You know the parts in a sitcom where a character with no self-awareness makes a situation so awkward that many can’t help but laugh? As it turns out, there’s a not-so-niche corner of the World Wide Web just for that. Yes, cringe culture, the unsubtle bogeyman of the online world. If you’re noticed enough on the internet, you’ve likely been called cringe. But what is cringe culture? And is it a movement for good or for evil?
Cringe culture, like most ideas largely based on internet culture, can be a little difficult to define. The term generally refers to a mockery of groups or activities that are harmless, awkward and/or too earnest for the ever-ironic web. Targets exist on a spectrum from more innocent fun like cheesy performances and bad newscasts to more pointed jeers at groups like feminists. Especially popular subjects include celebrities, furries and TikTok users who take the app seriously.
The most well-known part of the phenomenon is cringe compilations, YouTube videos where various embarrassing moments are spliced together for the viewer’s enjoyment. The videos, especially coming from famous YouTubers like Pewdiepie or Shane Dawson, can garner millions of views. But YouTube is not alone in the cringe. On Reddit, r/cringe boasts one million members with even more on r/cringepics. Over 20 million Instagram posts have the cringe hashtag.
The idea of cringe also appears in media at large and probably predates internet culture. Plenty of sitcoms like “The Office” or “Arrested Development” depend on people embarrassing themselves through their idiosyncrasies, and talent shows like “American Idol” could get a lot of viewers from bad auditions. Such examples speak to a root cause of cringe culture which, as will be expounded on later, is exacerbated online.
While cringe culture operates on a human impulse, it isn’t exactly a great one. Much of the humor in the compilations is based on secondhand embarrassment for people with low self-awareness. They also pull people into the eyes of sometimes millions of viewers, and the experience can be harrowing. Even in the most benign cases, it’s a cheap laugh that requires a bit of punching down. Yes, I, too, have chuckled at videos of hilariously awful performances, but it’s never a good laugh. For more people than most would probably think, it’s an involuntary laugh at the awkwardness followed by, “Oh no, that poor person.”
However, I cannot call quick chuckles at awkwardness a blight on humanity. The humor of Tommy Wiseau-like newscasters is not lost on me. In such cases, nobody is being actively malicious. More immediate issues press in cringe culture. A lot of people online who end up in the posts are private individuals dragged into the internet’s limelight. In the realm of personal anecdote, several meme pages local to my college chronicle awkward public displays of affection, usually in pictures taken without the subjects’ knowledge. For the specific example, the issue is attending a small school where many people know each other and violating people’s privacy.
In the larger context of cringe culture, the Internet can allow for people to be harassed more easily. Buzzfeed recently published an interview with minor activist Jude Valentin where she described how a cringe compilation used her videos and led to harassment in the comments. The other account in question had eight times the subscribers of Valentin. For low-profile persons, appearing in a popular compilation could generate cyberbullying, especially if the posts neglect to hide online handles and the like.
Social media’s de-empathizing effects have already been expounded upon at length. The following articles by Farah Mohammed and Sue Scheff point out how online callouts of persons in the wrong can degrade activism to name-calling and snark, sometimes going much further. In the more belligerent side of cringe culture, that tendency increases tenfold. Compilations just laugh behind a screen at someone else behind a screen.
Proponents argue that cringe culture acts as a corrective measure for people who pursue hobbies deemed embarrassing: Emo and anime fans are popular targets. The philosophy extends to the political arena, and by political arena, I mean “It’s part of the debate” is probably among the top comments on a “Feminist Pwn’d” post.
Such defenses are pretty clearly facetious. The point of cringe culture is not instructive; it’s a source of entertainment via awkwardness. Valentin points out how much of the compilation with her was unedited footage. The editor commented only once every 10 minutes. Some of the segments seen in the compilations likely are not healthy, but cringe culture isn’t here to see improvement. People are reduced from human beings to caricatures of self used to justify audience preconceptions and to satisfy a somewhat sadistic sense of humor. Even strawman fallacies have better claim to good intentions than cringe culture.
This defense reveals a darkness. The comment sections can become vindictive cesspools of hatred, like most comment sections. For the ones who convince themselves that participating in cringe culture is actually helping people, it points to some serious issues.
Besides, look at some of the targets already listed. A lot of cringe culture is either reactionary or picking on harmless hobbies. What’s wrong with cosplaying as your favorite anime character? What’s wrong with listening to the My Chemical Romance discography on a monthly basis? What’s wrong with being feminist? While some recurring issues crop up in certain subcultures, the passions in and of themselves are not bad. Cringe culture often fails to make a distinction.
At its core, what is the dark side of cringe culture? It’s a sense of superiority. It’s something that can attract cyberbullying and other forms of harassment. It’s a way for the viewer to look at someone and say, “At least I’m not them.” It’s not good.
But it would be the height of hypocrisy to look at cringe culture and say the group is irredeemable. They’re people, perhaps searching for entertainment, perhaps searching for someone to pick on, perhaps a million other things, but they’re people, and people need to work on themselves, and people need help. The purpose of this article is to a little better understand some of the impulses behind the phenomenon and why they’re destructive. Hopefully this can serve as something of a wake-up call. For those who have been hurt by cringe culture, here’s an article about dealing with online bullying.
Cringe culture and its end are not a be-all end-all for a lack of human kindness, but it is a starting point for the online world. Remember to try to be kind and to think of others as more than pixels on a screen.