The Influencer and the Critic: Is Social Media making Food Journalism Obsolete?

At 7.a.m one spring morning in 2016, Edgar Villongco’s phone rang. Curious, Villongco, the owner of a tucked-away neighborhood joint in the Lower East Side, picked up. A customer asked about making a reservation, which was unusual given the early hour. Villongco accommodated the request. A few minutes later, the phone rang again, with another customer asking about seating. By the time the bistro opened at noon, guests were waiting by the door. The same night, Raclette NYC shattered its single-day revenue record and secured its place as a hotpot in the city.

The eatery with just seven tables and a four-person staff had gained some traction in past years. In 2015, the New York Times noted Raclette NYC in their unsung restaurants section, calling it a “hidden treasure,” and there was a slight uptick in customers. However, on the day prior to that early morning phone call in 2016, a Facebook video featuring the restaurant’s indulgent cheese wheels went viral, rocketing the restaurant to the top of the must-go list of every foodie in the city. The next day, Raclette NYC hired ten extra staffers to accommodate the overwhelming number of visitors. Three months later, the restaurant relocated to a larger venue, and now employs 37 people. At 93 million views, a Facebook video created an overnight sensation.

East Village restaurant Raclette NYC was popularized, basically overnight, by a Facebook video gone viral.

For over a decade, the rise of social media has transfigured the world of food reviewing. By eliminating virtually all barriers to becoming a food reviewer, platforms like Instagram have ended the reliance on fine-dining critics who once monopolized food journalism. The standard for what makes a good restaurant is determined by the internet as much as by professionals. In 2016 alone, over 168 million users posted about their food experiences on Instagram. On Tik Tok, the #food hashtag has garnered 93 billion views, and successful foodies have social media followings in the hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions.

New York Magazine’s chief food critic Adam Platt stood by as the internet cemented its grip on journalism, especially in the realm of reviews. Though Platt maintains that he is a traditional print journalist, he can’t help but concede to the technological takeover. “Digital platforms have made critics like me increasingly obsolete,” he said in a phone interview. “Anyone can publish and disseminate their work; it’s chaos out there.”

Chaos, because bloggers and foodies aren’t always concerned with fairness and reliability. Food influencers make a living off their social media platforms, so posting means getting paid. On Instagram, ‘sponsored’ posts function as advertisements. Restaurants and brand owners pay foodies to promote an establishment or commercial product. Restaurants may offer free food in exchange for a positive review and companies often pay thousands of dollars for a viral post. The standard rate is around $150 for every 100,000 views (depending on following, average engagement and online traffic) so when a post gets 5 million views, that adds up to almost $10,000. Not every post goes viral, but for influencers that post once or multiple times a day, it’s a steady income. Platt finds that this is what separates critics from personal opinion: critics get paid by their publication, not by the restaurant. “The critic provides stability, it’s a voice you can trust,” he says.

People like Platt, however, are not exempt from social media. Critics too, have had to adjust to the rapidly changing landscape of journalism. Platt is a self-identified “dinosaur” when it comes to technological innovation. While he has a combined 65,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram, he compares having social media to an “unruly pet.” “I don’t think I’m very good at it,” says Platt, “but I adapt.”

For five years, Jeremy Jacobowitz has been a full-time digital creator, known as @brunchboys on Instagram. The New York native has close to half a million followers on Instagram and thousands of subscribers on YouTube. “Being a critic implies being critical, and I’m not,” he says when asked to compare his work to that of a professional reviewer. When he’s filming in restaurant kitchens, chefs are collaborating with him and have prepped for his arrival. While he recognizes that his content vastly differs from that of the critic, he is aware of his impact in the food community.

Jacobowitz’s Instagram platform started to grow exponentially around five years ago, and paid sponsorship deals made a career as a full-time content creator feasible.

For businesses that aren’t on the radar of critics and major publications, social media exposure has the potential to be groundbreaking. “For a lot of restaurants, a review from the New York Times means more than a million visits from bloggers and influencers. The difference is finding the places that the New York Times isn’t going to review,” says Jacobowitz. For Chinatown family restaurants and hole-in-the-wall breakfast joints that don’t get the opportunity to serve critics, eliciting the help of influencers to reach an untapped audience is far more feasible.

Food journalists and internet personalities often have fundamentally different aims. Creators like Jacobowitz are entertainers, drawing their audiences through theatrical food experiences. Pete Wells, the chief New York Times food critic, is a reporter, telling the good — and bad — about a dining experience. As the most influential critic in the United States, his review can make or break a restaurant. In 2012, Well’s scathing review was credited for the closing of celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant.

Wells sees no overlap between his work and that of bloggers. He doesn’t believe social media posts qualify as journalism. “It’s a part of how people get noticed and build a name for themselves, but I can’t think of too many examples of reporting that arises from social media posting,” says Wells. While anonymity, prolonged research, journalistic training and fact-checking define the craft of the professional critic, the internet is a free-for-all in terms of opinion. Wells’ readers may appreciate that his work has been thoroughly revised for accuracy and quality. For the internet audience, Wells is “not sure how much they care.”

Not only has the world of food criticism changed, but so has dining out. Once only for special occasions, the world of white tablecloths and rigid etiquette is slowly being replaced by open kitchens, interactive fusion foods and chefs that put on a show. Wells mentions that restaurants like the Momofuku Noodle Bar, with 16 locations across the country, are an example of how the upscale restaurant scene is meeting the demands of a new generation of customers. Momofuku, which helped popularize the open-kitchen layout, has glowing reviews from the New York Times and Washington Post, and draws just as much attention from social media accounts. Momofuku has been tagged over 143,000 times on Instagram.

David Chang’s influential and revered Momofuku restaurant is seen as a pioneer of innovative, adventurous and modern fine-dining. (Photo: Alex Staniloff for Eater NY)

Platt sees that as the upside of social media reviews. “Food has become less elitist and snobby, and more democratic. People are more excited and passionate about the stuff they eat than ever before.”

Rather than setting digital creators and food critics side by side in competition, perhaps the most significant takeaway from the evolving food world is that social media and classic journalism draw inspiration, ideas and voices from each other. Social media reviewing is arbitrary without the standard of authenticity set by professional writers and critics, the same way that a column in a print newspaper is redundant today without its digital counterpart.

As a rookie journalist at NYU, Emily writes about her passions, including food, issues of social justice and international relations.