As defined by an Urban Dictionary user, cringe culture is: “making fun of people and/or insulting them by calling them ‘cringey’ or ‘cringe’ for doing something which doesn’t harm or somehow insult anyone nor anything.” This internet subculture’s origins can be traced back to subreddits like r/cringe or r/cringepics, where people would share other people’s “cringy” content to make fun of it en masse. Reposting and sharing this content is ultimately a harmful form of entertainment and a cheap attempt at humor.
Cringe culture is not new. It is the reason why shows like “America’s Funniest Home Videos” are so popular and why Tommy Wiseau’s objectively terrible film, “The Room,” skyrocketed to fame. Laughing at others has always been a source of humor for people.
However, like many things, cringe culture has become overblown with the advent of the internet. All of a sudden, anyone can share anything and everything. Simultaneously, users are able to speak recklessly and without consequence. These two factors have combined to create a new and “edgy” sense of internet humor that revolves around making fun of people that seem, well, different.
I myself have participated in this culture. In 2015, the heyday of short-form video sharing service Vine, I often watched vines made by @singinggirl. Her earnest 6-second clips of her covers of popular songs quickly went viral on the platform. People, myself included, deemed her singing to be terrible or “cringy,” and her comments were flooded with hate. Looking back, I realize that I was contributing to a toxic mentality simply by sharing her content.
Even now, much of the Youtube content I consume is from “commentary channels” like that of Tech’s own Danny Gonzalez’s or Cody Ko’s, whose claim to fame is a series called “THAT’S CRINGE.” These channels focus their commentary on strange internet users and subgroups on platforms like Instagram, Youtube and Tik Tok. Of course, there is a difference between critiquing people who put their content up with the expectation of criticism, versus making fun of private individuals.
That is the heart of the problem with cringe culture — usually the people getting made fun of are harmless, just too awkward or earnest to exist on the ironic and sarcastic world of the internet. Most often, this thinly veiled bullying is aimed at children, the queer community, women and especially neurodivergent and disabled people.
As a result of this bullying, no one is allowed to just have genuine interests anymore — it is safer to be ironic and cynical online. Cringe culture also encourages suicide jokes and self-hatred. People, especially children, are forced to limit their personal expression and creativity for fear of being included in a cringe compilation.
Cringe culture is not only harmful to the person being bullied, but also the viewers of the “cringe” content. It only serves to compound the de-empathizing effect of social media; we rationalize treating other humans as objects of entertainment instead of people.
Thankfully, I would say that cringe culture is on the decline. There are posts circulating popular social media sites that say things like “cringe culture is a hate group against autistic people and other people with special interests” and “you are allowed to enjoy things that people deem ‘childish.’” There seems to be a growing sentiment to just let people be themselves.
So next time you see someone’s earnest content going viral for being “cringy,” do not repost it and definitely do not comment negative things. And maybe next time you decide not to share something with the world because it is not “cool” enough, just share it anyway. Life is too short to not