The tastes of American Internet-users are both well-known and much-derided: Cat videos. Personality quizzes. Lists of things that only people from your generation/alma mater/exact geographic area “understand.”
But in France, it turns out, even viral-content fiends are a bit more … sophistiqués.
“In France, articles about cats do not work,” Buzzfeed’s Scott Lamb told Le Figaro, a leading Parisian paper. Instead, he explained, Buzzfeed’s first year in the country has shown it that “the French love sharing news and politics on social networks – in short, pretty serious stuff.”
This is interesting for two reasons: first, as conclusive proof that the French are irredeemable snobs; second, as a crack in the glossy, understudied facade of what we commonly call “Internet culture.”
When the New York Times’s David Pogue tried to define the term in 2009, he ended up with a series of memes: the “Star Wars” kid, the dancing baby, rickrolling, the exploding whale. Likewise, if you look to anyone who claims to cover the Internet culture space — not only Buzzfeed, but Mashable, Gawker and, yeah, yours truly — their coverage frequently plays on what Lamb calls the “cute and positive” theme. They’re boys who work at Target and have swoopy hair, videos of babies acting like “tiny drunk adults,” hamsters eating burritos and birthday cakes.
That is the meaning we’ve assigned to “Internet culture,” itself an ambiguous term: It’s the fluff and the froth of the global Web.
But Lamb’s observations on Buzzfeed’s international growth would actually seem to suggest something different. Cat memes and other frivolities aren’t the work of an Internet culture. They’re the work of an American one.
American audiences love animals and “light content,” Lamb said, but readers in other countries have reacted differently. Germans were skeptical of the site’s feel-good frivolity, he said, and some Australians were outright “hostile.” Meanwhile, in France — land of la mode and le Michelin — critics immediately complained, right at Buzzfeed’s French launch, that the articles were too fluffy and poorly translated. Instead, Buzzfeed quickly found that readers were more likely to share articles about news, politics and regional identity, particularly in relation to the loved/hated Paris, than they were to share the site’s other fare.
A glance at Buzzfeed’s French page would appear to bear that out. Right now, its top stories “Ça fait le buzz” — that’s making the buzz, for you Americaines — are “21 photos that will make you laugh every time” and “26 images that will make you rethink your whole life.” They’re not making much buzz, though. Neither has earned more than 40,000 clicks — a pittance for the reigning king of virality, particularly in comparison to Buzzfeed’s versions on the English site.
All this goes to show that the things we term “Internet culture” are not necessarily born of the Internet, itself — the Internet is everywhere, but the insatiable thirst for cat videos is not. If you want to complain about dumb memes or clickbait or other apparent instances of socially sanctioned vapidity, blame America: We started it, not the Internet.
Appelons un chat un chat.