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Toward a unified theory of “millennial cringe”

Remember when “epic bacon” was the height of comedy?

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Thirteen years ago, a man was sitting at the Denver airport. Bored, he turned his attention to his favorite website: “I see a lot of people on laptops around using the free wifi,” he wrote on the popular subreddit r/AskReddit. “Just on the off chance, any fellow Redditors here?”

What followed was a lively exchange among the platform’s most ardent superusers deciding how best to identify a fellow Reddit obsessive in the “real world.” The phrase they landed on combined several pieces of mid-aughts message board slang and coded inside jokes, yet, crucially, was otherwise meaningless: “The narwhal bacons at midnight.”

Today, this phrase is more likely to elicit groans and sighs rather than excitable recognition from anyone who was active on Reddit in 2009. That’s because “the narwhal bacons at midnight” has become a relic of an era nearly everyone who spends time on the internet feels deeply embarrassed by, whether they participated in it or not. Count it among the similarly mortifying phenomena of ironic finger mustache tattoos, job listings for “software ninjas,” the wildly popular YouTube channel Epic Meal Time, rage comics, idolizing Ron Swanson, Advice Animal memes, and dogespeak (“much feels” “very art”) and in particular the tone they’re associated with — hyperbolic, cutesy to the point of smarminess, and stuffed with seemingly “random” nouns. In short, it’s cringe.

Know Your Meme

“Cringe” is a shortened form of “cringey,” which itself is a shortened form of “cringeworthy,” referring to the embarrassment (often the secondhand kind) of witnessing something that is awkward, uncomfortable, passé, or cliché. Cringe content — whether created in earnest or as parodies of earnest cringe content — makes up an astonishingly large portion of the social internet; it combines everything from hysterical Twitter scolds to Instagram thirst traps to the entirety of the TikTok Discover page. Cringe may only exist in the eye of the beholder, but the “epic bacon” extended universe that dominated from the mid-aughts to the mid-2010s is its inarguable emblem.

How did “epic bacon” go from a dominant mode of communicating online to a parody of washed 30- and 40-somethings who still talk about their Hogwarts houses? The answer is more complicated than “millennials got old.” The internet got bigger and easier to join; algorithms determined more of what we saw and did on it; groups of people learned how to wield irony as a weapon on a macro scale; the pace at which culture evolved sped up so that only those who spent all their time online could parse through the layers. The paradoxes inherent in the system got a lot trickier to navigate. “Bacon” simply couldn’t contain it all, no matter how epic.

First, a note on the whole “generational warfare” thing: It is not real, and it is not entirely useful beyond “young people are always going to make fun of old people and old people will always complain about them in return.” When people refer to “Gen Z humor” or “TikTok humor,” what they’re really talking about is the chaotic, meaningless-seeming mishmashes of various references that are impenetrable to anyone not chronically online. But that’s just an extension of what the Washington Post once dubbed “millennial humor,” which should actually be called “Gen X humor,” considering the ages of the first internet forum posters who realized that weird, meaningless references made for good comedy. Instead, in her book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, the internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch has what I think is a far better way of categorizing internet users: She divides people according to when they truly “got online.”

The first group, which she calls “Old Internet People” were on the early forums and message boards of the late 1990s and early 2000s: Usenet, Something Awful, or 4chan (back before it carried the alt-right connotations it does now), for instance. They’re the ones who laid the foundations for internet vernacular as we know it; they tested the limits for what was and wasn’t acceptable on the web and usually interacted in complete anonymity. The internet, then, was for connecting with strangers who cared about the same topics as you did, people who might become close friends but whose real names you might never know.

A few years later, there came a much, much larger group of users that McCulloch calls “Full Internet People,” or those who got online at the dawn of more user-friendly technology like AOL, AIM, MSN Messenger, MySpace, or LiveJournal in the early-to-mid 2000s. They’re people, like McCulloch and me, who mostly used the internet to connect with people we already knew in real life and saw it as a novelty.

Internet humor, as developed by this group, was defined by that novelty: the excitement of doing regular things — talking to friends, reading interesting stories, watching something funny — except that you were online. YouTube, Reddit, and the zillions of hyper-niche goof-off websites (Fuck My Life, where users would post funny but unfortunate anecdotes; Texts From Last Night, a place to put screenshots of drunk texts; the cat meme factory I Can Has Cheezburger; Awkward Family Photos, to name a few) didn’t yet have baked-in cultural norms you were expected to adhere to; people were creating them in the moment. And however dorky these places were, they still held something of a “secret club” vibe.

Recall, for example, the era where calling oneself a “nerd” suddenly became something of a humblebrag, which happened around the same time that comic book superheroes made for box office gold. The usage may have started with Silicon Valley techies, but it was popularized by early users of the technologies they created, people who defined themselves online by their obsessive interests. “[Internet] culture celebrates being a nerd — it’s nerdy and random for the sake of being nerdy and random, making references for the sake of references,” says Don Caldwell, the editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme, where he’s been cataloging viral internet phenomena for the past 12 years.

This might explain the performative formality of much of “LOLspeak,” or the winkingly silly tone of early internet discourse; consider phrases like “you, sir, have won the internet” or “[tips fedora]” or its inverse, the performative infantilization of “oh hai!” or the later “doggo.” “The narwhal bacons at midnight” is perhaps the prime example of such humor: quirky and weird but ultimately wholesome. That there is zero edge to LOLspeak is part of what makes it cringe, in the same way watching people who are bad at improv do improv is cringe. There is an earnestness, a lack of self-awareness, an element of theater-kiddom to it. “We’re dealing with a time on the early internet before people had to navigate through a million layers of irony to understand a meme,” Caldwell says.

Instead, the natural gatekeeping within communities came from the fact that you were there at all, not necessarily the impenetrability of the memes. The conversations that were happening on Reddit were not, for the most part, simultaneously happening on YouTube or Twitter or Tumblr, but a new user to any of these platforms likely wouldn’t have too much trouble parsing the language. You needn’t be part of the old guard of Something Awful admins to understand a rage comic or wojak meme, for instance, and you don’t have to be chronically online to laugh at ultra-viral internet videos like “Charlie Bit My Finger,”End of Ze World,” or 2006’s iconic “Shoes,” a song about a shopping-obsessed teen girl whose parents just don’t understand. These sorts of internet shorts didn’t look like anything else in mainstream media at the time; they were, physically and spiritually, online.

But by the time “being online” became the default mode (by 2011, most Americans were on Facebook), “being online” just wasn’t special enough. Which brings us to the third group coined by McCulloch: the “Post Internet People,” or folks who came to the internet after the cultural significance of the social media monoliths we live with now — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and the like — had already been well-established. This group arrived at an internet with few borders, an internet their parents (or children, if they were older) were likely already on, and a place where they were accustomed to lack of anonymity (and found their own ways of getting around it). “All of these references and jokes that were once maintained and secured within micro-communities were now entering the spaces where our parents hung out,” says Caldwell. “By 2014, platforms like Facebook and YouTube were so ubiquitous that all the Animal Advice memes and jokes had been shared to death. Anybody who was extremely online was jaded by the mainstreaming of online humor.”

2014 was a turning point for internet culture. It was the year of Gamergate, the beginning of the 2016 election cycle, the year of the BuzzFeed quiz, the Ice Bucket Challenge, the year that someone on r/OutOfTheLoop, a subreddit devoted to poking fun at out-of-touch Reddit users, said of “the narwhal bacons at midnight”: “This is like looking back at our childhood and cringing at the stupid stuff we did.” By that point, “epic bacon” had become a punchline on College Humor, a symbol of a more innocent time before the internet’s most active users had seen what it could become.

The next phase of internet comedy, however, had long been underway. In the early aughts, legendary posters on the Something Awful forum “Fuck You and Die” had developed a mode of humor that practically defied description: “It was, ultimately, just being subversive,” a former admin told Vice. “There’s a lot of contrarianism, there’s a lot of trying to antagonize each other. It was a little bit of being crude, being shocking, things like that. But it was never any one thing.” People would pretend to be “illiterate, really serious” teenagers and insult each other, “but it was not a thing where you were calling the SWAT team to people’s houses,” another admin said. Essentially, it was shitposting, or the act of publishing irrelevant or intentionally bad content.

By the early 2010s, many of Something Awful’s most devoted members had decamped for either Twitter (usually if they were more left-leaning) to create what has since become referred to as “Weird Twitter” or 4chan (if they leaned right), says Nathan Allebach, a creative director and content creator who covers internet history. On both sites, posters used troll humor that acted as a method of gatekeeping anyone who wasn’t in on the joke, but only one of those sites was the recruiting ground for a deeply misogynistic and violent backlash against women on the internet (even though much of what ensued would play out on Twitter). Gamergate, the yearlong harassment campaign aimed at prominent women in the video game industry and anyone who appeared to support them, was a watershed moment for what later became known as the alt-right, and provided a blueprint for silencing others with mass harassment and troll campaigns.

The tactics mobilized by Gamergate have been honed by countless bad-faith campaigns since then, but also by fan armies who have the power to derail any topic by flooding it with paeans to their favorite pop star or band. Not all of it has been in order to silence critics; standoms have jammed predatory police apps by submitting fancams of K-pop stars and thwarted trending white supremacist hashtags, creating a new type of humor in its wake.

It’s easy to argue, as plenty have, that the ironification of internet culture has been a net negative for society. But the tough thing about criticizing shitposting is that the more you rail against it, the funnier it gets. Rather than making everything around it feel meaningless, what tends to happen is that the very systems internet irony criticizes begin to use it for profit. In 2017, Allebach’s marketing agency was working with the frozen meat brand Steak-Umms. His job? Make Steak-Umms sound cool on Twitter. So he did what other food companies — Wendy’s, Moon Pie, Hostess — were experimenting with at the time, which was to play with the conventions of “Weird Twitter.” Suddenly we were living in a world in which, say, SunnyD was tweeting stuff like “I can’t do this anymore” with absolutely zero context. Thus, the weird, surrealist humor becomes cringe in its own way, ripe for the kind of parody it’s designed to be immune to.

There is an entire genre on TikTok devoted to mocking people who still use “epic bacon” humor (one of its most prolific posters, @blizz988, even has a Cameo account where you can custom order his parodies of straight white millennial dudes who love Marvel, Funko Pops, and caption their Instagrams with “so I did a thing”). “Current internet humor is more or less mockery,” says Allebach. “It’s an easy way to create more and more content based around a stereotype.”

As passé and smarmy as “epic bacon” or “doggo floofer” LOLspeak is, it’s not as if some people don’t still find it funny. Very few modes of humor ever truly die on the web; they just lose relevance. Just as they did with Antoine Dodson’s “Bed Intruder Song” more than a decade ago, YouTube parodists The Gregory Brothers are still to this day creating auto-tuned bangers out of cute viral moments. (The “It’s Corn!” song about the Corn Kid? That was them.) This is undeniably “epic bacon” behavior, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.

The internet, or, more specifically, the act of consuming vast amounts of algorithmically driven content, has broken and hardened us; it has made us feel as if we are laughing at things from five or 10 or even one year ago, that means we are embarrassing and washed. The pace of the internet is now long past “imagine explaining this to a pilgrim”; we’re at “imagine explaining this to someone three weeks ago.” Good comedy, though, shouldn’t have to adhere to the frenetic pace at which the internet runs. “You might build an entirely new community out of what you feel like is a niche genre of comedy, but really it was probably done 10 years ago and people forgot or grew out of it,” says Allebach. “All the stuff that tries to be different ultimately ends up being the same. Once you hit the postmodern, ironic style we’ve already run through, everything just cycles around again.”

It’s worth asking what, really, is the value of comedy that must be constantly discarded and reinvented in order to remain funny? Perhaps, looking back, we should consider “millennial cringe” as less of an embarrassing phase we’d rather forget and more like the last gasp of what humor on the internet looked like before it became impossible to keep up with it.

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