In a cramped and dark corner of the Internet, a doe-eyed South Korean woman coos into her webcam, loudly slurping a spicy noodle soup. She smacks her lips in satisfaction, then slurps another spoonful of orange broth. She giggles. It dribbles from the corners of her rosebud mouth.
It’s the first course of a three-hour meal during which the petite and gluttonous Park Seo-Yeon will enthusiastically wolf down pounds of food. And the entire exercise in excess will be live-streamed on South Korea’s AfreecaTV, an online video network where viewers pay to chat with the tiny gourmand while she gorges on glistening beef patties and plows through cartons of unidentifiable slop. Seo-Yeon is one of the most popular “broadcast jockeys” —widely and unfortunately called “BJs” —on the peer-to-peer network, where she’s known as “The Diva,” earning $9,000 a month to consume galactic portions and proportions of food.
In the United States, images of “food porn” flood social media sites like Instagram, a trend that has forced some restaurateurs to crack down on camera-happy patrons, whom chefs say are ruining the dining experience for everyone. But across the planet, in South Korea, that frequently hashtagged phrase (#foodporn) has a more literal meaning, where a bizarre new food fetish is confusing the rest of the world: mok-bang, an amalgam of the Korean words for “eating” and “broadcast.”
There’s nothing overtly sexual here (think the stuffing-strawberries-in-mouths scene in 9 1/2 Weeks.) Instead, The Diva prepares and displays her food, holding it up to her webcam with chopsticks and then nibbles away…for up to four hours every night. And she sticks around for several hours after eating too, to prove to her fanbase that she’s gorging and not purging. (She’s gained more than 20 pounds since she started.) And for some bizarre reason, AfreecaTV viewers—scores of them—pay good money to watch her prepare and eat her dinner. Just cooking and consuming. Clothes stay on, nothing untoward.
“It feels as though I’m eating that much food with her,” one female viewer told Reuters. “I feel as though that’s what the show is about. And it’s probably comforting for people who eat alone.” Other viewers are interested in exactly what BJs like The Diva are eating, how much, and how often they take a bathroom breaks during the marathon session. There’s nothing explicitly sexual about mok-bang, but viewers clearly get some sort of perverse frisson from the voyeurism. Still, the Diva chooses to believe more benign, desexualized factors explain her success. “People enjoy the vicarious pleasure when they can't eat this much or find that food at night or are on a diet," she told Reuters. “Loneliness is another crucial factor. The show is addictive as you can communicate with thousands of people at home."
She isn’t the only face-stuffing amateur—though she certainly appears to be the most attractive—and it’s important to note that there are plenty of male face-stuffers on AfreecaTV. Some take a more competitive approach to mok-bang, belching and hiccuping as they hoover pints of spicy noodles until they’re slightly grey in the face. Microphones are strategically placed near BJs’ mouths so viewers can hear them salivating, masticating, and swallowing.
Indeed, there’s so much demand for this content (it’s the second most-watched activity on AfreecaTV, next to gaming, and restaurants are sponsoring popular mok-bang channels) that young BJs like The Diva are quitting their jobs and making a career out of online eating.
But rather than marvelling at this strange trend, perhaps us Americans, residents of the fattest nation on Earth, could take a tip from the mok-bangers and at least makes some money off of our gluttony.