COVID’s Most Notable Casualty: Good Riddance, Cringe Culture!

Cringe culture, loosely defined (by a combination of myself and urban dictionary) – is the emergent trend of the last 10 years or so where social media users ridicule, judge, or belittle others, usually for doing something completely harmless – by labelling them and/or their interest ‘cringe’.

I think the most common form of this I’ve observed is the term ‘basic’ used as an insult. When there’s a group of interests and characteristics that are common or well-liked by a bunch of people, that constitutes as ‘basic’ at a certain level of popularity. At this point, it starts to lose popularity. A nondescript amount of time passes, and the “cringe” thing re-gains popularity. It goes through this cycle over and over. The latest example I can think of is wearing skinny jeans. They’ll be back the same way mom jeans came back.

For the last few years, I’ve pumped the gas on the sentence “let people enjoy things!”, which I truly try to stand by, but alas – the occasional unshared interest will pop up in my feed, and I’ll catch myself judging a random stranger for what they choose to post.

However – having been cooped up in those oh-so-interesting quarantined times last year led me to an observation: people got significantly more cringy online. I’m willing to bet that it’s the result of people only being able to connect via social media that caused them to be more authentic in a time where they had no other options.

A number of people I know started listening to music they liked when they were younger and gawky – including me. How many people do you know who re-entered their 1D, 5SOS, Taylor Swift or emo phases? A few, right? My most listened to artist on Spotify last year was Taylor Swift, who dethroned Frank Ocean’s 3-year reign, and I wish I could say it was because of the new albums – but it wasn’t. It was me listening to the Speak Now album every week in March-May.

I’m going to go right ahead and say that the reason for this is psychological regression – in times of heightened anxiety and danger, people momentarily regress to a time where they felt free from this threat. I think it’s safe to say the pandemic was a pretty significant threat, and that most of us felt safer when 1D were together and Taylor Swift was a country artist.

But in a way, it’s nice. We’ve become more open about ourselves and more accepting of others online, and probably offline too. We’ve started to actively aim for authenticity online (hence the rise of the “casual instagram” feed). Global crises surely have a way of reminding people what’s important and what’s not. For a lot of people I’m sure the pandemic forced them to be truly alone with themselves for the first time, which is a really important experience in terms of self-worth. Sure, we didn’t get to go to Europe and “find ourselves”, but it’s something.

On the whole, young people dealt with the pandemic reasonably well in terms of mental health WHILE it was happening, but I’ve seen a few reports saying that the real strain young people are facing is the readjusting back to “life as normal”. People are hesitant to travel, go out, be in crowded areas, etc… The pandemic taught us not to take our small freedoms for granted, but it also created alot of uncertainty around things that seemed entirely achievable beforehand.

With all that in mind, I think it’s more important than ever to be kind to people, don’t put them down for what makes them happy. Obviously, do no harm but take no shit, but after a year of staying home and putting your own wishes on hold for the good of society, I’m sure it takes enormous courage to start pursuing what you want for yourself again. Take the acceptance and growth you developed online last year out into the real world as restrictions ease.