In her book about the missing son of French queen Marie Antoinette, Deborah Cadbury (some distant relation to chocolatier) writes about the elaborate dining arrangements and events of the royalty. It was in fact a spectacle or more precisely a spectator event that people paid money to come watch the royalty dine. The extra money earned was desperately needed by the royalty that had depleted the coffers.
Why would people who are starving and cannot afford anything close to what the royalty was eating would spend scarce money to watch royalty eat? Remember, “let them eat cake” ( Deborah Cadbury tells us Marie Antoinette did not say that).
It is possible the French royalty was forcing people to pay money to watch them eat. Barring that what was the product that was being charged for? Later on the revolutionaries charged a price for people to come see her getting beheaded.
Let us fast forward a century from 1770 France to 1870 New York. In his book Pedestrianism Matthew Algeo writes about the spectator sport of walking.
Huge crowds packed indoor arenas to watch the best walkers walk. Think of it as a six-day NASCAR race … on feet.
Why would people pay good money to watch others walk while they could be walking themselves for free? What was the product?
Finally let us move to present day and the marvels of social media. If you thought people were bored stiff then to pay money to see people eat and walk let us look at the story from South Korea where we find new hit shows – Eating shows which are live streams of someone eating and the rest watching. People pay subscription and tune in every night to watch some person eat on webcam.
With hindsight in our favor it is easy to see in the first two stories that the spectator events, however boring they may sound now, were forms of entertainment. Algeo says pretty much that about 19th century New Yorkers with gobs of free time taking to pedestrianism as form of entertainment.
We are not short on entertainment these days. That cannot easily explain our willingness to pay good money to watch someone eat over webcam. You could at least say the French peasants got to visit the royal palace and see them in real life but that is not even the case with live streaming eating shows.
If you think Eating shows are an anomaly, the million or so who pay subscription are an odd minority and that you would never pay to watch someone do mundane things – think again. Think about your daily social media ritual.
You get to see pictures of food other people are eating or ate. You get to see pictures of other people taking a walk. Other people doing something or more precisely saying they did something. You are just not a spectator you are also star of your own show where you get to tell others about your walks and eats. Granted you do not pay for the ticket directly but you do pay in other ways.
What is the product that we value so much that we are willing to pay for it? Has the product changed from 18th century French to 21st century Social Media mecca?