Welcome to CringeTok, where being insufferable can be lucrative

Welcome to CringeTok, where being insufferable can be lucrative
Stanzi Potenza, a cringe comic and actor who has gained millions of followers on TikTok and YouTube, outside her home in Los Angeles, May 24, 2023. On TikTok, you can make a career out of being intentionally cringeworthy in a niche area of the platform known as CringeTok. (Photo:NYTimes)
During a three-part special examining the crimes of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer that aired in November on “Dr. Phil,” Phil McGraw, the host of the daytime talk show, played a TikTok video of a 27-year-old woman named Stanzi Potenza as evidence that true-crime fandom had gone too far. In the video, Potenza said she was so obsessed with Netflix’s “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” that she stayed home from work in diapers to binge the series uninterrupted.اضافة اعلان

As it turns out, Potenza had made a video satirizing true-crime obsessives — and McGraw mistook it as sincere.

Potenza is a cringe comic and actor who describes herself as a “sketch comedian from hell.” She has gained millions of followers on TikTok and YouTube by posting mansplaining public service announcements, sarcastic impersonations of Satan and bone-dry parodies of the horror film “The Purge”.

“Personally, I think some of the best comedy is a little painful,” she said. “It hurts so good.”

As a concept, cringe is deceptively hard to describe. As a content category, cringe is vast, encompassing everything from dated cultural norms to a strategy that musical artists employ to reach real fans. Cringe is not any one thing, but you know it when you see it. On TikTok, you can make a career out of being intentionally cringeworthy in a niche area of the platform known as CringeTok (I know this because my brother, a former lawyer, has been making a living doing cringe videos since the spring of 2020).

Potenza has more than 3.8 million followers on TikTok — a following large enough that it can translate into lucrative brand deals, bonuses and merchandise sales. Her videos, she said, have earned her more than $200,000 annually.

Making a CringeTok video
Popular creators on TikTok can make a living in all kinds of niches on the platform, including by doing makeup, dealing watches, being old — even drinking flavored water. But CringeTok is more like putting on a show.

To craft the perfect CringeTok video, creators mine the depths of the internet and their own experiences for traits they can exaggerate. Identifying behaviors that make us recoil, such as self-absorption and obliviousness, requires an ironic amount of self-reflection. Cringe comedy creators often build time for dreaming up sketches into their schedules. Filming can take as little as an hour — often from the comfort of the creators’ bedrooms.

These videos are different from unintentionally cringey videos in which an overabundance of earnestness combined with a lack of self-awareness leaves viewers feeling uncomfortable.

In those cases, “we’re not laughing with you,” Potenza said. “We’re laughing at you.”

Riri Bichri started posting CringeTok videos in 2020, and by April, she had quit her job as an electrical engineer to pursue content creation full time. She has built a following of 800,000 subscribers by drawing on 2000s rom-com tropes, fan fiction and her own cringey behavior for inspiration.

“If I’m not embarrassed by what I did yesterday, if I’m not cringing about what I did yesterday, I did not grow,” Bichri said.

Brad Podray, 40, is an orthodontist in Des Moines, Iowa, whose TikTok account, the Scumbag Dad, was originally a riff on the work of another TikTok creator, Nick Cho. Known online as Your Korean Dad, Cho plays a wholesome, fatherly figure who treats viewers as if they were his beloved children.

“A lot of my main comedy is based on identifying trends and deconstructing them to the point where they are no longer recognizable from the original inspiration,” Podray said.

His POV-style videos feature a series of short sketches in which the Scumbag Dad exposes his fictional kid to progressively volatile situations. Early in Season One of the parodies, Podray steals his child’s prescription pain medication, and by Season Six, his child is helping him assassinate drug dealers.

“I never got to complete the series, unfortunately, because TikTok banned me too many times,” Podray said. TikTok prohibits videos featuring youth exploitation and abuse, fictional or otherwise, in its community guidelines, but Podray continues to make other kinds of parody videos. He said he earned about $150,000 a year from his content on TikTok and YouTube.

How it all works
In July 2020, TikTok established the Creator Fund to reward popular accounts and encourage content creation. It initially pledged to distribute $200 million and now expects the fund to grow beyond $1 billion. How much each creator gets, however, can vary.

“Payouts from the Creator Fund are based on a number of factors,” said Maria Jung, TikTok’s global product communications manager. “These factors include what region your video is viewed in, engagement on your video and the extent to which your video adheres to our community guidelines and terms of service.”

It has been widely reported that eligible creators typically get a few cents for every thousand views a video gets, although Jung wouldn’t confirm that number.

Creators with millions of followers and views per video can make a few thousand dollars a month from the Creator Fund. Having an engaged TikTok audience also allows creators to extend their reach on other social platforms. Meta discontinued their Reels Play bonus program in March, but creators can still earn money from Facebook Ad Reels, a program that operates similarly to YouTube’s revenue-sharing model.

Cross-posting content to increase revenue streams is a common practice among creators.

“It wasn’t until I became monetized on YouTube that I actually started making real money,” Potenza said. “In order to make this a living, you have to utilize a lot of different methods to make it sustainable.”

A nationwide TikTok ban, proposed in Congress because of the app’s Chinese ownership, would put all creator revenue streams — not to mention hard work — into question.

“Watching a bunch of congresspeople talking at the CEO of TikTok about things they don’t understand was really embarrassing,” Potenza said. “It makes me super pro-China at this point.”

Everything’s cringe
What is nott cringe today can be cringe tomorrow. Much like death and taxes, cringe comes for everyone eventually. So, it should not come as a surprise that brands are interested in participating. Being authentically embarrassing is still authentic.

Wendell Scott, 32, is a production coordinator in Atlanta who instructs Delta Air Lines on how to make effective social media content. He uses his downtime to create TikTok videos in which he provides one side of a cringey conversation in a duet or stitched video with other creators. In one video with nearly 2 million views, he plays a Founding Father who discovers John Hancock’s large signature on the Declaration of Independence.

“For me, cringe is something that we’ve all experienced, but we don’t like to talk about it,” Scott said. “Every single person has had some sort of odd, off-the-wall moment or something they think is off the wall, but it’s actually very real. And I love bringing that to life.”

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