In a time when speaking out is praised and being a vocal millennial is cool, after you’ve dragged someone online (if that’s your style), what might seem like a natural next step is to click the unfriend button on that person and remove them from your carefully curated echo chamber. But it’s not that simple.
The definition of cancelling culture is the act of cutting a person, brand or company out of your life—it may be after they have exhibited behaviour that doesn’t sit right with your internal moral compass. It may be over one incident or a gradual fall of many. ‘Cancelling’ is at times petty or necessary. And most importantly, its actions are usually taken online.
When asking Ayishat A. Akanbi, a writer, fashion stylist and a vocal individual on internet behaviour on Twitter, what has caused this trend of “cancelling people”, Akanbi responded with two words: moral superiority. “It’s the idea that we can publicly distance unprogressive behaviour. And those who don’t say anything at all are not invested as others are.” She added.
As we continued our heated conversation about cancelling habits, Akanbi insightfully mentioned how we live in a culture where it is difficult to separate ourselves from the celebrities we follow—Instagram Stories and Twitter falsify a feeling of impalpable closeness that leads to many people trying to align their personal politics with those of their favourite public figures. The example of Kanye West’s wild claims on slavery during a TMZ video was thrown into the mixout, which in this context felt pretty apt to what cancelling culture has come to.
“We cancel people who never claim to be anything. Kanye has never claimed to be progressive, his esteem comes from being different,” said Akanbi. A few weeks following the apparent cancellation of Kanye West, his new album has been selling millions of copies; fitting precisely into the empty promises of reactionary online cancelling culture. More often than not, online cancelling struggles to translate into real life actions.
Another example of the seemingly fragmented ethics behind cancelling culture is the way millennials shop. In a recent op-ed, Business Of Fashion writer Luna Atamian Hahn-Petersen spoke of how 60 percent of millennials are interested in buying certifiable sustainable clothing and 69 percent even check for “eco-friendly” claims when buying their latest look. Yet despite the rife culture of dragging unsustainable brands online, only 34 percent of millennials say they are “driven” to only buy from sustainable resources.
There are many clothing brands whose internal policies do not value or respect human life, and who have not been clear about their steps towards sustainability through the 2018 Fashion Transparency Index. These same companies are potentially allowing tragedies such as the Rana Plaza disaster to happen once again, where nearly 1,200 people died in Bangladesh’s capital due to terrible working conditions for the sake of cheap T-shirts. The people behind such companies and the brands themselves, in my opinion, should be cancelled—crucially, online as much as offline.
In what should become a blueprint case for controlling toxic online behaviour, President Donald Trump was recently overruled as he unblocked several Twitter followers after seven plaintiffs sued Trump for prohibiting them from seeing his Twitter account. Trump’s online cancelling habits were deemed unconstitutional as they breached the First Amendment of freedom of speech.
By this nature, is anyone worthy of being ‘cancelled’ if its ultimate results are to produce an even narrower lens of individuals’ online realities in the best of cases, and breach the foundation of free speech at worst?
“We should cancel government officials and parties who influence power, not just musicians and influencers. But they shouldn’t just be cancelled” Akanbi added when I raised the above point. If cancellation is done consciously, we need a plan of action to run through our intentions and disappointment with our brands and politicians. When done in isolation from real action, the habit of online cancelling further perpetuates a dangerous illusion of a false ‘safe space’. The examples of the relatively recent Pepsi advert and H&M online shop are rife. In one case the Black Lives Matter movement was tastelessly exploited, while in the other H&M children’s clothes campaign depicted a dark skinned child wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “coolest monkey in the jungle”. It was the power of online fury that ensured both of these were almost immediately removed alongside public corporate apologies.
When I ran two polls on Instagram on how many people believe in the idea of ‘cancelling’ and another on if we should publish who and what we’re cancelling across our social media, 37 people voted yes to the idea of cancelling people as opposed to 17 who disagreed. However only 11 people said they would be vocal about it in contrast to 39 who would presumably ‘cancel’ but would keep quiet about it.
Maybe the act of ‘cancelling’ ideas is the fire we need in our bellies to create change—it can be the spark that makes someone want to get up and stand up for their beliefs—but it’s our ability to take our words and transform them into actions that creates real change.
Like most people, I check Instagram before going to sleep and do the same as soon as I wake up. Posting on the platform wouldn’t be that big of a deal for us if likes weren’t such a big part of the process. Likes control us as soon as we press the ‘post’ button—only after having gone through the long procedure of picking a good picture, filtering it, etc. What would it be like if this social media standard of measurement was taken out of the equation?
Last week, former Facebook executive and Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri announced that the company would be running tests in Canada on a new version of the app where users could still like posts but only the owner of the post would be able to see how many likes the picture got. It looks like the company wants people to go back to its roots—focusing on the content that we share instead of the amount of likes we receive. As nice as this sounds, coming from a social media company, it also seems too good to be true.
With apps like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, amongst others, likes do more than feed into our constant attention seeking behaviour and our comparison obsession. Likes help the algorithms that basically control those platforms decide which content to show first, or which ads a user is most likely to click on. This kind of data is not something easy to let go of. Even though likes are not planned to be completely removed, just hidden from other users, this new way of consuming social media content is bound to affect the way we show our appreciation for certain posts.
Social media adapts a herd mentality: when a picture that already has a lot of likes shows up on your timeline, you’re more inclined to double tap it than one that doesn’t have a lot or has none. Not only does it reinforce the problem of how we look for validation online, but it also affects our mental health. Even Kanye West said it last year in one of his rants on Twitter—social networks are damaging people’s mental health and we should be protected from knowing how many likes and followers we have.
For some of the younger users of Instagram, pressure to post often as well as like their friends’ photos quickly is part of growing up with the technology. Millennials’ social status is based on how many likes, comments, and followers they have. Changing this could be a first step towards ‘digital detox’, although comments could become the new likes.
This test could raise concern amongst celebrities and influencers, who have monetised on their popularity through sponsored posts, other types of ads and, obviously, likes. Hiding likes would make it harder for them to ‘go viral’ and see how much engagement a post receives. Instagram would only benefit now from making it harder for businesses and influencers to thrive on its platform, because people would praise them for trying to make it a safer environment.
What about in the long run? If users can’t imagine how influential you are because your likes count is secret, then advertisers and influencers will probably just find or create another platform where more money can be made through the perpetuation of this herd mentality.
Our relationship with social media, and as a result likes, has slowly turned into something bordering on unhealthy. Even though this possible new version might not be as dramatic as it sounds, it could still change a few things—for the app and for our mental health. We could go back to posting pictures just to share them with our friends, families (and fans for celebrities and influencers) just for fun. Today, social media is more about winning at life—let’s make it enjoyable again.