What Is Cancel Culture? A Guide To The Online Phenomenon

It's a term that's been knocking around for a few years. But where does it come from – and why are people talking about it now?

We’re here to guide you through the coronavirus pandemic. Sign up to the Life newsletter for daily tips, advice, how-tos and escapism.

Cancel culture is a term that’s been knocking around on social media for a few years now – in 2019, it was even named Macquarie Dictionary’s word of the year.

But with news that JK Rowling and a team of high-profile people working in the arts have signed a letter against what some call ‘cancel culture’, it’s cropping up more in conversation. Here’s a guide to what it actually means.

What actually is cancel culture?

Cancel culture is defined by Dictionary.com as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for (cancelling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive”.

Meanwhile, Macquarie Dictionary says it is: “The attitudes within a community which call for, or bring about, the withdrawal of support from a public figure... usually in response to an accusation of a socially unacceptable action or comment.”

Individuals and companies can both be “cancelled”. People will then withdraw their support publicly – and sometimes boycott them as a result. For example: not watching their TV shows if they’re an actor, or not buying their products if it’s a brand. “This is often done in a performative way on social media,” says Dictionary.com.

Where did it come from?

One of the first references to “cancelling” someone was in the 1991 film New Jack City, according to Vox. In one scene, one of the characters dumps his girlfriend by saying, “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one.”

The phrase popped up again in 2014 in an episode of VH1’s reality show Love and Hip-Hop: New York. In it, Cisco Rosado tells a woman during an argument: “You’re cancelled”.

Since then, the idea of “cancelling” someone was thought to have been used from Black users of Twitter, according to Dictionary.com and Merriam Webster, where people would cancel those in positions of power over issues of discrimination or racism.

#MeToo and other movements that demanded greater accountability from public figures have also given rise to the act of “cancelling” people – and people have lost their jobs and reputations because of it.

In 2015, Jon Ronson’s book – So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – touched on the phenomenon, while not explicitly calling it cancel culture. In the book, a series of personal stories showed how people’s lives, and careers, had been destroyed by bad-taste jokes on Twitter. And, as Ronson suggested, their “punishments” outweighed the seriousness of their “crimes”.

smartboy10 via Getty Images

So is it just Twitter phenomenon? Perhaps. One of the reasons cancel culture tends to thrive on social media could be because algorithms love outrage, wrote Anjana Susarla, associate professor of information systems at Michigan State University, in a piece for The Conversation.

My own research has shown how content that sparks an intense emotional response – positive or negative – is more likely to go viral,” she explained.

“So you can write an immature tweet as a teenager, someone can dig it up, express outrage, conveniently leave out that it’s from seven or eight years ago, and the algorithms will nonetheless amplify the reaction.

“All of a sudden, you’re cancelled.”

So, why are people talking about it now?

Barely a day goes by where someone isn’t “cancelled” on social media. Recently, Killing Eve actress Jodie Comer was effectively “cancelled”, following rumours she’s dating a Trump supporter. There was even a hashtag: the #jodiecomerisoverparty.

But what appears to have revived conversations surrounding the term is news that JK Rowling has joined figures from the arts world, including Sir Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, in signing a letter warning of an “intolerant climate” for free speech.

The 150 high-profile signatories wrote in the letter, published in Harper’s Magazine: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.

“While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”

What do people think about cancel culture?

People have opinions – and lots of them. Some believe it doesn’t even exist, others say it does (and it’s very much needed).

Is cancel culture a good – or bad – thing, then?

While some argue argue that people facing consequences for their actions is a positive thing, others say there are times when it becomes too much.

In some cases, cancel culture has turned into trolling and social media pile-ons, with people facing death threats and horrendous abuse. Following Love Island presenter Caroline Flack’s death from suicide, people were quick to condemn cancel culture and there were renewed calls for people to ‘Be Kind’.

Addressing the problem in a video for DDN, writer Ayishat Akanbi previously said: “Cancel culture is complex because humans are complex and that’s something we like to negate online. We should not undermine how quickly we can change our ideas... so to cancel people for tweets they made years ago, potentially things they made last week, I think it’s just to lie to yourself, it lacks a certain self-examination that I think is crucial.”

Akanbi continued: “We talk so much about mental health and how important it is and how we have to remember that mental health is just as important as physical health – and then to discard people at the first sign of something we dislike, the two don’t marry very well to me.”

Before You Go

Go To Homepage