“Cancel Culture: A modern internet phenomenon where a person is ejected from influence or fame by questionable actions. It is caused by a critical mass of people who are quick to judge and slow to question. It is commonly caused by an accusation, whether that accusation has merit or not.” Urban Dictionary
Getting ‘cancelled’ and ‘cancel culture’ are cultural phenomenons whereby individuals, groups or things are deemed, often suddenly, inappropriate and not worthy of praise or attention by social media users. Essentially what happens is people get ‘culturally blocked’ from having a ‘prominent public platform or career.’ They are thereby, culturally, divested from. The term and the culture really rose to the mainstream in 2019.
From social media cancellations to social distancing, now, the coronavirus has sparked a new wave of ‘cancel culture.’ This 52INSIGHTS explores Cancel Culture and its latest developments from a youth culture perspective.
THE ORIGINAL CANCEL CULTURE
“I’m canceled. I’m canceled because I didn’t cancel Trump.” Kanye West
Cancel culture in its original state means someone may be ‘cancelled’ because of a verbal slip up or for unacceptable behaviour. High profile celebrities R.Kelly, Kevin Hart, J.K. Rowling and Kanye West have all been victims of cancel culture in recent times. As the NY Times notes, there appears to be a hierarchy in being cancelled:
“Almost everyone worth knowing has been canceled by someone… Bill Gates is canceled. Gwen Stefani and Erykah Badu are canceled… Also canceled: concepts! 2018 is “officially, extremely canceled,” and so is love. And, inevitably, saying something “is canceled” is also canceled.”
For people with big profiles, like 18 year-old Billie Eilish, the fear of being ‘cancelled’ is real:
“Cancel culture is crazy. The internet is just a bunch of trolls. A problem is that a lot of it is really funny. I think that’s the issue, I think that’s why nobody really stops.”
AGENCY OR AGGRAVATION?
One question that’s been posed by cultural critics is ‘Is cancel culture a mob mentality, or a long overdue way of speaking truth to power?’ Cancel culture and ‘call out’ culture have blurred lines. There is an element of agency in ‘calling out’ something that needs to be highlighted - but there are often harmful repercussions to mass online criticism and accusations that are objectively excessive and unmerited. And while there may be elements of Streisand effect with cancel culture - it persists as frivolous and humorous because of its transactional nature - “It speaks to a lifestyle of commodity, consumerism and capitalism, of transactions being canceled.”
CORONAVIRUS: FORCED TO CANCEL
The past couple of months have felt a little like existing in a threshold into darker days. On the back of the W.H.O. pandemic declaration, society and culture has been cancelled at speed - just days ago the US cancelled flights from Europe and Italy has effectively been shut down. The Czech Republic has cancelled all travel in and out of its borders. Around the world employees and students find themselves working from home, as cultural institutions move to manage a two-week cancellation of mass gatherings. As St. Patrick’s day nears, it’s promised to be one like no other- most parades and gigs around the world, on the advice of health officials... - you guessed it - cancelled.
As the global public health crisis escalates and coronavirus spreads, these new cancellations have emerged, marking a change of pace in canceled culture… There’s certainly nothing more effective at cancelling culture than a contagious virus whose most acute symptom is death. From Coachella to SXSW, cancel culture has taken a hold of the events, entertainment and arts industry. Indeed, we may have reached a state of post-cancel culture.
Through the lens of youth, one of the most interesting insights into ‘canceled culture 2.0’ came through the cancellation of a local teenage disco in rural Ireland:
“An avalanche of mail came back from vicious teens who appear to have had their lives completely turned upside down by the news. One even suggested that kids might turn to suicide because of the deep depression they will suffer from the cancellation.... One said: "Dis is a joke been lookin forward to dis for wks ye are some bottlers. Wont get de meet for weeks now ffs."
The mass tantrum hit home the importance of these real life events for young teens - and the rarity of these kinds of occasions for them.
Elsewhere, in reaction to the cancellation of public life, empathetic online communities have coordinated isolation helplines/assistance - giving people advice on how to help the most vulnerable people during lockdown situations. Because one thing we can’t afford for coronavirus to cancel, is our collective sense of humanity and community.
SPENDING ‘CANCELLED’ TIME: ENTERTAINMENT + STUDY
As a result of cultural cancellations and school being ‘out’ for the coming weeks, young people are now being forced to curate their time differently. Social media platforms are naturally getting a lot of traction - TikTok dances and dark comedy sketches referencing the coronavirus continue to entertain young generations. Away from the ‘introvert’ jokes and public commitments to Netflix binging, other conversations among young people have noted a hunger for using this time productively. Lists of podcasts and books to explore during ‘isolation’ and periods of lockdown are also doing the rounds.
From an education perspective, millions of children around the world aren’t going to school in what is now likely the largest remote learning experiment the world has ever seen. From Hong Kong to New York, kids themselves are worried that their ‘Corona Break’ is going to set them back.
Classes have been conducted through livestreams - even physical education classes - and China actually broadcast primary school classes on public TV. Video technologies like Google Hangouts, ixl.com , Zoom, Coursera and twinkl.ie enable this to happen - while the importance of good internet connection is now, arguably, more evident to people than ever before. Taking classes online in China can mean using a VPN to get around China's firewall. Reportedly, there have been mixed results of this experiment- while the benefits of modern tech are appreciated, emotional support and constant connection is crucial for success. This is important to keep in mind as uncertainty around social gatherings continues.
In a coronavirus world, cancel culture is moving into a new phase - one where people, young and old, are being advised to cancel their social lives. Cancel culture is now about being a responsible citizen of the world and taking agency over plans and habitual behaviour. From a child and teen perspective it is important for adults to help youth to live their lives as normally as possible by answering their questions and keeping them busy through activities and support.
This is an opportunity for brands to become societal partners to people and to help facilitate safer interactions and transactions eg. ‘contactless’ home delivery, minimising spacing at restaurants/cafes and provide assistance to vulnerable people. Also think about how you can support people and interact with people from a distance through digital - whether that’s digital sampling, storytelling or online event experiences. Should you look to enhance your digital presence over the coming weeks?
In the context of the cancellation of mass gatherings, cancelled culture 2.0 is forcing people to slow down, live more simply and spend more time with family (or checking in with them). There are important learnings from this in terms of creative response strategies. From a climate justice perspective it’s giving us a glimpse at what the dismantling of a flawed global industrial economic system looks like. It’s also serving to increase mass respect for science and true expertise, while revealing problematic leaks in important communications methods. The ‘expert’ has gained back ground on the ‘influencer.’ Now it’s becoming increasingly evident that communication is literally a matter of life and death.