The Hierarchy Of Cringe

Cripples and lovely women are both tired of being looked at, they are weary of an existence that involves constantly being observed, they feel hemmed in; and they return the gaze by means of that very existence itself. The one who really looks is the one who wins.

The world is teeming with unnecessary people. It is God’s decision that I fight. As knight of honor, as a protector of the seal. I sacrifice myself to the blood of criminals.

horny people have no rights. horny people are NOT protected under the constitution. if you are horny i WILL find you and then you will be sorry buster. unfollow me right fucking now if you are horny, have ever been horny, or ever will be horny. this is not a joke. please leave.

The Internet is for many things, but one of them is posting cringe. Most people post cringe, but more importantly anything that people post can in theory be cringe to the arbitrary observer. To at least one person reading this post, this post itself is cringe! That isn’t anything new or special. Sturgeon’s Law reigns supreme. And what Sturgeon’s Law doesn’t cover, Bourdieu’s principle of distinction does. But the Internet makes cringe play out a bit differently. You see, the Internet is ostensibly an egalitarian place. Everyone is supposed to be welcome. And many social network communities tend to subscribe at least officially to a vaguely liberal-ish doctrine of acceptance for all kinds of people, practices, and personalities. The reality is very different, but its important to stipulate why. If you say “that furry is a degenerate” you will be accused of discrimination. Don’t slut-shame, don’t kink-shame, don’t gatekeep. Stop being a hater, turn that frown upside down! But if you say “that furry is cringe” you are far less likely to encounter as much opposition. Because everyone is free to be you and me, man. Except if you’re cringe. Cringe is the root of all evil. Why is being cringe such a big deal? Does someone posting cringe really injure anyone else except the cringe poster? Where is the negative externality?

The ironic copypasta “horny people have no rights” sums it up. Horny people on the Internet are, at the very minimum, public nuisances. You see them on your social media timeline doing horny things such as posting horny social media content, shamelessly wolf-whistling at other social media users, or maybe even replying to your posts with a horny attitude. It’s like being trapped in a room with someone as they do something blatantly obscene without taking into account that everyone else is watching them. The statement “horny people are NOT protected under the constitution” is not meant to be taken literally, but it is taken seriously because being horny online is cringe. You’re killing the vibe! Go take your horny self somewhere else! Begone, horny poster! But since most people have been horny at least some time in their life – and perhaps some trace of it will be visible online – this quickly breaks down in application. Similarly, the omnipresence and ubiquity of cringey content online means that everyone is cringe but no one wants to feel like they are cringe. So some cringe must be more cringe than other cringe. All cringe is not created equal. This is where the Hierarchy of Cringe comes in. The Hierarchy of Cringe is the informal way that online communities sort out what cringe collective attention must be devoted to mocking.

Being cringe is not so bad if you can find someone that is more cringe. And the Internet always supplies people that are more cringe, at least subjectively. The Hierarchy of Cringe manifests differently across various communities, and also plays out differently over time even within the same places. Still, an illustrative example will suffice. RationalThinker69 did an interesting piece last year on the ecology of Something Awful’s Helldump Forum in which he noted that the forum invoked the “perpetual and overwhelming threat of a “shit poster underclass” that needed to be “trimmed and controlled by their betters.” The mechanism was to bait some poor sucker without much social tact or self-awareness into eventually embarrassing themselves or getting banned. This isn’t necessarily specific to Helldump, after all a lot of other Internet forums with wildly different governance mechanisms demand that posters be intimately aware of the forum’s post history and all possible responses to their posts based on that history. And, of course, forums often viciously punish anyone that fails the meta self-awareness test. But, as RationalThinker69 noted, Helldump created a “Maoist environment” in which people denounced other posters to preserve their own social position within the forum.

For many reasons, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook are optimized for constantly surfacing new examples of cringe posts to be collectively mocked. It’s easy to create high-follower accounts solely for seeking out cringey posts and exposing them to the scorn of large numbers of people. These accounts can be parlayed into jobs in content farming, because mobilizing outrage against cringe is a media business model. Hateclick publishing is the subtle art of deliberately releasing cringe content in order to get people yelling “damn, would you take a look at this cringe – how the hell did someone get that published?!” I’ve participated in these cringe-mocking fests. You probably have too, actively or passively. Laughing at cringe on the Internet is as natural as breathing. If you think you haven’t, you probably are not being honest with yourself. The cycle of cringe-mocking is like the cycle of violence in a civil war. It’s self-sustaining because of the environment and the incentives. Feeling disgust, outrage, or simple dislike of cringe is as old as human culture itself. And as I’ve previously noted there is a lot about how the Internet works that augments it. But I’ve been using “Internet” and “social media” interchangeably so far.

It’s time that I stopped doing so because there is something very specific to social media about how cringe is perceived. I still haven’t explained something rather important about the mental model that goes into talking about cringe. This by necessity requires a sustained digression from the object-level discussion of cringe into the meta-cringe. On social media people’s perceptions of cringe are the result of internalizing the actual logical and mechanical functions of social network software. On Reddit, “starter pack” memes are a popular folk representation of how recommendation systems work. The typical starter pack meme depicts a collection of objects and statements loosely related to a character archetype or situation. For example, this “Environmentally Conscious Bro Starter Pack” depicts a young man that cares about the environment and the various signifers associated with him. We see his man-bun, his tasty trail munch bar, his attire, his drinks, his sneakers, and his dreadlocked girlfriend.

Starter pack memes mimic the “you may like this” suggestions of online platforms. They mentally autocomplete all of the possible associations the crowd generates for a particular stylized archetype. As with TVTropes, they exemplify how we live in a “database era” distinguished by the erosion of structured content and the “grand narratives” associated with them. These are replaced by micro-narratives composed out of collections of primitive elements that can be re-arranged to satisfy consumer desires. This sociological transformation goes remarkably well with social networks, because social networks tend to erode the fiction of a coherent self and replace it with a datafied self revealed to us via the digital exhaust our online activity generates. Interior thoughts and feelings are no longer the key to sincerity and authenticity, what matters is what a software program “reveals” to you about who you are. Your personality, sliced and diced into the baseline mechanics of your online activity, allows social networks to generate a digital clone that anticipates how you react to online content. And in turn this sets up a feedback loop, where your past actions end up feeding into your present behavior.

Writing at The Point, J.E. Smith describes how this data self influences perceptions of cringe:

There are memes circulating that are known as “bingo cards,” in which each square is filled with a typical statement or trait of a person who belongs to a given constituency, a mouth-breathing mom’s-basement-dwelling Reddit-using Men’s Rights Activist, for example, or, say, an unctuous white male ally of POC feminism. The idea is that within this grid there is an exhaustive and as it were a priori tabulation, deduced like Kant’s categories of the understanding, of all the possible moves a member of one of these groups might make, and whenever the poor sap tries to state his considered view, his opponent need only pull out the table and point to the corresponding box, thus revealing to him that it is not actually a considered view at all, but only an algorithmically predictable bit of output from the particular program he is running. The sap is sapped of his subjectivity, of his belief that he, properly speaking, has views at all. Who has not found themselves thrust into the uncomfortable position just described, of being told that what we thought were our considered beliefs are in fact something else entirely?

…I have read that Tinder users agree that one should “swipe left’” (i.e. reject) on any prospective mate or hookup who proclaims a fondness for, among other writers, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway or William S. Burroughs. I couldn’t care less about the first two of these, but Burroughs is very important to me. He played a vital role in shaping how I see the world (Cities of the Red Night, in particular), and I would want any person with whom I spend much time communicating to know this. I believe I have good reasons for valuing him, and would be happy to talk about these reasons. I experience my love of Burroughs as singular and irreducible, but I am given to know, when I check in on the discourse, that I only feel this way because I am running a bad algorithm.

Those who find Smith’s implied political and cultural slant distasteful – or just cringe – should reflect on how much this echoes the similar insult of “NPC.” Non-player characters (NPCs) insults are leveled at leftists, progressives, and liberals, depicting them as mindless creatures as mechanical as the people the player character talks to at the tavern in role-playing games. No matter the situation, the NPC will respond with prewritten dialogue triggered by a designated input. Often solely for the purpose of helping the player character move along. “There are strange noises in the old dwarf mine to the north, I heard that orcs and dark elves may have set up camp.” All these insults ultimately denote the same kind of person – an empty, uncultured, and vapid boor with no original thoughts or feelings. Or, in the case of the NPC, an automaton running a pre-programmed script (or worse, a compiled binary of pre-programmed source code). The problem is that the more that we participate in online social networks, the more truth that is attached to the stereotype. After all, the experience of being on social networks leaves a bad taste in your mouth. You know on some level that your behavior is predictable, programmable, and antithetical to your self-concept as an independent individual.

Is there any truth to that? Probably yes. Why do you post to begin with? The secret to gambling – an analogous activity – is the sublime beauty of variable-reward reinforcement schedules. You may lose a lot of money at the slot machine, but as long as you get a payout every now and then its enough to keep you hoping you’ll get another. You never really know when the next reward is coming. Its not really clear that Skinner box behavior shaping is actually what keeps you online – another likely motivation is simply that its harder and harder not to as online swallows up the “real” world and your social and professional contacts. But that’s not the issue. The machinelike process of engaging with social media is sufficient to produce an unhappy consciousness that stems from self-loathing about one’s own participation in a system that affords no special privileges to being human, blurs the distinction between human and machine, and recasts everything fed into it into networks and data. This self-loathing is matched with a powerful cynicism about a fake world filled with fake people and populated by fake beliefs and sentiments. Everything’s fake, everyone’s a bot, and you can’t shake the nagging suspicion that you’re a fake bot too.

But all of this software-induced discontent can be displaced at least temporarily. Because someone has posted cringe! By unconsciously internalizing the logic of starter packs and bingo cards, individual cringe posts are transformed into an endless supply of perpetually mixed and remixed cringe archetypes. What results is not so much the familiar mechanisms of habitus understood by Bourdieu and other sociologists, but rather hyper-accelerated Bourdieu on meth. The fact that the Hierarchy of Cringe is at heart unstable, mutable, and contested is what works so well in its favor. You never really know when you are due to slip down a few notches so you’re always trying to climb up. I really don’t like how much of my own behavior this outlined process accurately models. But then again it wouldn’t be so powerful if it wasn’t so pervasive of an influence on the unconscious level. I posted cringe in mocking other people that posted cringe, but such is life online. All of this would be easier to laugh off if it were not for the persistent trend of people trying to tie cringe archetypes to real-world articulations of social and political value. Your own real or perceived personality becomes a text rewritten by hostile audiences into an unrecognizable form, and that may have consequences for you beyond losing subscribers. This, which Smith alludes to, considerably ups the stakes in the Cringe Hierarchy game.

Black Mirror had it wrong when it depicted a digitized social credit system as being fueled by upvotes and downvotes. This is too crude and probably is inefficient on a technical level. More importantly, it focuses on the low-level assembly code of digital reputation systems when the relevant action is at a higher level of abstraction. Digital dystopia looks more like blocklists. Blocklists are necessary steps in social media environments that reward abusive behavior. They’re crowd-sourced warning and protection systems that are particularly valuable for people – like women, LGBT, and minorities – that are frequent targets for online mobbing. But blocklists often work by pre-emptively banning people if they are a few hops on the network away from other banned users. You can see very quickly how this can go wrong. Being blocked by someone you never heard of is a common experience online, as is the recognition that they likely have no idea that they are blocking you. Similarly, as Oliver Traldi notes, online debates often boil down to extended levels of meta-positioning. You are accountable for anything someone else might hypothetically think someone else might hypothetically think about your speech and behavior. This is self-defeating and impossible. There are theoretically infinite levels of recursion. And recursion aside as long as people can mentally autocomplete cringeworthy material from your speech and behavior you’ll always be cringe too.

Is there no escaping the vicious cycle of feeling cringeworthy about yourself and mocking the cringe of your fellow poster? Why are we still posting? Just to suffer? Perhaps. There are very powerful incentives at work as well as path-dependence. Even if you don’t want to participate, the only surefire way not to participate is to log off. And logging off is getting harder and harder these days. But there is some reason for hope. It may be that the key to escaping the cringe cycle is to accept our own role – we see ourselves reflected poorly in other people, who see themselves reflected poorly in other people. And perhaps if we can begin to own up to how we play into this we may be able to escape it. In a later post, I will look at a different side of this problem – how Internet subcultures are obsessed with evading negative social judgment and why this obsession can go too far. It’s fine to worry about the negative implications of things like the Hierarchy of Cringe but its also easy to exaggerate the novelty and harms of negative social judgment and underrate one’s own ability to move beyond it. Additionally, the cruel paradox is that the very need to escape social judgment is what makes the Internet far worse than offline – something I hinted at in the beginning when I noted that the egalitarianism of online communities forces discrimination to take the form of cringe-hating. This future post will focus in particular on the rationalist/post-rationalist concept of the “egregore” and similar ideas. But for now, enjoy this post – or don’t if you find it cringe.