One common factor among many internet successes is the transformation from doing something that is usually considered cringy and elevating it to a level of tremendous popular success. This is almost an essential aspect of internet fame. One reason for this pattern in this early stage of the internet is because we are still conditioned as an audience to see culture as separate from life. The things we cringe at on the internet are things that have been edited out through a style of production in mainstream media. Because they have been so relentlessly scrubbed from existence on cable television, Hollywood movies, popular magazines and newspapers, these quirks and eccentricities of everyday living stand out when we see them and then strangely satisfy some deep desire.
We don’t want to appear as cringy. We are cringy. We want to be ourselves. We learn to embrace our differences. Cringe becomes a prerequisite. No cringe, no personality. An acquired taste, cringe becomes a delicacy, a kink. There are fifty shades of cringe.
What happens when we see someone do something cringy on the Internet? Cringe evolves. People who follow Tik Tok, like Christina Pavitsky, report that there are numerous subcultures that segment into different niches of cringe. Cringe gets love on the Internet like nowhere else because it is so relatable. Yes, it is amazing to watch a polished performer like Beyonce go through hours of choreography and singing without missing a step. There’s also something super repressed and therefore repressive about the worship of stellar performances. There is something totalitarian in the disciplined perfection of form.
When we accept that cringe is part of the package of being human, we learn to love ourselves better and to be ourselves more. Comics know this and Chris D’Elia is proving it in a way that is almost unimaginable. Setting aside the incredibly cringy problems that D’Elia has had in his personal life, he also talks and reflects on the place of cringe in his comedy. He has this running joke about how being disrespectful by doing things like ordering postmates during the podcast is being more respectful because he is being himself and that shows a trust in the relationship.
D’Elia is a connoisseur of cringe and finds incredible moments of video and audio to dissect and to analyze on his podcast. This has become the formula for lots of comedic podcasts. H3 podcast does it. Ethan is the godfather of cringe. Two Bears and Bad Friends rely upon the shocking value of cringe. Bert is a cringe god. Bobby a cringe unicorn. Responding to cringe on the Internet is now an industry. This is the mad generation, and everyone is an influencer and marketer.
One Internet sensation that started out as cringe and has taken an internet crown is the inimitable Chet Hanks. When he first came out with his video taken, I think at the Golden Globes red carpet when he introduced the world to his own aggressive version of patua, speaking like a Jamaican dancehall king. Since then, this has become a periodic occurrence leading to a massive amount of heckling but also finally respect and admiration.
Being the son of one of the all-time great US American actors can’t be an easy fate, but Chet is making the absolute most of it and for that he has become an icon. Recently, he introduced a ludicrous idea he calls White Boy Summer to the world via Instagram, but then he specifies that there are certain codes of conduct and dress that are necessary for this definition of white boy. He wants to differentiate it from alt-right Trump supporters and to reclaim some notion of whiteboyness as an identity of allyship.
Because what Chet Hanks was doing came across as so ludicrous, so cringy that nobody would do it if it weren’t in some way authentic. Cringe is the new seasoning. It’s not something you can just do without. It gives your content its flavor. Chet Hanks teaches us that the pursuit of expressing your truth is going to have to go through a process of being embarrassingly exposed to ridicule to achieve the strength necessary to transform into a better design.
When does cringe go too far? This important question is constantly being answered by the actions of people on the internet. D’Elia disappeared from the public for 9 months after allegations of his inappropriate conversations with underage or barely legal girls surfaced. That is not cringe, it is criminal. That is a huge difference. There are things that should be repressed, need to be outlawed, cannot be allowed. There is an ethical line where something that is merely an expression of our basic human nature merges into violations of other people’s rights. The thing about cringe is it must be victimless. The only type of cringe that is acceptable is the cringe that only embarrasses the person in charge of the production.
Because the internet is new and unregulated, we are experiencing an evolution in aesthetics and ethics and the importance of understanding cringe and the ethics of the shocking is critical to improving Internet culture. Logan Paul is a perfect example. His video that showed a dead body in a suicide forest in Japan was cringy, but it was also an ethical violation. It wasn’t just in bad taste, or embarrassing; it was wrong. As we make things for the Internet and consume other people’s creations, we are engaging in a process of becoming more human with all the rewards and risks that entails.