Louisa Melcher had just graduated with a theater degree from Columbia University when she wrote the song that would get her mercilessly roasted on the internet. It wasn’t because of the lyrics — “New York Summer” tells a thoughtful story of a young romance that’s doomed once September rolls around — and it wasn’t exactly because of her singing voice, either. It was because she recorded a song that had fallen into the loosely defined and ever-expanding category of digital artifacts that make us feel slightly embarrassed for the person who created them. Or, to use internet speak, she posted cringe.
“Once I came up with the chorus, I was like, ‘Oh, this is so catchy,’” she tells me over the phone. “I played it for my parents and they were like, ‘You have to record this. It’s so good.’” So she did, and uploaded it to Spotify.
Within minutes, Louisa decided to make a self-deprecating TikTok video that followed a popular trend at the time. “You think you can hurt my feelings? I released this song and it got 9 streams,” she wrote, without noting that it had only been listened to nine times because it had just debuted.
Her fellow TikTokers were not so forgiving. A sampling of the most-liked comments: “Well this song is definitely a song!” “At least you got the 9,” and “There’s a reason lmfao.” And yet from the dogpile, she ended up getting exactly what she wanted, though perhaps not in the way she meant to: views, millions of them, all within the span of just a few days.
Louisa is one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of people to go viral on TikTok not because people enjoyed their videos but because they were embarrassed by them. They’re a part of the internet largely grouped as “cringe,” used as both adjective and noun: content deemed humiliating on account of the poster’s looks, behavior, or talent, and the lack of apparent self-awareness about those things. The top tier of digital cringe is created by people who not only lack self-awareness but lack it enough to share themselves in the hope that other people will be impressed, then fail to realize when the general response is laughter.
Yes, people get bullied online for posting cringe. They can become memes whose virality spirals out of their control and end up as the face of something they never intended to promote. They can also become viral superstars who build huge networks of supportive fans and translate it into a successful entertainment career. Little of that matters to the people who watch them. On TikTok, the line between privately grimacing at a cringeworthy post and contributing to a cruel barrage of comments twisting the knife can be all too tempting to cross.
In 2011, a 13-year-old girl named Rebecca Black was among the first generation of people to unintentionally submit themselves to social media ridicule. With her $2,000 vanity song and accompanying music video, “Friday,” she became an easy target because of the song’s cheap production values and autotuned lyrics with lines like “Fun, fun, fun, fun / Looking forward to the weekend.” Though her experience was marked by years of ridicule, bullying, and lost friendships, the line of overnight viral celebrities that would follow in the years to come was long: Ken Bone for asking a simple question during the 2016 presidential debate, Danielle Bregoli for cursing out her mother on an episode of Dr. Phil (current stage name: Bhad Bhabie). Cringe could come in many flavors, all of it gleefully consumed by the public.
By the 2010s, Americans were primed to appreciate scripted comedy designed to elicit the same feeling. The US remake of The Office, which premiered in 2005 and centered on a socially awkward boss whose desperation for approval made him almost as endearing as he was pathetic, had become a hit. As the show wrapped its final episodes, Office director Ken Kwapis said, “You didn’t hear words like cringe-worthy or cringe-inducing in a complimentary way before [the show]. Now I go to pitch meetings where executives say, ‘I want that cringe-worthy comedy.’” 2009 saw the birth of Cringeworthy.net, which was devoted to cringe-inducing “fails,” the same year Reddit debuted its first cringe discussion board.
It’s why in 2018, when word spread of a new social media platform where gamers, furries, and middle-aged men were sharing thirst traps and easily mockable memes, many people, myself included, delighted in watching YouTube cringe compilations that featured the worst offenders. Even though TikTok had already begun hosting some of the cleverest comedy and most unique voices on the internet, the backbone of TikTok was, from the beginning, cringe.
This wasn’t necessarily bad for business. As Taylor Lorenz explained at the Atlantic in 2018, “For a social platform to successfully grow, it must reach the confused parents, the people who don’t quite know when the camera is recording, the ones who get a little too personal, or who aren’t Instagram-influencer attractive but have the gall to put themselves out there anyway.”
The TikTok algorithm works best when it broadcasts one regular person’s video to millions of people based on what others like, but the problem is that sometimes people like videos because they also sort of hate them. As TikTok has crystallized into a powerful talent discovery app over the past two years, where average teenagers can post a video one day and become a household name the next, it’s easy to forget about its former reputation as a museum of schadenfreude. But many users are noticing an odd return to the olden days.
It happened to Lucas McCutchen, a 24-year-old Austin-based comedian and actor, in October. On his For You page, the home feed that’s personalized to each user, he stumbled across a duet (a function wherein someone replies to another in video form, so that the two become a single side-by-side video). On the right side was a bearded man in a hoodie lip-syncing to audio that said “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” To the left was a middle-aged woman with a margarita glass who lip-synced the reply: “And beards … are a woman’s.” It’s an uncomfortably intimate look at how average people might flirt with each other through a screen, like everyone’s worst nightmare about what their quirky aunt is getting up to online.
“Somehow my For You page is just filled with this kind of content,” he captioned his repost of the video. “I think I may have stayed on those [kinds of videos] too long,” he tells me, “because I thought that was more interesting than the dancing or the cliché of what you might think is popular on TikTok.”
As a certain segment of the app continues to dominate the mainstream consciousness — beautiful young people dancing and lip-syncing together, sometimes in the form of content houses in Los Angeles, also known as “straight TikTok” — many of its users long for what they consider more authentic or “rare” forms of content. It also can be a point of pride: Brags that “I’m on alt TikTok” or “I made it to masonry TikTok” are common, as the For You page is thought to be a referendum on an individual’s taste.
Cringe TikTok, then, is its own subcategory, and it’s suddenly everywhere. Some examples: kink play POVs to overdramatized music videos. “Acting challenges” from people who are not particularly talented actors. A MAGA teen pretends to weep in his bedroom covered by a Trump 2020 flag after the election. A man sits in his car with unsettlingly bright eyes and claims he’s never seen two pretty best friends. A girl films herself posing sexily in an unflattering outfit.
Then come the commenters. On TikTok, the comment section is half the fun; because the most-liked comments automatically populate at the top of the screen, the best (or most brutal) joke wins. On cringey videos, it’s a race to see who can get the top spot.
Louisa remembers how among the thousands of comments on the two “New York Summer” videos that went viral, the vast majority were rehashes of the same easy joke. But they didn’t really hurt her feelings, she says, because in reality, everything was going to plan.
She maintains that “New York Summer” was written in earnest. But Louisa, who commenters quickly discovered had studied comedy and accused her of creating the whole song as a stunt, used the familiar cycle of cringey video plus eager rude commenters to her advantage. “I was kind of like, ‘If this gets to the right side of TikTok, then I think we have something that is super useful for me there,” she says. “I was like, ‘How can I make this blow up even bigger, even if it requires getting more hate? How can I get it out to 300,000 people so that even if 200,000 hate it, I’ll have 100,000 fans?’ It was so devious. No one thought I could possibly be doing it on purpose because there was so much hate directly at me.”
The popularity of Cringe TikTok has created a natural successor: Parody Cringe TikTok. Nate Varrone, a 31-year-old comedian in Los Angeles, joined the platform to watch embarrassing videos from ordinary people, but now he’s one of the genre’s biggest stars. Varrone, who goes by “Mr. Simp Sexual” on TikTok, has created an elaborate backstory for his character, defined by his drawn-on chinstrap, chest hair, creepily soft voice, and frequent lip-biting.
“He’s from Michigan and he had a girlfriend named Melissa that he just wants back so fucking badly,” Varrone explains. “He’s just not in a good place right now, emotionally. I think he uses TikTok to fill the hole in his heart and find a new lover. The horniness this guy has, no human has ever felt that amount of horny in their entire life. It’s like he has a curse. He thinks he has to hook up immediately or else he’ll die.”
It’s the kind of content that needs to be watched to fully experience (and, fair warning, most are deeply uncomfortable), but a sample video is Varrone attempting to sexily eject an egg from his mouth with the caption “C’mere baby : ).” “If I met this guy in real life, I would love it because I’m a comedian and I love meeting weird people. But if I wasn’t a comedian, I would be scared of this guy,” Varrone says, laughing.
Inspiration, of course, comes from the people earnestly posting on the app. “Nothing that any comedian can write or perform will be as funny as some weirdo on the internet just popping off,” he says. “The best accounts are the ones that only have, like, one or two thousand followers that only you and a couple of your friends know about.”
On its face, laughing at Cringe TikTok sounds extremely cruel. But there is something fundamentally human about our desire to watch other people humiliate themselves. Laura Müller-Pinzler, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lübeck in Germany, told Popular Science that vicarious embarrassment can also include the embarrassment we feel when someone is oblivious to their awkwardness, and psychology professor Rowland Miller suggested that our ability to feel vicarious embarrassment is influenced by our ability to empathize with others.
But Melissa Dahl, a senior editor at The Cut and author of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, warns that having empathy does not make you especially good. “Empathy is often an automatic human process,” she told me. “Someone who really enjoys cringe content is probably also a highly empathetic person, but I don’t necessarily mean a really kind person.”
Instead, she posits that watching cringe content for fun actually functions similarly to how nightmares do. “It’s our brains giving us a dose of exposure therapy. Maybe the same thing is happening for people who are drawn to cringey content, [maybe they’re] people whose deepest fear is being ostracized or made to look like a fool.” (This might also explain why so many people can’t bear watching these sorts of videos — as popular as horror movies and true crime podcasts are, plenty of folks can’t stand them.)
Perhaps that’s also why cringe content is so popular among young people. Dahl recalls being in her early 20s and watching cringey YouTube content that was mostly consumed by fellow 20-somethings and teenagers, a time in life devoted to figuring out one’s place in the world. “I think [cringe content] is a controlled way of facing this really deep fear,” she says. “It’s funny to talk about being embarrassed during the year 2020 when there’s such scary things going on. But, like, there’s nothing scarier than being cast out on your own and laughed out of the group!”
However relatable these feelings may be, when we talk about Cringe TikTok we’re not talking about awkward scripted sitcoms or prank calls, content that uses cringe humor for the sake of comedy. We’re talking about real, ordinary people who likely never meant for thousands of people to view and comment on their videos in this manner. Whose videos are considered cringe, and whose aren’t, says far more about the viewers than it does about the creators.
It is not an accident that the majority of viral cringey TikToks are posted by people without the privilege of beauty, wealth, or in-depth knowledge of internet norms. They possess qualities we’ve been taught to deride: the wrong sort of body type, a lack of talent, an unusual hobby, a rundown house. The top comments are usually fairly predictable in their cruelty.
People on the app have spoken about the harm that TikTok comments and duet features have caused them. In 2018, a 21-year-old named Natalia shared a Twitter thread about how bullying on TikTok was “making her lose faith in humanity.” “Being gay and a furry, I’m used to this type of stuff and just let it roll off my shoulder,” she told BuzzFeed. “I try not to let the videos affect me personally, but when I have literally hundreds of videos of children pretending to drink bleach, hang themselves, shoot themselves, and telling me to commit suicide, it starts to get very disturbing.” Not even its most popular creators are immune: “I have never felt more unhappy and self-hatred than after I downloaded TikTok,” tweeted social media star and actress Sissy Sheridan in October.
“I think for the most part when people think of the word ‘cringey,’ they think of some nerdy kid dressing up and LARPing or something. That’s not cringey to me. That’s someone having a great time. If someone’s making fun of that, then they’re just jealous,” says Kurtis Conner, a popular YouTuber who makes videos about Cringe TikTok. “When I think of ‘cringey,’ it’s something like a cop making a thirst trap TikTok being like, ‘Yeah, I just wrongfully imprisoned someone for possession of a small amount of marijuana. That’s so hot, isn’t it?’”
Worst are the TikToks made by people with mental illness or disabilities that commenters label “cringe.” Often, commenters don’t assume that a video might be the result of a physical or mental difference and are quick to fire off the most hurtful joke in the hope that their comment will rise to the top.
This can also have the reverse effect, in which a “cringey” creator ultimately becomes an endearing icon of “alternative” TikTok. Australian creator @superchloeone went viral in November for one video in which she urges people not to hate on Justin Bieber, and has made dozens of similar ones singing to the camera about topics like what it’s like to have bipolar disorder and why you should treat people with disabilities with respect. The vast majority of the most popular comments on her videos are people giving her compliments and genuine words of encouragement.
The opposite trajectory is often typical for creators who amass audiences for being beautiful or talented, like Charli D’Amelio or Bella Poarch, who went massively viral for bobbing her childlike face to hypnotizing music: The first wave of comments will be positive, but as their fame grows, so does the number of people who want to see them fail. That’s the insidious power of the algorithm, and also why it makes the already extremely volatile concept of fame even more so. No one, not established stars and certainly not ordinary people, knows where their video is going to end up, and who will get to decide whether it’s good or, god forbid, cringe.
Fear of posting cringe has created a kind of ouroboros on TikTok. Now the most popular memes are parodies of what a cringey person might do: post videos set to the extremely embarrassing but also sort of catchy 2014 pop-rock song “Geronimo,” or pretend to be humans living as wolf packs. These sorts of videos are invitations to laugh at an imagined person together, a sort of group therapy for everyone to recontextualize their younger selves or most shameful impulses — hopefully, without anyone’s feelings getting hurt.
Louisa has given the concept of cringe plenty of thought after “New York Summer” went viral. “TikTok gives us kind of unprecedented access to other people that we would never meet before,” she says. “It plays on the same thing that Borat or Nathan For You play on. It’s just people marveling at all the different types of humans that exist.”
As she scrolls through the app, she says she’s often struck by the diversity of the human experience. “I’m wondering, like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe people are actually like that. Have I met this person on the street that behaves like this?’ Or, ‘Oh, my god, I can’t believe people are so brash and hurtful in the comments.’” Or, she adds, “Is it all a joke?” It’s never been more difficult to tell. But perhaps that’s the fun of it.