Social media communities are influencing the food industry through virtual food communities. Virtual food communities are prevalent on various social media platforms where food enthusiasts with different hobbies and interests come together to build a strong community. The argument that this paper presents is that virtual food communities have influenced and revolutionized food industry. There has been a rapid growth in consumption communities formed around products, brands, and services and people seek identity by belonging to groups. Social media has contributed to formation of numerous virtual food communities with some obscure food communities that have been revived by social media. Virtual food communities with blogs, online forums, and accounts on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook have positively impacted and influenced food industry.
Key Terms: Community, Communities, Network, Support, Online Support, internet, Virtual food communities, Social Media, Consumer motivation, Consumer behaviour, Online interaction, Self-presentation, Consumption community
Internet accessibility and use of social media like blogging, social networking, microblogging facilitates a strong information infrastructure and an active exchange of communication (Haythornthwaite and Kendall, 2010). Internet plays a significant role with easy access to information, to establish instant communication, engage in communities with people around the globe with similar likes, hobbies and interests. There are different types of social media communities serving different purposes, consumption-based communities being one of them. “Consumption-based virtual communities are affiliative groups whose online interactions are based upon shared enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, a specific consumption activity or related group of activities’ (Kozinets, 1999, p. 254 as cited in Jacobsen et al. 2017). Virtual food community groups have grown rapidly in the recent years with a sudden surge of social media platforms and phenomenal rise in social media users from all age groups and all walks of life. The world of food has been bolstered by the internet with online food communities involved in sharing cooking tips, sharing recipes, ideas on growing food, reviewing food and restaurants in addition to many others (Falconer 2012). Virtual food communities on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook have virtual food communities have influenced and revolutionized food industry. positively impacted and influenced food industry.
Social media communities and virtual food communities
An online community is a group of individuals with common interests guided by certain protocols, interacting with each other through social media platforms to facilitate decision making, problem solving and accessing information (Porter, 2015). Social media communities facilitate free and open sharing of information which contributes to both collective and individual well-being of communities (Cao et al. 2013). Getting involved in communities of interest or need is not often possible physically therefore, online communities act as a great platform for communities where people can join, network, problem solve and interact at their own convenience (Falconer 2012). Members in online communities willingly support each other irrespective of age, race, gender, ethnicity or financial capabilities even though they are complete strangers which is usually not done in real life situations; good communication is established irrespective of the distance, time or any other constraints (Wellman & Gulia, 1999). People collaborate, support, and communicate through digital network groups (Bagozzi & Dholokia, 2002; Rheingold, 1993 as quoted by Jacobsen et. al 2017) working around common interests or personal need through blogs, wikis, and social media platforms (Hagel, 1999; Johnson & Lowe, 2015; Zwass, 2010 as cited in Jacobsen et al., 2017). It is argued that the theory of symbolic interactionism in online communities is based on three principles of language, meaning and the creation of self by shaping individuals’ identity and reality, and provide a vast network with which to create relationships (Griffin, 2009, as cited in Martinka 2012). Interactions facilitate development of people’s social identity, gives meaning to their actions and interactions; such communities offer people diversity in terms of a variety of people interacting from various locations in the world, offer stability with the assurance of availability of such groups and provide opportunity (Cărtărescu, 2010, as cited in Martinka 2012).
The prevalence and importance of virtual communities that are focused on consumption, for sharing and getting information about food and any food related information is growing rapidly (Jacobsen et al., 2017). Virtual food communities are involved in reviewing food and restaurants, sharing cooking tips, sharing recipes, ideas on growing food, in addition to many others. It is argued that such food communities serve as a great support for people with similar likes and hobbies as they motivate people to learn, self-present and create their own identities. Online communities act as information sources where consumers interact, acquire skills and knowledge from their peer consumers thus supporting each other on specific food issues (Wang, Yu, & Wei, 2012 as cited in Jacobsen et al., 2017). Members in a virtual community use it as a reference group to make decisions as such communities have a good influence on consumers as they voluntarily engage in such groups (Jacobsen et al., 2017). There are numerous virtual food communities like communities for brewing wine, curing meat, making cheese and gourmet sausages with some emerging communities like urban farming and permaculture where members indulge in producing, cultivating honey and even managing livestock (Falconer, 2012). Falconer (2012) in his article discusses the online coffee community, Coffeesnobs, an Australian community which is one of the examples of how social media brought obscure food communities to life. This community shares brewing and roasting techniques with ongoing tips how to improve the art. People from all over the globe can access the community and be part of this community which has origins in Australia. The Coffeesnobs is active on Forums on their website, social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, advising on coffee beans, expresso machines, brewing and roasting methods. Andy Freeman the founder of Coffeesnobs emphasizes on the sharing, nurturing, and learning role of communities where new ideas can be discussed thus improving the knowledge base of new and existing members (Falconer, 2012). Likewise, there are virtual food communities that one can resort to for support and troubleshooting. Falconer (2012) gives the analogy that even if one lives in the sausage making capital of the world one cannot beat the speed of the support one gets from online food communities than one could get physically.
Virtual food communities – motivation to learn, self-present, and creation of identity
Relationship between pre-existing consumer interests in food and their willingness to interact in virtual food communities has been established where motivation mediates to learn and to self-present (Jacobsen et al., 2017). Studies have revealed that consumers with interest for food and inclination for online interaction, when given a chance to learn and to present themselves, actively interact in virtual food communities (Jacobsen et al., 2017). People share and gain knowledge on food related issues such as preparation, brewing, cooking in addition to others through consumption-based virtual communities where the members exhibit motivation to present themselves and willingly interact with others with similar interests (Jacobsen et al., 2017). Studies reveal that consumers are regarded as experts in their food related knowledge and are enthusiastic and motivated to present themselves to gain admiration, recognition, and appreciation from their peers (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2004 as cited in Jacobsen et al., 2017). Food communities facilitate experience before, during and after consumption thus propagating shared values and identity experiences (Cheung et al., 2008). Furthermore, it is argued that such consumption communities are not dependent on expert opinions from mass media but are supported by the so called self-appointed online critics, thus, allowing democratization of content and criticism which further allows them to develop their leisure skills with their expertise and knowledge (Lichtenberg 2007 as cited in Watson et al., 2008). Such opportunities therefore give autonomy to members of the groups to express their opinion where they feel valued and appreciated for their contributions. The ongoing learning and self-presentation motivates consumers to be actively involved in such communities.
Virtual communities – Impact on consumer behaviour
Consumers’ preference for food and food brands have changed significantly over the years with significance given not just to the health and nutritional value but is also greatly influenced by their experience with the food or food brand and what the consumers stand for. There has been a rapid growth in consumption communities formed around products, brands, or services in the postmodern world where people seek identity by belonging to groups (Firat & Shultz (1997, p. 193 as cited in Watson et al., 2008). In the past, there were groups for food and drink appreciation, where reviews were controlled by expert reviewers however, with the formation of online communities, members who are consumers offer their expertise thus democratizing the process where such contributions are free of social class, status, race, ethnicity (Watson et al., 2008). As the reviews come from members of the community they command more trust and credibility as compared to celebrity reviewers who could be doing it for monetary gains and thus might not be credible, thus making the consumer a strong and credible reviewer (Watson et al., 2008). In the online communities, commercial interests will be detected, picked up, reported, and rejected by members (Watson et al., 2008) which reiterates the importance of such communities in influencing markets and consumers. Social media communities impact consumer behaviour as consumers are not just listeners and spectators but are actively involved in communicating in groups (Diffley, 2011). Traditionally, businesses and marketing companies controlled the communications whereas with social media communities, businesses do not have much control as consumers are active participants communicating, sharing opinions beliefs (Diffley, 2011). Additionally, studies have revealed that consumers trust online opinions which suggests the need for businesses to organize and be involved in online communities to promote their goods and services, than just placing adverts online to have a significant impact on Word of Mouth (Rowley, 2001 as cited in Cheung et al., 2008). Postmodern approaches to marketing focus on consumers rather than product where online food community members create meaning while considering themselves as a clan adding and making informed contributions while sharing experiences (Cheung et al., 2008). Therefore, the impact of social media communities on consumer behaviour cannot be negated.
Social media plays a crucial role in facilitating social media communities and people interact easily through social media communities based on common interests and hobbies enabling easy communication with members of the group which otherwise is difficult offline. Such communities are not bound by geographical distances; members communicate without any bias like age, ethnicity, religion. Such interactions and community influence helps in shaping the identity of people. Members of virtual consumption communities like virtual food communities create their own values rather than accepting those posed by experts in certain fields. Social media communities significantly influence consumer behaviour. Therefore, the importance of social media communities and in this case virtual food communities in influencing and motivating learning, self-presentation, shaping identities cannot be ignored.
Blay-Palmer, A., Landman, K., Knezevic, I., & Hayhurst, R. (2013). Constructing resilient, transformative communities through sustainable “food hubs”. Full article: Constructing resilient, transformative communities through sustainable “food hubs” (curtin.edu.au)
Cao,Q., Lu, Y., Dong, D., Tang,Z., & Li, Y. (2013). The roles of bridging and bonding in social media communities. Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 64(8), 1671-1681. https://doi-org.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/10.1002/asi.22866
Cheung, C. M., Lee, M. K., & Rabjohn, N. (2008). The impact of electronic word‐of‐mouth: The adoption of online opinions in online customer communities. Internet research. The impact of electronic word‐of‐mouth: The adoption of online opinions in online customer communities | Emerald Insight (curtin.edu.au)
Diffley, S., Kearns, J., Bennett, W., & Kawalek, P. (2011). Consumer behaviour in social networking sites: Implications for marketers. Irish Journal of Management, 30(2), 47-65. Retrieved from https://link.library.curtin.edu.au/gw?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/consumer-behaviour-social-networking-sites/docview/893090363/se-2?accountid=10382
Falconer, Joel. 2012. “Eat, browse and prosper: How the Internet is bringing obscure food communities to life.” https://thenextweb.com/insider/2012/09/23/eat-browse-prosper-how-internet-bringing-obscure-food-communities-life/
Haythornthwaite, C., & Kendall, L. (2010). Internet and Community. American Behavioral Scientist, 53(8), 1083-1094. Retrieved from https://journals-sagepub-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/doi/pdf/10.1177/0002764209356242
Jacobsen, L. F., Tudoran, A. A., & Lähteenmäki, L. (2017). Consumers’ motivation to interact in virtual food communities–The importance of self-presentation and learning. Food quality and preference, 62, 8-16. Consumers’ motivation to interact in virtual food communities – The importance of self-presentation and learning – ScienceDirect (curtin.edu.au)
Martinka, L. (2012). How social media communities impact consumer behavior (Order No. 1510438). Available from ProQuest One Academic. (1017683284). Retrieved from https://link.library.curtin.edu.au/gw?url=https://www-proquest-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/dissertations-theses/how-social-media-communities-impact-consumer/docview/1017683284/se-2?accountid=10382
Porter, C. (2015). Virtual communities and social networks. In L. Cantoni & J. Danowski (Eds.), Communication and technology (pp. 161-179). Berlin: De Gruyter. https://books.google.ae/books?hl=en&lr=&id=AhxpCgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA161&dq=Virtual+communities+and+social+networks&ots=b-Edn65l2P&sig=ZRxWvbmBKZsa8NCjGKxAGhKss1E&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Virtual%20communities%20and%20social%20networks&f=false
Thomas, J., Wilson, C., & Park, S. (2018). Australia’s digital divide is not going away. The conversation, March 2018. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/australias-digital-divide-is-not-going-away-91834
Watson, P., Morgan, M., & Hemmington, N. (2008). Online communities and the sharing of extraordinary restaurant experiences. Journal of Foodservice, 19(6), 289-302. Online communities and the sharing of extraordinary restaurant experiences: EBSCOhost (curtin.edu.au)
Wellman, B., & Gulia, M. (1999). Net surfers don’t ride alone: Virtual communities as communities. In P. Kollock & M. Smith (Eds.), Communities and Cyberspace. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from http://groups.chass.utoronto.ca/netlab/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Net-Surfers-Dont-Ride-Alone-Virtual-Community-as-Community.pdf.
Wilson, C.,Barret, J. (2020). How-COVID-19-is-worsening-digital-inequality. April 2020. Retrieved from https://www.ceda.com.au/NewsAndResources/Opinion/Technology-Innovation/How-COVID-19-is-worsening-digital-inequality