Posted on December 28, 2023 in Technology

The Awareness of Future Cringe Past

The Concept of Cringe

What is ‘cringe’? To cringe is to jerk away from a negative stimuli – accidentally getting a papercut between your fingers, or hearing the sound of nails on chalkboard, may make you cringe.

Sometime in the 2000s, a new definition of cringe arose, and forums sprung up trying to catalog it. This new cringe focuses on secondhand embarrassment over actual, physical discomfort: it’s the awkward text to a crush that gets rejected outright. It’s the kid in a college-level presentation class trying to get their group members to theme the project after an unrelated kid’s TV show. It’s someone wearing something in public that breaks rules everyone else is trying to follow. While shame and embarrassment are useful emotions almost anywhere else, the concept of cringe in the new panopticon created by modern social media and high-definition phone cameras is sucking the joy out of memes. The next generation is not ready to be made fun of by people who they respect.

“Millennial Humor” and “This is What Gen Alpha Will Make Fun of Us For”

Gen Z is effectively building a prison made of cringe and ensuring that nobody will escape it, using social media. One comment, one foot, is calling I Can Haz Cheezburger speak annoying and cringe. Another comment, the other foot, is calling someone the Rizzler, and spamming fire emojis. Both feet are straddling a hole in the ground, an abyss that can’t be looked into because the abyss – Nietzsche’s final, paralyzing frontier of awareness – will look back. That hole contains the phrase “this is what gen Alpha will make fun of us for”.

Some Gen Zers have looked into the abyss. The abyss looks back. The future looks back. They, themselves, but younger and meaner and willing to make a joke at their older selves’ expense, looks back at them and sneers. Their jokes are cringe. Their clothes are cringe and make them look cringe. The way they take their selfies in public is cringe. The easily identifiable way that they speak signals to the next generation that they may say something neocringe if prodded right. There’s no escaping now that phones are everywhere, and everyone seems to be filming. They will, one day, have a haircut that turns cringe. They know all of this because the previous generation, Millennials, are subjected to the same treatment. The introduction of the “Millennial Pause” gave ammo to an audience that cares about age so much that identifying Millennials is a sport now, even for other Millennials. Of course that little pause is no big deal, but it exists. The fire emoji, too, will one day be no big deal, but exist, and signal out to Gen Alpha that they’re talking to someone older than them. There’s some comment to be made about how much Americans love the idea of youth. Now, if someone sticks out with dated humor or an awkward pause, they’re a target – they are expected to look and act young enough to blend in with the next generation (which means understanding the jokes and dressing like them too) or risk being singled out as cringe.

This awareness that trendy things age poorly is so paralyzing that some teens are trying to remove themselves from the memery without fully leaving social media. It’s the final stage of irony poisoning, where doing cringey things ironically is still too close to being cringe, and so is just existing (unironically and contemporaneously) with trends in photos or videos, so the people who’d otherwise be having fun making jokes or dancing their meme dances are instead opting to say “this joke won’t be nearly as funny when it’s no longer fresh” as if that’s a revelation. The other option is posting cringe and making jokes that are only funny for right now; if someone wants to stay young and funny forever, they can’t participate. They try to warn the other people outside their prison that one day they’ll be cringe, as though they can somehow stop the embarrassment of embracing popular trends by stopping the trend itself from manifesting with the power of irony and self-awareness, but it’s always already too late. Mullets are on a comeback, and some day the people who had them will look back at those photos and laugh.

To be cringe is to be free. Embrace the cringe. Pause awkwardly. Say ‘Rizzler’ out loud. Keep an ugly haircut and a sage-colored couch, and enjoy existence freed from the dichotomy of cringe and noncringe.