Nine months ago, I would not have known what a “gf bliss ball with pb drizzle” means. I started an Instagram account to document and share my love for health, food, and baking, and I gained a discourse community in the process. Despite the exclusively online medium, I found a surprisingly tight-knit community of fellow food bloggers. As I learned the lingo and engaged with other foodies, I slowly assimilated and became a member of the community. Now, I post and interact with other bloggers regularly and have even met a few of them in person.
Membership of the community is difficult to gauge, as there are no common publications or newsletters shared between all health food bloggers on Instagram. But I would estimate there are between two to three thousand members in the community, most of whom live in the US, the UK, and Australia. There are both “novices and experts,” the latter of whom attract up to 1 million followers and turn their blog into a career (Swales 473). Having joined only this year, I certainly fall into the “novice” category, but I have received incredible mentorship and support from more seasoned bloggers.
As healthy food bloggers, we share several common goals. We aim to inspire people to make better choices about what they eat—through both sustainable agriculture and attention to the nutritional content of our food. Although food bloggers do not promote any particular dietary restrictions, we create recipes and meal plans that do not include sugary and fatty processed foods to advocate healthier eating. Beyond these goals, we all live quite different lives: young mothers, college students, lawyers, consultants, yogis, and athletes all make up this discourse community. Like Swales’s example of his Hong Kong Study Circle, many bloggers with full-time jobs and demanding personal lives can maintain membership, even with a “low level of personal involvement” (Swales 477).
Through our interactions on Instagram, a particular vocabulary has emerged—what Swales calls a “specific lexis” (Swales 473). Many are abbreviations for more commonly known food terms, such as “gf” for gluten-free, “booch” for kombucha, and “zoodles” for zucchini noodles. Beyond abbreviations, we also cook with ingredients that outsiders to this discourse community would likely be unfamiliar with, such as coconut aminos, collagen peptides, and maca powder. These terms reflect the development of an online culture in which certain health foods are standard, while their “unhealthy” counterparts are not. No explanation is necessary when using these terms, since each of us has experienced “enculturation” into the discourse community (Gee 484). I have found myself using such terms in speech, only to realize that no one else understands what they mean.
The greatest idiosyncrasy of our discourse community, though, is its online habitation. All “mechanisms of intercommunication” occur through the Instagram platform, which is accessed primarily on smartphones (Swales 473). Food bloggers use a combination of text and images to share their content with others. The food photographs serve a dual purpose of showing how a meal looked and enticing others to try a particular recipe or to follow the blogger. Text, in the form of captions, tells the story behind the photo and captures the personality of the blogger. For example, popular food blogger @rachaelsgoodeats captions a picture of roasted vegetables with “Why do I feel like I’m so late to the roasted delicata squash party? These are unreal…” Writing these captions allows human voice and shared experience to reach readers across the globe.
The genres available to this discourse community are thus limited by the Instagram platform. Nevertheless, we have many ways of sharing ideas and reaching our intended audience: photos, videos, captions, stories, live video streams, and sponsored content. Bawarshi and Reiff’s conceptualization of genre as a “shaper of texts, meanings, and social actions” applies here, as the available genres mold the discourse and influence real-life behavior (Bawarshi and Reiff 4). The ability to add relevant hashtags to a post has led to the creation of phrases that describe the typical healthy foodie’s content. For example, the tag “#eatrealfood” is associated with over 1.5 million Instagram posts. Given the rapid nature of scrolling and browsing in the app, food bloggers are encouraged to write catchy, engaging captions and use Emojis to visually break up the text. At the same time, function follows form; because of the high engagement between bloggers and followers through Instagram stories, the app recently added a feature that allows polling within stories.
Using Instagram as a form of communication also provides the basis for contributing “information and feedback,” an integral facet of a discourse community (Swales 472). Bloggers give their opinions and reactions to others’ posts through comments and likes. These comments are often brief, Emoji-laden expressions of praise or questions about a particular recipe. For example, on one of my posts about chocolate chip cookies, user @beachsidekitchen commented, “Wow these look good!” while @fitfoodiecass wrote, “Those look like my kinda cookie! Would love the recipe.” In turn, I like and comment on posts that share the same aesthetic and health goals as my own account.
At the same time, commenting on others’ content is not totally altruistic. With Instagram’s new algorithm, engagement through likes and comments increases the visibility of one’s own account, too. Food bloggers have a large incentive for increasing their following, since they gain sponsorships, ad revenue, and even celebrity status. This reveals a hidden synergy between self-promotion and the desire to connect with other food bloggers. Gee acknowledges the “conflict and tension between the values, beliefs, attitudes, interactional styles, uses of language, and ways of being in the world which two or more Discourses represent” (Gee 485). There isn’t an overt clash in this case, but rather an understated cooperation between the Discourse of Instagram interaction and that of financially motivated business values.
This interplay places the community at the crossroads of a dominant and non-dominant discourse, as successful bloggers can attain both social goods and a social network (Gee 485). I have struggled somewhat with this aspect of the discourse community, since it adds a layer of artifice to these interactions. I’m not alone in this, either—other food bloggers have made posts denouncing the disingenuous nature of some online behaviors. In this way, bloggers can use the Instagram platform to criticize the discourse itself. Fortunately for myself, I have found that the benefits of engaging with like-minded people and sharing my creations outweigh the negatives.
Overall, membership in this discourse community has been transformative. I’ve had the opportunity to create bonds with people who share similar interests, while continuing to learn and grow as a food photographer and content creator. Because cooking and baking are my personal hobbies, I find that participating in this discourse community requires less “work” than a more professional membership, such as being an electrical engineering student. I hope that this study will allow me to better understand how my discourse community is composed and how it relates to other communities, both online and in life.