 

Restaurants have adopted an Instagram-centric design with the hopes of encouraging restaurant-goers to share their experience on social media. In fact, New York restaurateur, Varun Kataria, goes so far as to say that when designing a restaurant, he and his team “literally think about framing our photographs and how we can capture the essence of our experience within the square frame of Instagram specifically.”

Kataria is not alone. Many owners pay extremely close attention to the Instagrammability of their restaurants. Nowadays, restaurants are flooded with Insta-bait and loads of natural light (two important ingredients of a ‘grammable picture). Some of the most obvious Insta-bait examples are funky tiles, eye-catching murals, bathroom mirrors, neon lights, and menus plastered with funny sayings. For many restaurants, each Insta-bait element is designed to inspire its guests to post a photo. But, as Casey Newton wrote in his article, “Individually, many of the posts are charming. Taken together, there’s an unsettling sameness to them. Triggered by hyper-specific features, [Casey noticed that] diners were taking the same five photos over and over.

Who Cares How it Tastes! Does it Look Good?

Instagram has influenced more than just the design of the restaurant but also the appearance of our meals. On a platform based solely on appearance and aesthetics, it doesn’t matter how a meal tastes but rather how it looks. Restaurants are using this to their advantage by serving eye-catching and even gravity-defying dishes, while Instagramming foodies are using it to stand out in a cluttered landscape. 

The Instagrammer @lokokitchen is known for her intricately woven pie crusts while @peencuisine has earned her name for her humorous phallic dishes. 

A Coachella Case-Study

The fast-food company, Sonic Drive-In, took things one step further when they launched their new line of Creamery Shakes using an Instagram marketing campaign at the 2016 Coachella festival. When scrolling through their feeds, Coachella attendees saw ads featuring Sonic’s new shakes and had the option to order one on the spot. Then, tracking the user’s location, Sonic staff delivered the shakes directly to the Instagram users in under 10 minutes. The cost of these eye-catching, aesthetically-pleasing square milkshakes? All the festival-goers had to do was post a picture of it on Instagram with the hashtag #SquareShakes. It turns out social currency is an acceptable form of payment in some circles (or squares?).

“We wanted to be the first brand, and especially the first food brand, to have a product that was designed for Instagram, offer it exclusively for sale on Instagram and then deliver that product within minutes of your order on Instagram” Todd Smith, Sonic’s president and chief marketing officer, told AdFreak. Overall, Sonic’s Instagram campaign was a big success and generated more than 11k followers and 26k likes in just under two weeks.

Whether you love Instagram or hate it with a burning passion, in the food industry, it is becoming indispensable. In its 8 short years of existence, Instagram has drastically altered how we interact with our food, how our restaurants ambiance, and even how fast food companies deliver our meals. It is impossible to predict how Instagram will continue to change our world, but I’m sure they’ll release a hashtag that we can follow to stay up to date.