What is Cancel Culture? And why should brands care?

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June 19, 2019
Time to read: 4 minutes
Cancel Culture - Hook Research

What is the greatest punishment for misbehaving influencers in a media environment in which the loudest voices thrive? It’s being de-followed; silenced; or “Cancelled” – that’s what social punishment looks like in today’s Cancel Culture.

We live in a period in which any individual can use social media to amplify their voice. For good or for ill, anyone with a social login has the potential to gather a following and share their opinions with the world. But just because anyone has the ability to say (practically) anything, doesn’t mean that there won’t be repercussions. Influencer vigilantes are using their significant fan-bases to enact their own brand of justice and silence those content creators whose opinions or actions they don’t support

Some may think this a good thing: every day, we as internet users are inundated with negative – often downright nasty – noise, and there is certainly an appeal to cutting those out of our daily feeds. But when the ability to silence is in the hands of a few key individuals, can this act have negative consequences as well?

What is Cancel Culture?

‘Cancelling’ is an act in which one influencer asks their followers and fans to de-follow or block certain people or accounts.

It’s an act of silencing; a cancellation of someone’s fandom; a cultural boycott; a removal of their right to be heard and listened to

It’s one individual calling out someone else’s mistake and insinuating that they can never redeem themselves, supposedly banishing that individual from our digitally-engaged society – done, finito, bye bye, cancelled.

Of course, the social media landscape is anything but permanent – and those who are quick to call for cancels may often find themselves cancelled in their own right. And therein lies the inherent entertainment of the Cancel Culture: a gladiatorial round-about in which influencers rise and fall on the whims of their (and their competitors’) loyal, eager fans.

Watching these ‘cancellations’ has become somewhat of a spectator sport (the Cancelolympics?) and has generated thousands of words of commentary as engaged followers track the rise and fall and rise again of different influencers. The ‘popularity’ of these cancellations has now reached the point where YouTube are stepping in – from August 2019, the platform will round-off all subscriber numbers to deter people from watching the hour-to-hour fluctuations in an influencer’s followers.

Cancel Culture - Hook ResearchWhy is Cancel Culture suddenly in the news?

Many of you (particularly, our newsletter readers) will have seen reports on the recent feud between beauty YouTubers Tati Westbrook and James Charles.

For those unfamiliar with this news, the 19-year-old makeup blogger James Charles – who has collaborated with the likes of Kylie Jenner and appeared at this year’s Met Gala – saw his follower count drop from 16.5 million subscribers to 13.8 million in 72 hours after Tati Westbrook published a video criticizing Charles’ actions and asking her followers to stop following – or ‘Cancel’ – his channel. Critics kept the hashtags #JamesCharlesIsCancelled and #JamesCharlesIsOverParty trending on social media over the following days.

The Charles vs Westbrook feud inspired perhaps one of the most high profile cancel campaigns to date (Charles now features as the example for the second definition of ‘cancelled’ in the Urban Dictionary), but it is far from the only example we can look at in recent years: Kanye West, Logan Paul, Shania Twain, Chris Evans, and Cardi B (to name but a few) have all been cancelled in the past few years.

In fact, according to The New York Times, everyone is cancelled. That probably includes you. Yes reader, even you.

What’s the big deal?

So why’s everyone up in arms about being cancelled? So what if people are losing a few followers here and there?

There are a few reasons.

From a business perspective, Cancel Culture is having a very real impact on influencers’ bottom lines. Brands are now hesitant to engage with influencers who have been cancelled, as they’re unwilling to risk their overall image or their own carefully built follower counts by endorsing ‘cancelled’ individuals.

More worryingly, however, it also seems this Cancel Culture is creating a pernicious environment of anxiety that’s having a real impact on the mental health of young people.

Gen Z are petrified to be seen as wrong or ‘non-woke’; many young people say it is their greatest fear to wake up to find they have been called out on social media for saying something problematic. While they have never known a world without platforms like Twitter and Instagram, it’s is no wonder that Gen Z are less keen on social media than other age groups.

As Angelica Nwandu, the founder of The Shade Room account on Instagram, points out in a recent interview with WWD: “[Cancel Culture] comes from a great place, but what I’ve suggested is that we cancel the behavior and not the person because it’s becoming a toxic movement. It’s not allowing anyone to make a mistake.”

As consumers continue to navigate a landscape fraught with fake news, deep fakes, and constant conspiracy it feels like it would make sense for them to ‘cancel’ the negative noise and focus on the positive. But the knee jerk, often herd-mentality fueled nature of these decisions can cast this potentially positive action in a darker, more worrying light – and it’s having a real, worrying impact on young people around the world…

Like this blog? You might want to check out our recent post exploring the similarities between Gen X and Gen Z – and be sure to sign up to the Hook newsletter, where we send a monthly round-up of the biggest happenings going on in media (and youth) worlds straight to your inbox.


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