I follow a lot of cooking accounts on TikTok and Instagram, which means that I get served ever more cooking content, and over the past few years, I’ve noticed a stylistic change.
My feed used to be dominated by a style of video popularized by BuzzFeed’s “Tasty” series in the 2010s: The action was generally shot from above or from the side, featuring close-ups of a creator’s hands chopping ingredients. But lately, more and more of the cooking video creators appear as their full selves, and most of them are blandly attractive. Sometimes, they don’t seem to even be cooking in the traditional sense — I’ve watched a lot of videos where they’re just assembling sandwiches with high-end ingredients like speck and burrata. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need a chef to tell me that a ham and cheese sandwich tastes good.
It’s reached the point where I can’t tell: Are these recipes good, or are the people leading me through them just good-looking in a way that’s rewarded by social media algorithms?
I’m aware that “culture” today is incredibly siloed and that what I get served in my bubble is quite different from what other people are being served in their bubbles. But it made me wonder whether the beauty premium — something that economists have observed over many years — is greater now that individuals with all different levels of expertise can get a career boost from having a robust social media presence. “The internet,” wrote Vox’s Rebecca Jennings, “has made it so that no matter who you are or what you do — from nine-to-five middle managers to astronauts to house cleaners — you cannot escape the tyranny of the personal brand.”
In an article for IZA World of Labor titled “Does It Pay to Be Beautiful?” Eva Sierminska and Karan Singhal explained that “empirical results support the fact that ‘better-looking’ people receive a wage premium, while those with ‘below-average’ looks incur a wage penalty.” In their overview of the research on the beauty premium, they said that men actually faced a greater plainness penalty than women did. They also found that being attractive was especially important in jobs dealing with customers, because customers preferred to deal with attractive salespeople and waiters, and that as a result, more attractive people gravitated toward those kinds of jobs.
In a sense, when anyone puts a video on social media, anyone who consumes it is a customer. But on top of individual human preferences for beauty, there is also an algorithm’s invisible sorting. I called Kyle Chayka, the author of the new book “Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture,” to ask if he saw more content creators putting their faces and bodies onscreen and if attractiveness was even more at a premium than it was just a few years ago.
Chayka said he’d noticed the same thing I had with the cooking creators and reflected on how and why that might be happening. “On one level, algorithmic recommendations are sets of variables and equations that are programmed by the engineers at the tech companies. So they are actively deciding what factors dictate how something gets promoted or not. And there were leaked reports from inside TikTok that at times the company just had mandates — we need less ‘ugly’ people in the feed.”
At the same time, Chayka said it’s just human nature to enjoy looking at attractive people (and I agree, it’s probably built into us). “So it’s kind of hard to say whether hot people get promoted more because it’s some mathematical variable or what they get promoted for because more people pay attention to them naturally.”
That said, he thought there’s more pressure lately for people with all sorts of expertise (or no expertise) to put themselves in their content. So let’s say you’re an expert in Excel spreadsheet hacks. Whereas once you might have just put the spreadsheet on the screen, now you’re putting your mug on there, too. “I’ve definitely spoken to many younger people on TikTok, and they say that there’s more pressure to put your face on the internet to make a TikTok,” Chayka said. “You need to put yourself, your full corporeal body online in a way that wasn’t necessary with Twitter, for example, or Tumblr or even early-days Instagram.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned a lot from watching cooking videos on social media — everything from garlic-peeling tricks to really delicious chicken marinades — and been quite entertained. But because I feel it’s harder and harder to trust the quality of a recipe I’m getting from even the most followed cooking influencers, I find myself going back to hard-copy cookbooks or perusing a few tried-and-true cooking websites.
These sites don’t seem to be quite as subject to the whims of algorithms — because it’s not just attractiveness that algorithms sort for. Often, a single random ingredient or cooking style becomes popular, and then you start seeing it everywhere. For a while, it was a block of cream cheese or feta melted randomly into a recipe. More recently, it’s been French onion everything. At this point, I trust that my taste buds will have a better user experience when I’m the one guiding the process.