On 25 November, the Oxford Food Governance Group convened a one-day workshop entitled ‘Digital Food Activism’, at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Based on our ongoing research into the emerging forms, roles and uses of food-related information and communication technologies (ICTs), the workshop explored what happens when food activism goes digital.
We asked seven scholars to respond to and discuss this question based on their ongoing research on food, new media and/or social activism.
After an introduction by Stanley Ulijaszek, who provided a short overview of our research project and workshop aims, the morning session began with a presentation by Ryan Foley (SAME, University of Oxford, UK), who gave an overview of her ethnographic research on Italian food cooperatives. In her talk, Foley reflected on moderating one cooperative’s social media posts on Twitter and Facebook, a task she performed as part of her participant-observation. Drawing on this ethnographic experience, Foley’s presentation queried the boundaries between marketing and activism. Specifically, Foley asked: when does the proactive communication of an activist cause – such as promoting local, organic, fair trade, or sustainable food – turn into the marketing of a commercial organization and the products/services it sells?
Next, Katharina Witterhold (University of Siegen, Germany) presented findings from a four-year research project, led by Sigrid Baringhorst (University of Siegen, Germany), on food-related political consumerism and the role of new media. Witterhold’s presentation defined four different types of ‘consumer netizens’, distilled from the analysis of media diaries written by 27 political consumers in Germany. The ‘consumer netizen’ typology Witterhold presented contributed to a discussion on how social web practices impact on the definition of food as political, while shaping consumers’ formation as online citizens (see also special issue of Soziale Bewegungen (2015) – articles in German).
The third presentation, given by Mariano Beguerisse Díaz (Imperial College London, UK), Amy McLennan (University of Oxford, UK) and Stanley Ulijaszek (University of Oxford, UK), focused on how health-related information – in this case, information on diabetes – is presented, discussed and shared on Twitter. Based on a systematic analysis of a large collection of tweets containing the term ‘diabetes’, the authors found that top global diabetes ‘authorities’ comprise a mix of bloggers, advocacy groups, NGOs related to diabetes and pharmaceutical firms, and that for-profit firms, with no specific expertise in diabetes, exert a strong influence on the conversation. They also found that, depending on the messenger, the messages shared about diabetes vary considerably. Their discussion focused on the makings of authoritative voices in the Twitter advocacy networks, and how this might impact on public health efforts. The paper on which their talk was based can be accessed here.
The fourth presentation, given by Karin Eli (University of Oxford, UK) and Tanja Schneider (University of St. Gallen, CH, and University of Oxford, UK), offered a working definition of digital food activism, as developed through the Oxford Food Governance Group’s research project. Drawing on three case studies of different types of digital platforms used in food activism – a mobile app, a wiki platform, and an online-centric activist organization – Eli and Schneider suggested that digital food activism does not simply refer to food activism that occurs on digital media; rather, it encompasses forms of food activism enabled and shaped by and through digital media platforms. The presentation showed how, in each of the case studies examined, the origins, development and implementation of the activist projects were interwoven with a digital platform. These digital platforms, then, were conceptualized not as supporting consumer action, but as fostering and mediating activism.
The workshop’s invited keynote speaker, Steve Woolgar (Linköping University, Sweden, and University of Oxford, UK), provoked the workshop participants and organisers to think about food as a mundane object of governance, or, in other words: how stuff organises our life. Drawing on the example of the McDonald’s hot coffee case – a product liability lawsuit that took place in the United States in the mid-1990s when McDonalds was sued by a customer for serving coffee that was too hot and had led to third degree burns after the customer accidently spilled the coffee – Woolgar suggested that the legal respecification of coffee in terms of what counts as appropriate temperature resulted in coffee’s newly accomplished ontological status. Woolgar then explored how new accountability relations arise in response to the ontological status of coffee. Ultimately, he argued that ‘the appropriateness of actions towards mundane objects is entangled with the enactment of just what those objects are’. This poses important questions as to how digital platforms used in food activism co-constitute food and to what extent this enactment already entails appropriate actions to be taken and by whom.
The afternoon session, chaired by Catherine Dolan, kicked off with Michael Goodman’s (University of Reading, UK) talk on celebrity chefs as political activists. In his presentation, he discussed ‘what audiences think about celebrity chefs and what effects this might have on food behaviours and knowledge at the everyday level’, based on an (ongoing) food media survey (n=600) conducted among the British public on their viewing habits, engagement and thoughts about celebrity chefs and food media more broadly. He showed that the public’s relationship to celebrity chef discourse was ambivalent: at times, celebrity chefs’ advice was incorporated into everyday food routines, but at other times, it was resisted. Goodman suggested that, while celebrity chefs seem to raise awareness about food issues, their effect is inconsistent. Moreover, Goodman argued that, through raising awareness about food issues, celebrity chefs also raise their own profile; a balance that carefully needs to be maintained, as he pointed out, to successfully convey chefs’ genuine interest/care about food and to build authenticity.
Eva Giraud (Keele University, UK) then offered a media theory perspective on food activism. Giraud explored how online and offline activism go hand in hand to support ‘polyvocal protest’ (Ruiz, 2014), through analyzing food activist groups such as Food Not Bombs and UK vegan campaigning groups. Having discussed food’s communicative capacity, Giraud suggested viewing ‘food as a medium, and situating it within the broader on- and offline media ecologies of activist groups’. She described food as a polyvocal tool that can be thought of as disruptive, relation-building and prefigurative, arguing that food offers relational affordances contingent on different media.
The workshop’s final talk, by Melissa Caldwell (University of California, Santa Cruz), was titled ‘Hacking the food system: technologies of justice and inequality’. Caldwell reflected upon the uncertainties surrounding digital technologies that aim to solve food justice concerns. In particular, she focused on issues of privacy, surveillance, accountability and bodily integrity, analyzing a range of technologies, from Fitbit devices to barcode apps. Caldwell then introduced us to another type of food activism: activism as practiced in food hacking labs. She discussed the Centre for Genomic Gastronomy, which focuses on new technologies with the aim to change the nature of food itself, arguing these hackers/ inventers/entrepreneurs/citizen-scientists ‘are carving out spaces and opportunities for social justice concerns in ways that allow individuals to reclaim their own autonomy, pleasure and sense of personal responsibility’. A space to be watched!
So what happens when food goes digital? Listening and reflecting upon the thought-provoking presentations and keynote speech presented as part of the workshop, a new or refined set of questions/tasks on digital food activism have come to the fore for us organisers:
- Following Eli and Schneider’s presentation, we recognize that, to understand the implications of digital platforms, we need to understand the productive logics that structure them and to study the activist logics built into their infrastructure.
- With the conceptual tools provided by our keynote speaker, Steve Woolgar, we pose the question: what kind of ontological respecification does food experience when it goes digital?
- Drawing on the insights presented by both Foley and Goodman, we then ask: in what ways do activism and consumerism overlap in food issues?
- The diverse analyses presented by Beguerisse Díaz et al., Giraud, and Witterhold call our attention to the question: what kind of work does digital food activism do at the individual and collective levels?
- And finally, attending to the emergent issues flagged by Caldwell: to what extent can research on digital food activism address questions of food justice?