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Eat, Pray, Post

How virality is westernizing the entire world


“This is the cause for obesity in America!” exclaims an Indian subject after eating a Pop Tart in a charming bit of viral fluff called “Indians Taste Test American Sweets.” It’s one of an endless video series produced by Buzzfeed, in which people from one country are filmed tasting the foods from another. They’re simple, relatable, occasionally controversial, and basically engineered to go viral. I say charming, however, because this clip in particular gives us a perspective we so rarely see: young, urban people from outside the West, gently critiquing American excess. It feels, briefly, like a viral video done right—ephemeral and shareable, to be sure, but still refreshingly challenging.

More importantly, posting a video to one’s social media accounts is a performative act of self-definition. Look, it says, this is who I am—at least in the terms chosen by Buzzfeed’s crack viral teams who, sitting in airy, open-concept offices in California and New York, dole out content that spills out from America to fill the world’s screens.

It’s true that most viral stuff works this way. Yet, while perusing Buzzfeed’s various international sites, I noticed a discomfiting uniformity. The listicles and the slickly edited videos center around the same ideas: relationship quirks, patriotic celebrations, food, or the usual highly-specific ephemera of “only people from this city will get this.” An optimist might look at this sameness as revealing a fundamental humanity, that glibly utopian notion that, underneath it all, we are the same. But perhaps viral culture is more sinister. Perhaps it isn’t about universalism and it isn’t just harmless fun; perhaps it is part and parcel of an inevitable Westernization.

The video that criticizes America’s oddness is, after all, a bit of an anomaly. Most of the Taste Test series is about Americans testing snacks from all over—India, Singapore, Indonesia, and so on—and expressing their bewilderment and disgust at what are, to billions around the world, ordinary things. It’s often uncomfortable to watch, almost the quintessence of punching down, disturbingly mimicking the disregard for non-Western cultures that underpinned colonialism (The British, for example, made it a point to denigrate Indian culture in order to replace it with their own). Even clips about Russian or European food include the word “bizarre” in the title. One is forced to ask: Bizarre to whom, exactly?

The tone and content of these videos are also remarkably Western. The language is that of Tumblr, Twitter, or even early Gawker: clipped, ironic, disaffected. Posts about Snapchats that only Indians will understand are peppered with American idioms—”this could be us but u playing,” many mentions of “bae.” GIFs of Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai are used just like GIFs of Rihanna, as aspirational symbols meant to reassure and entertain. In the video in which those same young, hip Indians criticize American excess and Kellogg’s Pop Tarts, they do so in American terms: There’s even a guy who says, based solely on watching Breaking Bad, that candy Pop Rocks “seriously look like meth.”

At the same time, though, the production of these potentially viral posts is intended to appeal to differing demographics. As someone of Indian descent, Buzzfeed India’s posts have been most clearly appealing to—and targeted at—me, and the content pushed there is often distinctly, uniquely Indian. From collections of photos that show how beautiful India is to a Tumblr that uses GIFs to describe life in Delhi, the content is breezy, fun, and (when compared to the too-white nature of most pop cutlure) refreshingly relatable.

There’s something deeply gratifying about seeing one’s culture as of the moment. When so much of what is defined as contemporary explicitly caters to a Western audience, seeing something as specific (and silly) as “19 Indian foods that taste better when it’s raining”—something that plays off the uniquely celebratory attitude toward rain in India—makes one feel vital, hip, and modern. To see yourself represented is to be more alive, more real.

What does it mean, however, that so much of this representation is not only so American in style, but that the nature of online virality makes its dissemination so self-reinforcing? On one hand, there is undoubtedly a case to be made that this kind of viral grammar marks a particular style as a global contemporary, as opposed to a Western one. Our bloggy way of speaking is a kind of international connective tissue, making people in Jakarta and Paris and Mumbai part of an emerging, connected, privileged international demographic.

On the other hand, when that global culture flows in mostly one direction—the fact that it is in English and borrows its style from Brooklyn and L.A.-based blogs—we have a larger problem: virality starts to look like soft cultural imperialism. It’s an assertion of Western values, neatly packaged as 7 GIFs You Won’t Believe.

When virality becomes the dominant mode of spreading culture, the content shifts depending on location—”23 Incomparable Joys of Growing Up in Chennai” and so forth—but the form remains the same. The ideology is carried along. A post about a Bollywood power couple giving us #relationshipgoals is fun, but it also implies a specific perspective.

What this means, of course, is that virality has a kind of circular function. Many of Buzzfeed India’s most popular posts draw from the popularity of the Harry Potter series—something that, last time I checked, wasn’t exactly part of the ancient Hindu texts, the Vedas. Virality predominantly functions by reproducing what is already popular, while only occasionally propelling something to popularity itself. It’s rarely inventive. 

The fact that Buzzfeed India’s style is indistinguisable from Brooklyn blog-speak is evidence of the circular relation of capital and culture, and the non-coincidence that centers of global finance are also centers of global culture. The nature of Buzzfeed’s global operations is to produce local content in its own image: replicating a business model around the world as it also replicates a cultural one. 

There is some resistance, though, elements that refuse to translate. A post on Buzzfeed India of bilingual English-Hindi puns may be groan-worthy, but its very indecipherability to a Western audience is important: It marks the cultural specificity of Northern India as unable to be neatly subsumed into a binary model of Eastern and Western.

All that said: It’s hard not to wonder about power, and where it fits into the global nature of virality. As theorist Homi Bhabha argued in his book Location of Culture, the first world is always considered the present and future on a timeline on which the third world is perpetually the past. And perhaps online virality—in the way that it tightens itself into ever smaller circles of self-referentiality—is a sign that Bhabha was correct: That someone ten thousand miles away is talking about American obesity at all is indicative of not only how things work, but a sign that perhaps it is already too late to stop the march into a Westernized, viral future.