It's not Cancel Culture, it's Cancel Technology
Social ostracism is as old as the hills. Social media is not.
(This post was first published as a paywalled post on 2/16/2021. It is now unpaywalled.)
“Cancel Culture” is a trendy new term for social ostracism. As anyone who either was alive before 2010 or has read a book about the period will remember, people got socially ostracized all the time before Twitter and Facebook and Google existed. The things they got ostracized for have changed over the years — maybe before it was cheating on your husband, or saying you didn’t believe in God, or being disabled, or being a communist, or whatever. Ostracism is a consistent feature of human societies, and relabeling it “Cancel Culture” is fine with me I suppose.
The really interesting question is whether ostracism has changed in important and substantial ways in the age of social media and the internet. Even if human nature doesn’t change over time (and I think the jury is still out on that one), the tools we have access to do change, and that allows society to reshape itself in new ways. (That’s what I mean when I semi-ironically call myself a “technological determinist”, by the way.)
What does the internet do? Lots of stuff, but the two things I want to focus on here are distribution and memory. The internet:
allows a very very large number of strangers to see what you say and do, and
keeps a record of most of the things you say and do online.
A small town where you don’t know your neighbors
First let’s think about distribution. In the olden days, you could “read the room” and decide whether you were going to get a sympathetic ear before you said something. You knew who you were hanging out with — your relatives, or your coworkers, or your buddies, or your neighbors, or your cell of the Communist Party, etc. On the internet, that’s much less true. On Twitter, anyone can see what you write and retweet it or screenshot it to millions of strangers all over the globe. In a Facebook group, you probably don’t know exactly what kind of others are in the group unless it’s really small. If you put something up on a website, anyone can read it. Etc.
The internet also makes it much less hard to maintain private spaces because text can be screenshotted and distributed widely. In the old days, if you said something that would be cancel-worthy outside the group of people you were talking to, it was impossible for someone to verifiably transmit that information outside the group — they could snitch on you, but it would be hearsay and you could deny it. But when you write something down, the text of what you wrote can be screenshotted and distributed widely to people that you didn’t expect to be watching you.
Now, this broad distribution has a number of effects. It makes it a lot harder to get together with your buddies in private and say racist or sexist stuff, because now one of them can betray you with a screenshot. Lots of people are probably pleased with that outcome.
But it also means that everyone who talks on the internet must always worry about their words being shown to someone who’s going to interpret it in an uncharitable way. In 2005 if I talked to a room full of economists about “human capital”, they would all instantly know that I meant “skills and knowledge”. But now, if I talk about it online, some leftist who thinks the term means “owning people” might pop up and get mad. Sometimes the hammer of public anger can come down on some very weird targets — I once get yelled at by about 10,000 people on Twitter for saying that the “needs more cowbell” skit on Saturday Night Live was just a shaggy dog story with no real “joke” in it, and random people give me grief about that to this day. So you never really know what will set people off!
Of course I’m unlikely to get fired or suffer other severe negative consequences for saying “human capital” or for slighting a beloved SNL skit. But these examples are just to illustrate a principle: In the old days, you only had to read the room you were in. Now, the whole world is effectively one big room, and when you type something on the internet you always have to worry that the whole world might be watching.
In a recent post about reading controversial authors, Matt Yglesias wrote that “something about the internet is making people into infantile conformists with no taste or appreciation for the life of the mind.” I don’t think it’s any big mystery what that “something” is — it’s just broad distribution! When people can no longer confine their speech to circles they know will be sympathetic, they naturally become much more careful about what they say and what viewpoints they align themselves with.
Thus, the internet changes Cancel Culture by massively increasing the number of people who can target you for ostracism. It’s a bit like living in a gossipy small town where you don’t know any of your neighbors — you don’t know who’s going to read what you write, so you don’t know how people are going to take what you say.
Is that good or bad? Well, like most things, probably both — technology makes the world different, which generally means better in some ways, worse in other ways. It’s probably true that ideas that would be controversial if read by a broad audience can be productive and useful within a small, select set of sympathetic people. For example, talking about marriage equality to your coworkers in 1982 might have gotten you ostracized, but talking about it to a group of liberal friends helped turn the idea into a social movement — a movement that ultimately succeeded in changing public morality. It makes it very hard to improve majority opinion if you can’t talk about the needed changes without being constantly surveilled by the majority! On the other hand, making it riskier for bad people to get together and talk about horrible ideas without social consequences is probably something a lot of people would support.
Whether you think this broadened scope of ostracism/cancellation is good probably depends on whether you think private spaces are more likely to be used for good or bad purposes. If you think public morality has lots of things wrong with it, and that there are lots of people out there working quietly to push things in a better direction, then you are probably upset by the reduced opportunity for private discussion spaces. But if you think public morality is basically good as is, and most of the people out there are bad actors who want to tear it down, then you are probably pleased with the increased sunlight. In a way, the latter makes you a bit of a small-c conservative — you basically think prevailing morals are good, and identifying and neutralizing threats to those prevailing morals are worth the necessary increase in social conformity.
Borne back ceaselessly into the past
The second way the internet changes Cancel Culture is memory. In the old days, unless you wrote something down in a letter or print media, or said it in front of a video or TV camera (which was rare at the time), the world had no way of remembering exactly what you said. There’s a whole website, Quote Investigator, devoted to ferreting out misquotes and apocryphal attributions. And that’s for famous people — for regular folks, the overwhelming majority of what you said was lost to the sands of time.
That is much less true in the age of the internet. Your old tweets and forum posts can be searched with Google. Even if you delete things you’ve tweeted or posted, there are ways to find archived versions if someone wants to ferret out something worthy of ostracism. Also, people who don’t like you can screenshot your posts and circulate them on Twitter and elsewhere (folks do this to me occasionally).
“The internet is forever” is a popular saying for a reason. Time and determined scrubbing can make it much harder for people to find cancel-worthy things from your past, but not impossible.
One effect of the internet’s long memory, which goes way beyond the narrow issue of social ostracism, is that it’s now harder for people to reinvent themselves. In the pre-internet days, it was easier to change the way you saw yourself and the way you fit into society by moving to a different town, hanging out with new friends, etc. People have lots of reasons to want to do this — some laudable, some less so. Some people have have done bad deeds that they don’t want people to know about, or that they themselves want to forget. Some people were awkward or shy or unpopular or unattractive when they were younger, and they want to try their hand at being a confident or popular person without being tied down by the preconceptions of the people who knew them before. Some of us go through periods of clinical depression, and need a change of scenery in order to help forget that pain.
The internet’s long memory makes this much harder. Your prospective employer can name-search you and find your old drunk-driving arrest. Your prospective boyfriend can name-search you and find your photos from when you were out of shape or hung out with losers. Your prospective friends can contact your old friends and learn more about how they thought of you back when you. The internet ties you to your past in a way that nothing really did before.
But the internet’s memory also distorts the past. Suppose you’re arrested for a crime but later exonerated. Someone who name-searches you might find a news story about the arrest, but not the later story about the exoneration. Or suppose you get publicly attacked for something you said or did, but many people come to your defense and ultimately public opinion comes down in your favor; someone who name-searches you might still be put off by the critics if they don’t get the full context. (Of course this effect cuts both ways; sometimes someone will only find the positive things about your past, and not the negative things. But the possibility of the bad outcome creates risk.)
This obviously affects Cancel Culture as well. If you posted bad stuff when you were 14 years old (an age when people aren’t expected to be fully formed or fully responsible for their actions!), you can be in danger of ostracism from it years later.
Now it’s not clear how severe this danger is. The consequences of negative attention can be quite moderate — the singer who posted racist stuff when she was 14 lost only a few million out of her tens of millions of followers. Nor is society infinitely vindictive — with time and apologies, most people are allowed to partially or fully come in from the cold. But it’s hard to deny that the forever-ness of the internet has changed the game in terms of how worried people have to be about social ostracism.
How can Cancel Culture adapt to Cancel Technology?
My big thesis about technology is that “technology weirds the world” — instead of ruining or fixing it, it typically changes it in a bunch of unexpected ways, twisting the contours of human life into shapes never seen before. Culture’s job is to adapt human society to the new set of technologies in ways that leave us better off than before.
So it is with the internet and its potential for more widespread and more permanent ostracism. We have to figure out how to change our culture in order to minimize the harms and maximize the benefits of these new technological facts. In effect, Cancel Culture has to be something we create in order to manage Cancel Technology for the greater good.
One idea is for society to simply become more tolerant, more broad-minded, and more forgiving. I think this is what Elon Musk was urging when he tweeted his famous challenge to Cancel Culture:
I’d personally like a more tolerant, forgiving society, but I’m a little cynical about the prospects for doing this, at least in America. I see my own country’s culture as an inherently negativistic one — Americans’ favorite national pastime isn’t baseball or sex, it’s telling other Americans that they’re shit. But maybe I’m being too pessimistic; perhaps the ubiquitous danger of social media ostracism will simply force us to be more tolerant and forgiving of a people after a difficult transition period. I guess social media has only been popular for a little over a decade, so it’s still early days.
There’s also the legal approach. Some countries, especially in Europe, have created the concept of a new human right — the “right to be forgotten”. Essentially this gives people the right to have their personal data scrubbed from the internet at corporate expense, if they choose. If this legal idea gains traction worldwide, it could at least partially bring back people’s ability to reinvent themselves — and thus to make ostracism less permanent, at least among those who aren’t public figures.
Unfortunately, there are some extremely maladaptive responses as well. The perception that modern social mores are liberal ones — the equation of “Cancel Culture” with ostracism by liberals — has led the Right to try to create spaces where essentially anything is tolerated, including Nazism and calls for insurrection. This is how you end up with 8kun or Gab. The Right has also attempted to fight fire with fire, enthusiastically demanding the firing or blackballing of various public figures. I don’t know about you, but both of these strike me as bad things for society.
Ultimately, I suspect, part of the solution to the challenges posed by Cancel Technology will involve using technology in different ways. Audio social media like Clubhouse and Discord, and private messaging apps like Signal, will allow some online discussions to more closely approximate the in-person chit-chat of old. There will still be the possibility of ostracism for extreme things like overt racism, which will prevent these spaces from removing most of the beneficial “sunlight” aspect of the internet. But it will be easier to know who you’re talking to, and it will be harder for people to quote you out of context. And it will be harder to record every little misstep for posterity and blast it around the internet.
In any case, I think we haven’t yet found a full solution. Cancel Technology is extremely new and disruptive, and it may take decades for us to figure out how to let it improve the bad parts of the pre-social-media world while canceling (heh) its negative effects. But at least we’re starting to get a clearer picture of exactly how social ostracism is changing in the age of the internet.