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Monday, March 27, 2023

Enter the Age of Borderless Memes

English-speaking YouTube has established tropes—workhorse video concepts like unboxing, shopping hauls, and microwaving things you’re not supposed to. Over the last few years (but especially in the last six months), a new second-hand delight has started gobbling up YouTube viewers’ attention. It’s called mukbang, and the rules are simple: Acquire a truly astonishing amount of food, arrange your feast in front of you, hit Record, and gorge.

But mukbang clearly didn’t get its start in the anglophone world. It’s a portmanteau of the Korean words for “eat” (muok-da) and “broadcast” (bang song)—essentially, “eating show.” The trend took off on the South Korean streaming service AfreecaTV in the early 2010s and then slowly wended its way across the Pacific, acquiring new devotees and new cultural contexts. It isn’t really an outlier, either: Mukbang is just one of Asia’s most successful entrants to a new class of global internet phenomena—simple visual- and video-focused memes that are so basic in their appeal that the boundaries of geography and culture don’t apply.

In just over a year, mukbang has shifted from a Youtube niche to a mainstream trope—a high-calorie riff on the haul video. It’s acquired American-ness along the way with its food choices (more pizza, Taco Bell, and Chick-fil-A than Korean barbecue), and social cues (American eaters tend to chat more than their South Korean counterparts.) But mukbang has remained shockingly unchanged by its cross-continental journey. And that’s because it didn’t have to change. It was a borderless meme, ready to travel across cultures and continents in its original form.


Mukbang’s success as a borderless meme has precedent. Earlier this year, a Chinese meme called “Karma’s a bitch” struck a similar vein of gold: Young Weibo users post clips of themselves shabbily dressed and without makeup, then, to the sounds of a scene from CW’s Riverdale (Veronica Lodge saying “Karma’s a bitch”) and Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci,” reemerge triumphant in full glam hair, clothes, and makeup. It’s the dramatic glow-up every adolescent hopes for, condensed into a few shareable seconds—and it wasn’t long until the Roots were doing it on the Tonight Show. These continent-crossing memes don’t even have to be that complicated. Take Japan’s Hadouken craze (in which people take photos that make it appear one of them can fling the others across the room with magic) or China’s (questionable fad of putting pantyhose and heels on dogs, which caught on everywhere because of its weird visual intrigue.

South Korean mukbangs aren’t silent—the ramen slurping, fried chicken ripping, and other lip-smackings and munchings are part of the appeal—but they are often nearly wordless. The only language consistently involved is the live feed of comments from viewers, who can also show their appreciation by making micropayments during the stream. As soon as the South Korean mukbang trend became a lucrative craze—some of the top broadcasting jockies reportedly earn $10,000 per month before sponsporships—it jumped continents.

Mukbang’s first big US YouTube spotlight came in 2015, when Fine Brother’s Entertainment made a video showing popular YouTubers like Tyler Oakley reacting to South Korean mukbang. Some were bored by the low-action spectacle, others disgusted, but, importantly, none of them were confused or alienated. “I am delighted by this,” says Oakley, who had about 7 million subscribers at the time, in the video, grinning as a young woman lip-smacks her way through a chicken wing. “I hope they’re monetizing.”


Oakley wasn’t alone. The birth of the American mukbang was only weeks away. YouTuber Trisha Paytas, probably the most popular American mukbanger, with over 4 million subscribers, started posting her own mukbang videos soon after. In the time since, the Western mukbang trend has swelled on YouTube and Twitch, where hundreds of mukbang-dedicated accounts have sprung up. In the last few months, it’s become fodder for BuzzFeed quizzes and a very active hashtag, while attracting YouTube mega-celebrities like James Charles, Manny Mua, Jeffree Star, Shane Dawson, Tana Mongeau, and, yes, Logan Paul. Even former TV stars like Josh Peck and Kathy Griffin are doing it.

In the past, international memes have had only niche appeal—usually among people already interested in the original creator’s culture and language, like Western anime fans. But now memes have begun to cross continents and cultures much more easily—and there’s a reason for that. Internet connectivity has increased worldwide, and internet culture has moved from its text-and-emoticon roots to something that thrives on images and video. Creating a truly global meme becomes more possible because we’re leaving language—with its pesky regional limitations—almost entirely behind.

But that doesn’t mean that every relatively wordless clip is going to be an automatic smash hit. Things that require specific regional knowledge, like politics or news events, won’t fly. The most successful of these memes echo Socially Awkward Penguin or Philosoraptor: By appealing to basic experiences that the majority of humans share, these memes have a longer life cycle than our modern-day digital ephemera and are simple enough that each creator can graft their own cultural and emotional context onto them.

Mukbang in its original form is exactly that: The people in front of the camera are ciphers shoveling food down their gullets. The appeals in South Korea and in the West vary widely: Some viewers come for the apparently ASMR-inducing audio component, others tune in for the vicarious thrill of watching someone else binge-eat, some are drawn to the fetishistic appeal, and many others find comfort in digital dining companions.

What we’re witnessing is the infancy of global internet culture through the birth of its first-born—the borderless meme. Still, it’s too early to tell if these borderless memes will really bring the world closer together or if a shared video vocabulary will be too limited to create valuable connections. Maybe the ideas that spread will be too universal for the average person to realize they’re giggling along to a trend that was born on the other side of the world, though the fact that mukbang has retained its Korean name might suggest otherwise.

But even if these memes are just examples of cultures performing the same actions alone, simultaneously, there’s something hopeful about knowing that, stripped of language and other cross-cultural confusions, people relate to the strangers who cross their screens.

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