Contemporary Cultural Diffusion

Back in 1982, Frank Zappa composed a song parodying the "valley girl" culture of the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles. His daughter, Moon Zappa, supplied him with some of the culture's slang: "grody to the max" and "gag me with a spoon" were among the more memorable phrases. The song hit the Top 40 and ValleySpeak all of a sudden entered the mainstream of US culture, quickly copied by teenagers everywhere and becoming part of the "American teenager" stereotype diffused worldwide by numerous Hollywood movies and TV shows.

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    This is a prime example of contemporary cultural diffusion: nearly instantaneous and of a commercial nature. Imagine how long it would have taken local teen slang and its associated culture to spread from a single location to the other side of the world before the advent of electronic media. This is why, with every communications technology breakthrough, joined with the world-spanning reach of corporations, cultural diffusion happens so differently today than it did in the past.

    Contemporary Cultural Diffusion Definition

    Culture diffuses (spreads) from a source area via expansion or relocation. In expansion diffusion, culture can spread hierarchically, via contagion or stimuli. What is spreading are the mentifacts (ideas, words, symbols, etc.), often found in artifacts, and forming part of sociofacts (institutions and other social structures).

    In the diffusion of ValleySpeak, the mentifacts are the slang phrases and the ideas they embody; the artifacts are the songs, movies, and TV shows that contain them; the sociofacts are the "valley girl" social structures. Beyond slang itself, attributes of valley girl culture have included traits such as "airheadedness."

    In the contemporary world, the medium of diffusion, i.e., how diffusion happens, is critically important. As you probably guessed, it's all about the Internet.

    Contemporary Cultural Diffusion: the spread of mentifacts in the age of electronic communication dominated by the Internet, social media, and corporate globalization.

    Contemporary Cultural Diffusion's Cause

    Contemporary cultural diffusion happens due to a complex combination of factors that cannot be boiled down to a single cause. These factors include universal human motivations such as the need people feel to spread a message they think is important for others to hear, or the need to earn a living and thus a profit.

    Another motivation for diffusion is the awareness that a cultural innovation needs to spread, even if the innovators themselves have not recognized this. For example, a local medicinal plant used in a single village somewhere in the world might be recognized by outsiders and spread worldwide for its health benefits and to economically benefit the shareholders of a corporation (and, hopefully, the villagers).

    Contemporary Cultural Diffusion's Driving Force

    In contemporary cultural diffusion, the driving force is typically capitalism.

    Globalization is a term for the phenomenon whereby the planet and its eight billion human inhabitants become increasingly interconnected via the global economy, thanks largely to massive transnational corporations that enable money and culture to flow freely and quickly.

    Contemporary Cultural Diffusion Media StudySmarterFig. 1 - A handful of US corporations, most with global reach, create, diffuse, and moderate culture

    The predominance of free market economies means competition is a major factor, though it is managed and regulated to some extent by governments. When humans compete, speed is of the essence, and when humans desire to make profits, it is paramount to reach as many potential consumers as possible. Speed is a factor driving technological innovation, thus we have seen a greater and greater amount of data and products penetrating deeper and deeper into more and more remote areas and becoming accessible for increasing numbers of people. Many of these products have cultural dimensions or effects.

    The smartphone, an artifact that can convey myriad mentifacts, is currently the principal mechanism enabling contemporary cultural diffusion. It has now reached some of the most remote and traditional corners of the planet.

    The creation of the Internet, an interconnected global network of people, capital, and ideas, is far from a free, democratic structure or one to and in which everyone has equal access. Outside of government intranets, the hardware, the software, and the messages themselves are largely driven by the profit motive because they are invented and supplied by transnational corporations, with limited government involvement (except in countries like China, where the government plays a central role).

    Whether control of information is in private or public hands, it is not in the hands of the users themselves in the way it would be if they were having face-to-face communication or a meeting in a town square. Ideas are subject to moderator control, censorship in many forms, magnification ("going viral") at a scale never before possible, and influence via "armies" of "trolls," "bots" and other types of mechanisms.

    Types of Cultural Diffusion

    The nearly instantaneous speed of cultural diffusion today has challenged traditional definitions that geographers have long held onto. Let's see how the four types of diffusion fare in the contemporary world.

    Contagious Expansion Diffusion

    Because of social media, most culture now does not diffuse spatially in a traditional fashion across a physical landscape. Instead, it spreads from person to person online, only incidentally related to how close people are to each other in geographic space. Online communities are famously aspatial: users can be and are located anywhere; distance doesn't matter.

    In virtual space, contagious diffusion means horizontal or "flat" spreading through networks without control by central nodes that would make it hierarchical. The most democratic communities online, without any content moderation, could be considered the best enablers of contagious expansion.

    Hierarchical Expansion Diffusion

    Again because of electronic media, hierarchical expansion is overwhelmingly the predominant form of cultural diffusion these days. Governments, corporations, religions, and other hierarchical structures enable top-down messaging and also reverse hierarchical diffusion whereby "random" people are able to send messages upward through the hierarchy, probably much more quickly and efficiently than was possible before the Internet, when one had to write a letter or attempt to visit someone powerful in person.

    What often passes for contagious diffusion in the virtual world is actually hierarchical diffusion because of content moderation. It turns out that enabling essentially anonymous people to communicate with each without any controls is not only chaotic but downright dangerous, as any examination of online sex trafficking, terrorism, and other criminal activity attests. But beyond that, authoritarian governments such as China, and even relatively free societies like the United States, have recognized the threat that the aspatial nature of the online world poses. Groups that challenge authority can become larger more quickly, and often anonymously, without the need for people to meet in person or otherwise become vulnerable to government oversight and surveillance.

    These are some reasons that "democratic" online communities are surveilled, censored, and moderated for content. With this comes some sort of hierarchical control in that some have more power to spread ideas than others, and the opposite, to control ideas and messaging.

    Stimulus Expansion Diffusion

    In cyberspace, cultural mentifacts often change meaning as they are adapted to local circumstances. Though there is massive influence from Western and particularly US culture, it can and is often reshaped when filtered through the lenses of other cultures in other countries. Major examples are Bollywood and K-Pop which owe much to Western culture, but via stimulus diffusion, they have become their own distinct cultural phenomena.

    A factor rapidly growing in importance is the potential of online translator programs to break down the barriers to mutual understanding. This allows greater penetration of mentifacts into societies that might previously have rejected them; almost inevitably, these societies will reshape the mentifacts to a certain degree to fit their own rules.

    The global availability of cooking shows allows people everywhere to share cuisine. Translations, such as closed captions on Youtube, now allow someone in one culture to appreciate a recipe in a completely distinct cultural context. However, food taboos in their own culture, such as rules about purity, will still dictate whether and how they adapt the recipe to fit their own circumstances.

    Relocation Diffusion

    With more and more people buying smartphones, getting (faster) Internet connections, and gaining access to translator programs, the roles of groups of people who physically spread culture via moving somewhere else in the world appear to be rapidly diminishing. but there are some exceptions.

    Though even religion is spreading via the Internet, the physical presence of relocated people is still a powerful force in the diffusion of religious beliefs.

    Faiths such as the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) rely on teams of young people who are sent as missionaries across the world to attempt to spread their religion via relocation diffusion.

    Contemporary Cultural Diffusion Examples

    Here are a couple of examples of contemporary cultural diffusion.

    Gangnam Style

    Parody, a dance craze, and South Korean cultural references to Gangnam in Seoul, South Korea diffused worldwide via the performer PSY's 2012 viral hit. The first video to reach 1 billion views on Youtube, it has now been seen 4.5 billion times.

    Contemporary Cultural Diffusion Gangnam StudySmarterFig. 2 - Screen capture of a Youtube version of Gangnam Style performed by students in Chile

    Gangnam Style went beyond the typical infectious global dance craze that the world has seen many times, diffusing in reverse hierarchical fashion all the way to the top, so to speak. World leaders from the US, UK, and the United Nations not only attempted to dance Gangnam Style, but also lauded it as a major cultural and political force. In the tradition of pop artists such as Michael Jackson and the Beatles, it was a prime example of the way a large part of humanity can become united, even if over something intended to be silly. It also showcased the cultural significance of South Korea, now a major force in the diffusion of culture at a global scale.


    Disney Corporation has contributed such words as "Disneyfication" to the vocabulary of people who study culture and its diffusion from the US. For nearly a century, Disney's animated feature-length films and short cartoons have arguably been the most impactful import of US culture to the world, and have alternately been praised and vilified for their messages. These have included damaging cultural stereotypes, as seen in films such as Aladdin and many others.

    In 2017, Disney's Pixar studios released Coco, a story about the Day of the Dead, an important early November Mexican celebration that incorporates elements from Roman Catholicism as well as Indigenous religions. It met few if any criticisms and instead was praised as incredibly respectful of traditional Mexican culture. This was a landmark for Hollywood, which has produced many films that stereotype Mexican culture, often negatively. Like "Kung-fu Panda," the film was extremely well received in the country it portrayed.

    Contemporary Cultural Diffusion Coco StudySmarterFig. 3 - Italian cosplayers portraying characters from Coco

    We can only guess at how people outside of Mexico conceive of Mexican culture following the diffusion of Coco. The 800 million dollars it made worldwide signifies that it has universal appeal, so it is worth pondering how human culture, profit-making corporations, and cultural diversity can and are combining these days as contemporary cultural diffusion continues to accelerate.

    Contemporary Cultural Diffusion - Key takeaways

    • Contemporary cultural diffusion happens primarily due to electronic media and particularly the Internet and social media.
    • Contemporary cultural diffusion, owing to the control of electronic media by profit-making corporations, is strongly commercial in nature.
    • Contemporary cultural diffusion often happens "virally" and thus appears to spread via contagion diffusion, but in reality, due to content moderation, it diffuses hierarchically, sometimes in a reverse fashion.
    • Gangnam Style and Coco are cultural artifacts that spread mentifacts of South Korean and Mexican culture, respectively, worldwide.


    1. Fig. 1 Media corporations ( by Wikideas1 ( licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    2. Fig. 2 Gangnam in Chile ( by Diego Grez Cañete ( licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (
    3. Fig. 3 Coco in Italy ( by Syrio ( licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Contemporary Cultural Diffusion

    What is contemporary cultural diffusion?

    The spread of cultural mentifacts, artifacts, and sociofacts from their places of origin, mostly by electronic means.

    What are some examples of cultural diffusion today?

    Examples of cultural diffusion today include K-Pop, Bollywood movies, Hollywood movies, ideas, memes, and just about anything else that can be spread via the Internet and social media.

    What is a contemporary cause of diffusion?

    A contemporary cause of diffusion is the need for someone who creates a mentifact to earn a living; they can do this via the diffusion of their product worldwide on the Internet.

    What does contemporary American culture mean?

    Contemporary American culture, meaning US culture, is the most significant and powerful force in the creation and diffusion of culture in the modern world.

    What are the types of cultural diffusion?

    There are four main types of cultural diffusion: relocation diffusion, hierarchical expansion diffusion, contagious expansion diffusion, and stimulus expansion diffusion.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    "Coco" contributed to negative stereotypes of Mexican culture.

    Social media operate via hierarchical diffusion because:

    "Aspatial" in reference to cyberspace means


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