Creativity, Danger, and Internet Culture

I keep finding myself surprised by the appearance of things in Shakespeare’s plays that have a ton of relevance to contemporary culture. For example, in All’s Well that Ends Well there is a scene where they prank a soldier. Prank culture has a big place on the Internet, too. Nelk Boys, the Logan Bros, Chad and JT: these are the children of Jackass, the offspring of Punk’d, but they have a four hundred- and twenty-year-old ancestor in Shakespeare’s play.

One of the great things about studying Shakespeare is the mental effort it takes to figure out what is happening as you are led through multiple plots that interweave and are only known through dialogue. We must decipher the stories and their relevance through what characters say to each other. In the case of All’s Well, we hear the soldiers plot out the prank ahead of time. They want to test their friend’s loyalty, so they plan to have him ambushed and held hostage so that he thinks he has been captured by the enemy, but it will be his fellow soldiers in disguise. 

Helena also pulls a kind of trick on Bertram. She switches places with the woman he is trying to have sex with, and she gets him to impregnate her. This is a prank with much more serious consequences, and it is the moral question of the play. Through this dynamic, Shakespeare creates an opportunity to ask a lot of interesting questions. There are debates to be had about the morality of the character’s actions.

One of the problems in our culture today is the changing line between culture and life. Shakespeare wrote plays that were performed in a theater. Nobody gets pregnant or is held hostage. One of the great things about self-made celebrities on the Internet is that they have a ton of creative freedom, because they did it their way. The downside to that freedom is a lack of support or connection to a sustainable business model. Once a movement starts making a lot of money and the players involved depend upon that income it becomes hard to make certain changes. There is a momentum to success that is hard to control.

There is also an escalation of the stakes. People study what performs well on YouTube, for example, and then you get someone like Mr. Beast who constantly feeds the algorithm exactly the kind of stuff it wants. Mr. Beast is performing stunts, not pranks, and this is a more sustainable model. Mr. Beast has an interesting combination of fantasy and reality at work in his videos and he does outlandish and absurdly expensive things, but they also take a lot of discipline and endurance.

Partly, this desire for reality that is shown in pranks and stunts is due to the ungrounded aspect of Internet culture. Because it is a potentially global stage, the internet attracts evermore extreme types of content where the stakes are real. We see people hanging with one hand from the edge of skyscrapers, walking a slack line across an impossibly huge canyon, snowboarding down basically vertical mountains of snow, and so many other death-defying acts.  The fear of death is universally compelling. 

So is sex appeal. If sex sells, it’s because people demand it. The attention economy is flooded with prurient content. The sexual trick in All’s Well works because Bertram is so damned horny. Helena knows it will work, too. She instructs the woman he is trying to screw how to get him to give her his ring, and he does it the dummy. 

Helena manipulates Bertram into marrying her and getting her pregnant through political power and sexual deception. Bertram is a character who represents something you see a lot of today. He is a guy who desires freedom because his life is ironically very unfree. Bertram’s retreat into bro culture shows just how defeated he is. 

It is super interesting to witness and participate in the cultural revolution we are experiencing. I believe that this is an early renaissance of internet culture and some of the characters we are watching are going to innovate and produce work that will be worth of studying far into the future.

My hope is that we will course correct away from higher and higher stakes and veer away from the potential for devastating consequences and instead we will raise the bar by focusing on developing talent and style. Instead of being impressed by someone who is so willing to risk their life, we could be celebrating things that are extremely hard to do, but that are good for life. Mr. Beast learned by studying the YouTube algorithm and now younger YouTubers are learning by watching him, so who oversees this thing? Creative control is the scary thing. Going to the edge of a building is obvious, compelling, and ultimately stupid. Going beyond the known and accepted ideas is scarier and has more potential to break new ground.

We have so many insanely terrifying and challenging problems we could work on tackling. Mr. Beast has a philanthropic component to his content that has the greatest hope to lead this pack of wild creators towards something more sustainable. By using the media to do philanthropic things in the world, he sets a precedent for achieving success by helping other people. The easy and obvious thing is to prove our courage by showing we are not afraid to risk our lives, but the harder and ultimately more rewarding thing is to prove our courage by showing we are not afraid to commit to challenging ourselves creatively instead of with danger.

Cringe to Crown: Internet Culture and Clowning

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.