Food for Thought

Getting paid to eat and enjoy food sounds too good to be true. Yet, this career path exists through “muk-bang,” a vlogging broadcast trend that originated in South Korea where people live stream themselves eating food and earn money from fans’ donations. The people who do muk-bang regularly are known as “broadcast jockeys” and according to NPR, there were an estimated 3,000 broadcast jockeys in South Korea in 2015. This number has continuously increased since.

Muk-bang is a cottage industry that has boomed in the past six years in South Korea, and NPR states that as many as 45,000 South Koreans watch muk-bang videos during dinner time. As a career path, a broadcast jockey can earn up to a six-figure salary and many of the most popular ones earn $9,000 to $10,000 a month. These broadcast jockeys primarily use the South Korean platform AfreecaTV. During the live stream, viewers can give money to the broadcast jockey in the form of “star balloons,” worth around 10 cents per balloon. The payment is miniscule, but when accumulated from hundred of thousands of people it adds up. Even with AfreecaTV taking 40 percent of the revenue, a successful video can result in roughly $1,700 for the jockey. In one particularly successful case, Yoo So Hee, a broadcast jockey, collected a stunning $37,000 from a single live stream.

Since AfreecaTV allows videos to be viewed without a subscription or payment, all of these donations are voluntary. Therefore, the revenue from a muk-bang video varies depending on the popularity of the vlogger. The appeal of muk-bang is hard to pinpoint. Often times, broadcast jockeys eat large amounts of food, such as a six-portion meal for one person. People want to experience the food vicariously, especially if they are on a diet. Broadcast jockeys also attract viewers with their looks or by entertaining their viewers by telling personal stories and reacting to the delicious food.

A common hypothesis put fourth to explain the success of muk-bang is that the demand for these videos has risen because of increasing levels of loneliness in South Korea. According to Sangyoub Park, a sociologist at Washburn University, one-third of all households in South Korea are now single-person households due to the increased working nature of South Korean society. In its 2015-2016 fact book, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that an average South Korean worked 2,124 hours in 2014, the second largest amount of hours among all industrialized nations. As a point of comparison, an average American worked 1,789 hours in that same year.

In South Korean culture meals, were traditionally a time during which people would bond and celebrate being together, but now many people now have to face the demoralizing prospect of eating alone on a regular basis due to their busy schedules. As a result, people resort to technology to connect themselves with others during meals. Since most broadcast jockeys operate a live chat box during their videos, eating while watching a muk-bang video feels like you are eating with the jockey.

However, it is not just South Koreans who struggle with loneliness during meals. According to a report by the Food Marketing Institute as well as data collected by the Hartman Group, American adults now eat alone 46 percent of the time. While South Koreans watch broadcast jockeys, Americans manufacture a sense of being part of a larger community by going on social media and scrolling through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. Americans also resort to watching YouTube videos made by famous gamers or comedians, which is not very different from watching muk-bang videos. As people are constantly looking for YouTube channels featuring authentic, funny or interesting personalities to occupy idle time, the muk-bang trend has begun to expand beyond South Korea. According to the DailyMail, there are currently 700,000 muk-bang videos on YouTube, and one of the most-watched broadcast jockeys on YouTube, “Eat With Chunky,” has over 77,000 subscribers.

The trend of live streaming food experiences has spread across the Internet and across the world. Twitch, an American video platform popular with video gamers, has recently added a “social eating” category specifically for muk-bang videos. Similarly to AfreecaTV, Twitch allows broadcasters and viewers to connect and interact. However, instead of collecting money through “star balloons”, Twitch broadcasters earn money by becoming partners with the company. To become a partner, a Twitch user must exceed a certain number of viewers and must then go through an application process. Once accepted, broadcasters charge a $5 subscriptions that give perks to the subscribed viewers. Twitch also allows for donations during live streams.

Muk-bang is still transforming the vlogging world and changing the way that we eat. When muk-bang first materialized in 2011, non-Koreans and American news sources were appalled that such a business industry could exist. However, the videos have tapped into our human need for interaction and companionship. In a world with progressively less real human contact, muk-bang may just be exactly what people need.