Eating Through the Internet
In this first essay of her Crate Digger series exploring web3 subcultures, Julia Pepper goes deep on the web3 food scene and how communities are re-exploring our relationships with food and eating.
By Julia Pepper - Aug 1, 2022
Crate Digger is a series by Forefront editor Julia Pepper on how the blockchain is affecting and creating internet subcultures. You can follow her on Twitter at @julia_pepper23.
To eat through the internet is a strange thing.
In front of a camera -- sometimes alone, sometimes with friends or crew -- the enterprising mukbang vlogger unpacks boxes upon boxes of sandwiches from a national brand or unveils a large pot of cheese ramen. The feast is eaten alone while conducting a one-way discussion on true crime, social issues or the latest celebrity gossip that lasts thirty minutes or more; often, if the comments are any indication, to a captive audience of fellow solo-eaters following along on screens around the world. For those with shorter attention spans, TikTok gives millions of strangers a digital space to eat in public as part of curated morning and evening routines, or detailed documentaries of a day's worth of meals.
As a culture, we're obsessed with eating publicly and watching what other people eat. We publicly curate our diets on Instagram and Pinterest -- the intrinsic worth of our palate is nothing if not validated with the stamp of good taste. The conversational style of such media makes it easy to lose ourselves in our peer to peer reflections. At times it can feel like we've genuinely left our own table and been accepted at another, but the reality of our isolation remains, a spatial gap that can be hard for purely digital media to bridge. Where do those seeking deeper connections go? How do food and hospitality providers build those connections when, in a competitive attention economy, a listing on Maps or OpenTable no longer cuts it?
The integration of food media with web3 arrives at the convergence of several media forces that influence how we consume. Increasingly, the very act of purchasing, eating, and cooking food -- once considered private -- has become the site of an everyday politics(1). The citizen has also become a consumer, with the center of political life becoming increasingly defined by personal acts and values(2) rather than a larger sense of civic duty. These make someone's consumer choices -- whether it's vegetarianism or buying Fair Trade -- a public signal. Targeting these sensibilities, a wave of documentaries including 2006's Black Gold and 2010's The Dark Side of Chocolate helped create a discourse on how the globalization of food commodity chains has created uneven conditions between privileged consumers in the Global North and exploited producers in the Global South complements current social media content that refocuses on food producers and highlights some of the links in food supply chains(3). Together, these create a desire for transparency and reconnection with local foodways that requires more immersive forms of engagement than what social media platforms can provide.
Blockchains' immutable public ledger addresses these concerns while powering an ecosystem of media tools, from decentralized autonomous organizations to community-driven funding mechanisms, that nurture the community engagement current media forms falls short of. In particular, DAOs focused on reforming the way we interact with food are emerging as a tool to address both the social aspects of food and the operational aspects of the food industry. Tana Lewis comments on the emergence of incentives outside the profit motive in Digital Food: From Paddock to Platform: "a large part of the digital food sharing world is based on non-profit concerns of connection, sharing, and conviviality" akin to extended family relationships. In web3, this has resulted in an eating subculture where some organizations focus on providing a social salve for the isolated food consumption habits of many office workers, while others take on a system known for its thin margins that often neglects marginalized workers and underrepresented producers.
All food DAOs have a social aspect, serving as places for like-minded individuals to dive deep into discussions on the experience of eating, usually on Discord servers. However, some are more focused on curating the actual dining experience than others. In Dinner DAO, for instance, while food is a key part of the experience, it serves mostly as a medium to foster meaningful relationships and provide accessible education on blockchain technology to a diverse community of diners. Once a month during a Dinner DAO season, eight former strangers gather for a series of intimate dinner parties. After purchasing a season pass, each randomly assigned group votes on each dinners' location, timing, and topic of conversation; they're given $4,200 in funds per season, enough to cover $90 per person for each dinner. According to one of the project's instigators, Amber Case -- author of Calm Technology and former Mozilla research fellow -- the intention was to provide a low-stakes way for people to get involved in DAO governance, collective decision-making, and crypto investing. "It's just dinner!"
The process of voting on where they would eat and collectively distributing funds, though, got new members habituated to a new, more immersive form of digital engagement that could serve as a gateway to interactions with other web3 projects. Further, building a welcoming, intergenerational community was important to Case. The community doesn't have an age limit, and getting rid of the assumption that older folks couldn't understand or meaningfully interact with blockchain technology was key. While the topic of the conversations depended on the will of the diners, given the high population of technologists in the DAO, in many cases at least a few of the dinners served as peer to peer education sessions where members would share stories and learnings from their engagement with other projects. The social experience of food served as a compelling medium to make these conversations less intimidating, and deepen relationships throughout the season.
But what about those who want to have a more high-touch experience with the industry itself?
Today's food industry is characterized by thin margins, labor inequities, and an opaque hierarchy propped up by a tire company, a handful of digital publications, and the estate of James Beard. Such a strange setup was bound to fall out of touch with the realities and tastes of most eaters, especially in an age where the conversational style of social media makes it easier than ever to find authentic food recommendations from locals, and where scrutiny of cultural gatekeepers is higher than ever. As prolific Substack food writer Edmond put it in an edition of Gud Guds titled "Restaurant reviews are washed," "Do restaurants need to hear from a critic that service wasn't as tight as it should be? Or that the food wasn't impressive or creative enough? Do restaurants need an outsider looking in to critique whether or not people should bother going in, especially while many establishments are still struggling with labor issues, rising food costs, and the pandemic?"
Kevin, one of the co-instigators of Cafeteria DAO, saw web3 as an opportunity to address these dissonances in an industry known for mistreating its workers. Much of his inspiration for the project came from his experiences in the coffee industry, first as a barista and later as working on business development for Kona Coffee, an NYC-based Hawaiian cafe. Based on the three core principles of sharing a common bond through appreciating food, being diverse and inclusive, and creating a sustainable global food community supported by its members, Cafeteria DAO continues the trend of peer to peer recommendations disrupting food media stalwarts with a key difference: in addition to increasing foot traffic, the DAO uses tokenization to align the incentives of food workers and enthusiasts. A desire to center small businesses and accrue material benefits to restaurant workers was a concern from the beginning. "The technology is just an implementation detail. Ideally, it shouldn't feel different from running the regular business. But from a values and concepts standpoint, it would be very different."
Much of this thinking can be done without the blockchain. Food worker organizing has a long history, and has become even more prominent in recent months with the push for Starbucks locations around the country to unionize. Social media is playing a significant role in pushing the movement to support small businesses. But the permissionless, open-source principles of the blockchain offer an interesting tool in the space because it "allows us to bypass a lot of the existing systems that aren't aligned with what we want to do," giving those who have a desire to pursue solutions at a pace faster than reforming antiquated systems a means to do so. In a food industry context, how does this translate into meaningful improvements in labor conditions for workers?
"I think the first way is around incentive alignment," Kevin remarked. "Incentive alignment is something that happens a lot in technology companies, where stock options are leveraged as part of your compensation package to make sure you do things that are in the best interest of the company." Given the poor working conditions and low pay in service industry jobs now, workers often don't have extra incentives to care about that longevity beyond job security, or ownership value that rightfully reflects what their skill brings to a cafe. The low margins of a restaurant enterprise also further the incentives for businesses to exploit labor. While it can't exist in a vacuum away from worker organizing and the social change needed to improve conditions, it could provide an economic incentive that partially bridges that gap. "By leveraging a token system where employees can be paid in part in tokens," a development which would, in this instance, essentially be akin to issuing equity through digital assets that represent ownership share instead of stock. "Hopefully an environment would be created where owners and labor would have more incentive to collaborate-- and there are a whole bunch of other models that can be explored if the restaurant or cafe was fully decentralized. That's what I hope Cafeteria can do-- provide a space where people who are in these situations can discuss what the problems are, and what solutions are feasible." Rather than providing a space for only a specific group in the industry, such as workers at a particular cafe, Cafeteria's approach to community building is more akin to setting a table where food enthusiasts, food workers, and entrepreneurs and restaurateurs in the space can participate in dialogue on equal footing. However, this isn't meant to replace the former approach, which remains relevant and politically necessary. Instead, it helps build an ecology where more types of interactions, partnerships, and emergence are possible, as well as introduce a suite of new financial and community-building tools that can be experimented with.
Zooming out further, some projects take a systems-level approach to interacting with the food industry, building blockchain communities that span across the major stakeholders in our foodways. From small farmers to employees at major hospitality brands, blockchain is used as a tool to make previously nebulous relationships more transparent. A former cultural anthropology major at New York University, Alexis -- who goes by Bruxa in the Thirsty Thirsty community -- dedicated their college career to writing about foodways and environmental justice, going on to become an established hospitality professional with a particular focus on ancestral agriculture and natural wine. After a decade of experience working for major hospitality companies, she decided to instigate a project dedicated to those passions that would work with underrepresented growers and brands, particularly those spearheading regenerative farming practices and ancestral agriculture, to create a project dedicated to providing high quality food and wine experiences that honored a diverse variety of farming cultures. Thirsty Thirsty, a nonprofit devoted to providing top food and wine experiences from smaller-scale, sustainable brands and farmers, turned to blockchain in an effort to find a sustainable way to monetize while giving their community equity in the project.
Pioneered by indigenous farmers around the world, regenerative agriculture is often referred to as an antidote to the devastation to public health and the earth wrought by industrial agriculture, utilizing techniques that capture carbon back into the soil to improve its quality while still producing bountiful yields. The movement is often tied to broader conversations on how to create more sustainable foodways, such as buying foodstuffs directly from local farmers and incorporating hyperlocal distribution programs like community-supported agriculture to combat food apartheid in underserved neighborhoods. Given its focus on tackling convoluted food systems and redistributing wealth, using the transparency offered by a distributed public ledger to clearly document how funding was being received and used seemed like a good fit for Thirsty Thirsty's ethos. The community raises funds for its initiatives through a membership NFT that costs around 400 USD and offers access to a community of top sommeliers, farmers, and other hospitality experts from around the world, as well as a plethora of top food and wine experiences. It also plans to add additional sources of revenue through catering and open dining experiences, positioning itself as "web3's hospitality plug."
Thirsty Thirsty's partnerships are key to the community's success. To gain the trust of partners from communities historically marginalized in the food space, Alexis relied on her existing reputation as a hospitality professional as well as education on blockchain technology pioneered by cryptowitch, the community's education lead. They curated a workshop series that they offered to their cohorts to filter out the industry's noise, providing a foundational understanding of the tools available and how they can solve the industry's challenges. "The problem became, how do we make these conversations and foundational understanding more accessible to community leaders in the farming and hospitality sector who have already been doing the work of labor, mindfulness, and earth tending?" A diverse range of communities are also represented on the building team. Alexis lists Chris Renfro, one of Thirsty Thirsty's sommeliers and few Black winemakers in America, as one of her biggest inspirations. His activism on food sovereignty asks questions critical to the project's future: how can we use food and wine-- things like producing a wine label or a lush event-- to create more food sovereignty, especially for those communities decimated by gentrification and disenfranchisement?" In Alexis' words, "it's not an abundance issue-- it's a distribution issue. There's so much money floating around in web3: this is an opportunity for us to redistribute that wealth, and do it in a way that's transparent and equitable."
But on the other side of the community also lie highly successful hospitality groups, such as Est Hospitality, their Colorado partner. These organizations are interested in baking sustainable labor solutions and smarter farming practices into their businesses, and using their scale to do good. Est Hospitality, for example, prides itself on being a near-zero-waste restaurant that partners with smaller-scale farmers who supply their ancestral grains. Understanding that their supply choices can make or break the broader farming community, these larger players can potentially buy up a small farmer's entire supply of grain to help them stay afloat because they have multiple locations where the materials can be used. Opening up a dialogue between these two seemingly alienated groups could create a serious impact and help bake sustainable practices into the broader industry.
"Hospitality has traditionally been a misfit space-- only recently have we seen the star chefs and star sommeliers. In turn the hospitality sector is-- I think-- one that is filled with passion, local business savvy and hustle that has traditionally been unsupported by the traditional financial system. The amount of overhead and stress that even large restaurant groups have to go through is insane! So the hospitality space is for creative and passionate people, but also people who are looking to make ends meet-- and we want to be able to ensure there's access to this new ecological and economic landscape that's coming our way, for our communities."
To get there, one thing every creator I sat down with mentioned was a return to the collaborative ethos of a gift economy, rather than a competitive one. The "what goes around, comes around" mentality so prevalent during bull runs has receded back into one of scarcity during the recent slowdown-- an understandable sentiment given the financial hardships of those who suffered major losses. But given the philosophical aims of the open web are to build a financial system that is more equitable, pluralistic, and community-driven it's ironic that, generally, support is only readily available when one is trending up. Kevin points out that as more projects that combine food and blockchain pop up, people will increasingly frame the space as a competitive one where every new project is trying to be the next Cafeteria, or the next Dinner DAO. "But I want the ecosystem to remember the early days of having a collaborative environment and not a competitive environment. A lot of people compare us to Dinner DAO and say we're doing the same thing when we're not. But just because we're building divergence doesn't mean that our audiences can't both enjoy the benefits." After all, the issues that got us to this point-- the lack of support for the food industry's labor force and businesses, the creeping existential loneliness and alienation we feel from food media's hollowness-- require the creation of an altogether different ecology of off and on chain projects to stand a chance of disrupting existing systems. Improving systems is an infinite game, and constraining it to one of competing for attention does a disservice to the impact this emerging, interlocking ecology of communities can have.
(1) - Philippov, Michelle, Media and Food Industries: A New Politics of Food
(2) - Ibid.
(3) - Philippov, Michelle, Media and Food Industries: A New Politics of Food