A t first, the signs were subtle. There was the “I am cringe, but I am free” meme, and the T-shirts from Gen Z e-commerce brand OGBFF emblazoned with “Too cringe for NY, too based for LA.” Niche creators like Neve Pratt (awkward dad-joker) and Michael Thomas White (heartfelt himbo) began to amass cult fandoms by being authentically themselves. So-called POV TikTokers such as Devin Caherly and Emma Norton, who act out imaginary skits and were once viciously bashed by commenters, are now being embraced by the entertainment world, getting brand deals, and walking red carpets. Suddenly, the internet has become pro-cringe.
Cringe content — any video, photo, or text post that expresses a deep earnestness and sincerity — comes in many varieties. There are the overly expressive thirst traps, the awkward dance videos, the cosplay challenges, the bad lip-syncs. For much of the internet’s history, “cringe” has been an insult. But now, a shift is underway. The deep nihilism that defined the internet from 2018 to 2022 has been replaced with outright optimism. And rather than shy away, Gen Z creators are embracing it — and amassing millions of fans in the process.
“At some point, people became so jaded with the hyper-criticisms of the internet and all the contrarianism,” says Griffin Maxwell Brooks, a 22-year-old TikTok creator with 1.2 million followers. “You have to do whatever you want. If people think you’re cringey, then odds are what you’re doing is of value.”
Cringe didn’t exactly become cool overnight. Joshua Citarella, an online-culture researcher and Twitch streamer, says that the past few years set the stage for its resurgence. “Irony is a symptom of late-capitalist nihilism, and cringe is the antidote to that,” he says. After the positivity on the internet throughout social media’s early years, many young people became deeply detached during the Trump era. Pessimism reigned in meme culture, and YouTubers amassed millions of followers by mocking creators who committed the cardinal sin of being too earnest or embarrassing online.
Then, the pandemic hit, and suddenly everyone was pushed online. Many young people turned to apps like TikTok for entertainment, and soon began posting themselves. While they previously may have been afraid to be vulnerable on the internet, lest they be mocked at school, when classes moved online they finally felt free to express their true selves and build community around the things they actually cared about.
“Quarantine was a pivotal moment,” says Brooklynne Webb, an 18-year-old TikTok star with 10.6 million followers who rose to fame posting POV videos deemed by many to be cringe for their over-the-top expressiveness. “Once I realized I wasn’t going to be seeing these people [from school] in person, it let me be able to let loose and post this more-silly content.” When the world began opening back up, many creators never looked back.
Kareem Rahma, a content creator and comedian in New York who developed and hosts a TikTok show called “Keep the Meter Running” — where he conducts Anthony Bourdain-style interviews with cab drivers, asking them about their life stories, why they work so hard, and how they find happiness — credits his success to leaning into sincerity. “I think the cringe movement is doing whatever the fuck you want and not caring what people think,” he says. “Am I cringey? Yes. Do I care? Absolutely not.”
Rahma says that as a millennial, he spent years producing content for an internet saturated with irony. “It was not cool to have beliefs or feel strongly about anything,” he says. “It was a general environment of hopelessness that people adopted as a way of insulating or protecting themselves from the possibility of failure. When everyone is ironic and an edgelord, it loses its edge.” Now, he adds, “to see people who really do enjoy things and make themselves vulnerable is a really radical thing.”
While content creators have led the charge, many in broader Gen Z are embracing this optimism. Ethan Kring, 23, founded Here, a cause-based media and events company in Los Angeles that helps members of Gen Z get involved with nonprofits related to issues they care about. He says that the simple idea of caring about things is hugely resonant right now among his peers.
“Our phones are constantly bombarding us with potential global catastrophes. Cringe creates a bridge that allows us to feel less alone,” he says. “It’s a universal language, like laughter, a way for us to invite people in rather than exclude people. It’s like, ‘Why choose to be separate in this universal suffering, when we can connect with people off the idea that we’re all cringe?’”
Many young people are also reevaluating what once constituted cringe, attributing use of the term to unacknowledged bigotry more than just a rejection of sincerity. Some niche communities, such as furries, anime fans, and fetish groups, who were once mocked on social media, have since amassed cultural power that has launched them into the mainstream.
“I felt like what people called cringe was anything not conforming to social norms,” says Brooks, who uses gender-neutral pronouns. Now, they embrace their outgoing personality and creative fashion choices, such as wearing a headlamp as an accessory. “It made me connect the dots between homophobia, transphobia, and the word ‘cringe.’ [Now], I weaponize my own embarrassment to make people feel more comfortable wearing whatever they want.”
Leia Jospé, a videographer for HBO’s How to With John Wilson, has been dubbed the internet’s leading “curator of cringe” for her Instagram account where she compiles the best of the genre. “There’s so much negativity in the world, it feels like a breath of fresh air,” she says. “I think earnestness is pretty brave, and it takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there. I’m a millennial and I feel like my generation is obsessed with self-awareness, and a lot of things keep us from doing things we love. Whereas Gen Z is on this post-cringe thing — they know they’re cringe but don’t care.”
It doesn’t hurt that, with this shift, cringe content has begun to perform incredibly well. Videos including the hashtag #cringe have amassed more than 40.5 billion collective views on TikTok. “You can see this shift of people that are earnest on TikTok are doing really well,” says Jospé. “They get a lot of interactions. They’re hitting a nerve with a bunch of other young people.”
When Webb, the POV TikToker, released a pop song last year titled “My Crown,” she purposefully overexaggerated her facial expressions in her music video and leaned hard into sincerity. It paid off, and the song became a hit on TikTok and Spotify. “It was meant to be cringey, to get people talking,” she says.
With the cultural shift, being overly heartfelt has become a very effective way to build an audience and monetize. “Being a little bit more cringey and out of the norm is what grabs people’s attention,” says Webb. “I noticed my social media probably doing the worst in terms of numbers when I was taking it far too seriously. When I was just having fun and being silly, that’s when I saw my content doing better.” Jack Corbett, 25, a TikTok creator who makes videos for NPR’s Planet Money, says he wouldn’t have seen a fraction of the success he’s had without embracing cringe. “It’s just so lame to see people ripping on weird people out there being themselves,” he says. “There was a good tweet I saw that said, ‘Don’t kill a part of you that’s cringe, kill the part of you that cringes.’”