A meal and a webcam form unlikely recipe for S. Korean fame
Every evening, 14-year-old Kim Sung-jin orders fried chicken, delivery pizza or Chinese food to eat in a small room in his family’s home south of Seoul. He gorges on food as he chats before a live camera with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of teenagers watching.
That’s the show, and it makes Kim money: 2 million won (US$1,700) in his most successful episode.
Better known to his viewers by the nickname Patoo, he is one of the youngest broadcasters on Afreeca TV, an app for live-broadcasting video online launched in 2006.
Kim, who has a delicate physique and chopstick-like slight limbs, has been broadcasting himself eating almost every evening since he was 11. Sometimes he invites friends to eat with him. To add fun, he once wore a blonde wig and dressed as a woman.
While the Internet has been making stars for years — from bloggers to gamers who play for millions of YouTube viewers — outsiders may find it puzzling, if not outright bizarre, for young people to spend hours watching someone eating. But in South Korea, Afreeca TV has become a big player in the Internet subculture and a crucial part of social life for teens.
Shows like Kim’s are known as “Meok Bang,” a mash-up Korean word of broadcast and eating. They are the most popular and often most profitable among some 5,000 live shows that are aired live at any given moment on Afreeca TV.
Kim started the show essentially to find someone to eat with. His parents worked in another city so he was living with his grandparents, and they ate dinner so early he got hungry at night.
He says the show made his dining more regular, although most of his meals on Afreeca TV begin after 10 p.m. The show also brought him unexpected joy: He said that even though he’s just an ordinary teenager, “people say hello to me on the street.”
“I do what I want. That’s the perk of a personal broadcast.”
Many connect the popularity of Meok Bang to the increasing number of South Koreans who live alone, and to the strong social aspects of food in this society.
“Even if it is online, when someone talks while eating, the same words feel much more intimate,” said Ahn Joon-soo, an executive at Afreeca TV. He noted South Koreans’ common habit of bidding farewell to friends by saying, “Let’s eat together next time,” even when they don’t literally mean it.
There are plenty of other quirky offerings on Afreeca TV. Late at night there is “Sool Bang” — broad- cast drinking — in which melancholic South Koreans drink liquor alone discussing their tough lives. Then there is “Study Bang,” or broadcast studying: A screen shows the hand of an unidentified person writing notes on a thick book under the light of a desk lamp.
About 60 percent of the 8 million unique monthly visitors to Afreeca TV are teens or in their 20s. That means nearly 40 percent of the 12.5 million South Koreans aged 10 to 30 watch a show on Afreeca TV at least once a month.
“Young generations believe that TV is naturally something like Afreeca TV where they can interact with broadcasters,” said Ahn, the company executive. He believes TV in the long run will be completely replaced by such apps.
Cho Young-min, a 12-year-old who has watched an online game show on Afreeca TV since he was a third-grader, aspires to have his own show on Afreeca TV, not on the TV in the living room.
Ahn Won-jun, a 17-year-old high school student, said he prefers to eat dinner in his room to watch Kim’s Meok Bang, rather than dining with his parents.
Kim Sung-jin, 14, broadcasts himself eating delivery Chinese food in his room at home in Bucheon, south of Seoul, Monday, Aug. 17. Every evening, he gorges on food as he chats before a live camera with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of teenagers watching. That’s the show, and it makes Kim money: 2 million won (US$1,700) in his most successful episode. Better known to his viewers by the nickname Patoo, he is one of the youngest broadcasters on Afreeca TV, an app for live-broadcasting video online launched in 2006.