The internet has, without a doubt, become the most useful tool in the arsenal of human invention. Evolving from the most efficient way to collect information, it has become so much more. The internet can be used to communicate with others, no matter the distance, as well as finding the answer to almost any question you can come up with or posting content of your creation for the world to see. This, along with a seemingly infinite number of other uses, makes the internet a vital part of almost everyone’s day-to-day lives.
Despite being such a necessity, the internet does not inherently create an accommodating environment for all users. The differences in beliefs or opinions expressed by people from all walks of life are put under a magnifying glass when posted on the internet. The added benefit of online anonymity encourages some to act in ways they never would out in public or if they had to post their real name. Cancel culture has exploded in popularity as a way to criticize powerful figures and attempt to de-platform them. Regardless of valid criticism, it is often abused as a way to silence small content creators who express controversial opinions.
Lacee Rains, 22, of Tulsa, Okla., is a woman with a varied background. From a long history of volunteer work and activism to a career in housing repair and a passion for performing slam poetry on stage, it is impossible to nail down a single specific identifier.
“When I’m passionate about something, I just do it,” Rains said. “I like to open myself up to new opportunities, even if it takes a lot of encouragement for me to get there.”
Now she sits in her room, composing her next piece. Rains’ room is covered from floor to ceiling in memorabilia from a life spent collecting chatchikis around North America. A blanket hangs as a tapestry on the wall, covered in elephants to match her elephant statues that rest on every dresser, table, and bookshelf in sight. The already small room is filled to the brim but without any hint of a mess or disorganization. Rather than crowded, it feels cozy and lived in.
She is pale-faced with dark brown, almost black, hair that glows in shades of red when lit with sunlight. She’s dressed casually with a denim shirt thrown over a T-shirt that reads “Women Belong in the House … and in the Senate.” Bright red glasses, circular like Janis Joplin’s, sit atop her head and occasionally slip forward or fall backward but Rains consistently readjusts them with a flourish, seemingly used to it.
Rains’ passion for performing began in her high school years when she discovered what slam poetry was. Despite initial skepticism, she had secretly been writing poetry in her journal well before discovering she could perform it live to an audience. After attending a poetry event, the skepticism melted away as she watched people her age pouring their hearts out on stage.
“There was this sense of … passion that the best poems had,” said Rains, reminiscing. “I felt like I’ve been doing the same thing in private for as long as I can remember.”
She then decided to sign up for the next event and compose a poem of the struggles she was feeling specifically for the event.
She approached her first performance with nervous tics and a myriad of butterflies scrambling in her stomach. She recalled that the stage, which was not all that large, felt like it was miles long and as she walked toward the centre, it seemed to take an eternity.
The performance itself ran rather smoothly, with only one or two stutters and a tangling of words on occasion, but nothing unusual, especially for most teenaged slam poetry performers.
The awards were handed out, garnering Rains an honourable mention, and it was off to the races. The exhilaration of not only being on stage and performing something so personal but also receiving praise for sharing her story created a passion and drive to continue in the world of slam poetry.
She continued performing over the years, growing and learning as a performer as well as branching out into other arts such as monologues or comedy. Awards began to roll in as she bettered her craft and eventually made a name for herself in the niche circle of Tulsa, Oklahoma slam poetry fans.
Initially, every bit of feedback was positive or constructive (or intended to be, rather). With multiple years of performing under her belt she, for the most part, still only intended to share her poems with the live audience, family members and close friends. However, this evolved into Facebook friends which evolved into Twitter followers and eventually anyone on YouTube.
The first negative comment Rains received appeared on Facebook for a video of a poem she had performed weeks prior. The poem focused on Rains’ struggle with religion after being a devout Catholic for the majority of her life and, uncoincidentally, the message came from a previous friend who she attended a Catholic school with in Grade 2.
“I don’t actually remember … what the post said exactly,” said Rains, “but it was something about turning my back on God without being grateful. It wasn’t actually that bad comparatively but at the time it really threw me.”
Rains felt somewhat betrayed after receiving such a comment. She wasn’t used to being criticized for work that involved having to condense painful and personal feelings into words that properly conveyed her emotions to an audience. To be chastised for sharing her thoughts on her own life hurt her drive to perform. While she wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel, she wondered if it was time for her to change her style of performance so as not to offend anybody else.
It took some time and practice to find her voice again, but Rains never stopped performing and eventually concluded that her story was her’s to tell in the way that she wanted to tell it.
“It’s weird to think about where I was at that time,” Rains said, laughing, “and like how much that affected me at the time. Now I honestly couldn’t care less if someone is upset about a personal experience of mine. I’m upset by personal experiences every day. Welcome to my world!”
While the first negative comment came from an ex-friend on Facebook, eventually, as she began to branch onto other social media platforms, she began to get comments from other people who were less than impressed with the content she was producing. All the while, her content was becoming more and more controversial for the conservative sensibilities of Oklahoma.
Whether it was a sex positive poem about learning to love your body or a comedic monologue about meeting with a therapist who was seemingly obsessed with birds, detractors had things to say.
“The hate I got for some of my more … outlandish material was pretty … weird,” said Rains “People thought I was promoting some type of, like, sex culture when I was just trying to say that it was OK for a woman to be comfortable in her body. I was basically told the opposite my entire life and I wanted to share something that might change the stigma of being a sexually repressed woman. But a lot of people seem to enjoy the status quo.”
As demonstrated in her first-ever negative comment, Rains’ detractors typically fell into the category of people with religious or conservative views who differed with her more spiritual and liberal philosophies.
Winston Wilfred Noronha, who compiled a large amount of research on the topic of cancel culture said “… We often see the resistance from some or a group of individuals who don’t want to hear your story. As an online influencer you’ll be judged by your audience constantly, content creators who are globally trending focused on content that’s generally accepted by their audience.”
Rains’ experience with less than constructive criticism prepared her for the negative reactions she began to receive as she continued to display her emotions on stage more and more openly.
“I realized that the people who were saying nasty things or posting them on my videos were not my audience,” she said. “I was performing for an audience that seemed to really like the work I was doing. Even online, most of the responses were incredibly kind and supportive.”
While there were certainly people who weren’t afraid to rain on her parade, most of the responses from strangers and friends were positive. Today especially, posts featuring her performances are greatly lauded, but one negative comment can encourage other naysayers to throw in their two cents.
Eventually, Rains began to delete the more aggressive negative comments.
“I never wanted to censor any type of responses to my stuff. I think … everyone has a right to an opinion,” she said. “But the comments that were just mean or aggressive or like cussing at me … those didn’t really give me any valid criticism so I was OK with removing them.”
Brandon Westbrook, Rains’ partner of one year, often attends her live performances. “It’s crazy to go to one of the shows she’s in and people are laughing and cheering and then to come home and see the most recent hate comment on her Twitter,” he said.
In a later interview, Rains sits on her bed, currently unable to leave the house because of COVID-19. She describes her latest poem. It’s a mostly dramatic piece with a hint of comedy about travelling from one house to another.
She’s a Tulsa county nomad, travelling from place to place with boxes of elephant statues but never quite leaving her home town for long. She describes her experience of moving out of the last house she stayed in. Her hair is thrown in a bun, with her denim jacket collar popped up and blue circular glasses shading her eyes, which give her the look of a female John Lennon. In her poem, she heaves her suitcase into a Toyota Corolla that looks too beat up to drive. While it wheezes and howls like a coyote on two packs of Camels, the car manages its way out of the driveway and on to the next stop.
“Obviously this piece isn’t all that controversial,” Rains said. “That doesn’t mean it’s fluff though.”
Rains’ seemingly moderate experience with hate posts and cancel culture is not the universal experience, however. For many, the onslaught of negative comments can prove to be fatal to a career regardless of whether the criticism is warranted or not.
Natalie Wyn, creator of ContraPoints, a YouTube channel that covers controversial political and social issues, has faced repeated backlash for the content she produces. Her channel, which at the time of writing has over 874,000 subscribers, has been criticized for different material multiple times. So much so that she eventually made a nearly two-hour-long video titled Canceling | ContraPoints in which she explains her experiences and attempts to format a diagram that explains the process of cancelling.
“As one of YouTube’s leading B-list transgenders, I am a prime target for cancelling and I have been cancelled many, many times,” Wyn said before continuing with the story of her most recent cancellation. “Basically, I’m cancelled for working with Buck (Angel, a trans adult film star) and a lot of trans people think Buck Angel is a horrible person. And so my collaboration with Buck Angel is evidence that I, too, am a horrible person.”
Angel has often been accused of being “truscum,” or a trans person who acts as a sort of gatekeeper to the trans identity, refusing entry to those they feel don’t deserve the title.
This is a perfect example of what Wyn calls the transitive property of cancelling, meaning that if someone is cancelled, all people who associate with them will be cancelled as well. This is, in a sense, the Achilles heel of cancel culture. The transitive property of cancelling does not stop after one degree of separation. Because Wyn is being cancelled for associating with Angel, all who associate with Wyn are now cancelled and so forth.
“The chain of guilt by association is so long and twisted, I can barely even follow it,” said Wyn. “We’re only missing a few degrees of separation before every living person on the planet Earth is cancelled over the Buck Angel situation.”
While cancel culture is often a tool used by viewers to keep their content creators in line with what is acceptable, there are times that it stems far outside of the creator’s general audience due to the content being so impactful.
Researcher Noronha said, “Sometimes, to make their content more intense (content creators) end up saying or doing something that is not generally accepted in the society or audience (for example) Logan Paul …”
He is referring to an incident in which Logan Paul, an increasingly popular social media influencer and YouTube personality, travelled to Japan and video recorded the entire trip, including the body of someone who appeared to have killed themself in the forest of Aokigahara.
The response to this video was overwhelmingly negative as millions of people viewed the video before it was taken down. Paul initially defended his actions by claiming that it was originally intended to be educational in a sense, a way to start a conversation on mental wellness. This did not stop the criticism that it was inappropriate and in unbelievably bad taste.
It was not the sole act of recording this that was criticized. Many were offended by Paul and his friends appearing to hold back laughter while in the forest. Caitlyn Doughty, author and fellow YouTube personality as well as a funeral director in California, had a different opinion. While not supporting the video in any way, in her own video titled Let’s Desenationalize Aokigahara, she said, “To be clear, I don’t blame Paul or his friends for laughing in the forest. Whatever reaction he had to what must have been a traumatic experience, even uncomfortable laughing or gallows humour is OK. He shouldn’t be pilloried for that. But that footage shouldn’t have seen the light of day.”
While the majority of responses were negative, some of his fans defended Paul, arguing that he was a trailblazer against the stigma of not discussing mental health and that he should be lauded. Paul himself seemed to initially believe that what he was doing would be revolutionary for YouTube.
However, Doughty said, “It’s not talking about death that is the problem. It’s having the conversation about death in this unsavoury, clickbaity way that created this.”
Eventually, the original video was removed from YouTube and Logan Paul made a tearful apology video.
Wyn has a cancel culture trope theory for this as well: no forgiveness. When someone is cancelled, no amount of apology videos will get them uncancelled. They will stay cancelled for as long as people can remember the events and, with the internet being seemingly eternal, that amount of time is indefinite.
James Charles, a young but widely successful beauty guru on YouTube, has been cancelled multiple times. Every time a new cancellation begins, all previous cancellations are brought to the foreground. His most recent struggle with cancel culture stemmed from advertising a hair vitamin that was in direct competition with a similar vitamin his friend was selling. This seemingly small spat exploded into accusations old and new of Charles being a sexual predator, racist and transphobic. These accusations stemmed from a select few previous videos and tweets that go back several years including a tweet he made at the age of 16.
The trope of no forgiveness is not entirely factual, however. In 2016, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian-West and Taylor Swift got into a feud. West had released a track called Famous with derogatory lyrics about Swift. Swift denied having approved the lyrics but Kardashian-West leaked an audio recording between West and Swift about the song in question, seemingly disproving Swift’s initial claims. Twitter and Instagram users took to their keyboards to call Swift out, posting emojis of snakes on every photo. Earlier this year, however, the full recording of the conversation was leaked. It became apparent that Swift was telling the truth and it seemed that the video had been specifically edited to make it seem like she was lying. Fans once again rushed to their keyboards to support Swift and chastise West and Kardashian-West.
All of these influencers faced the wrath of cancel culture, dealing with constant hate comments. However, the lasting ramifications are often hard to see. Given enough time to recuperate, they all seem to find their footing again. Logan Paul currently has over 21 million subscribers on his YouTube channel and both Kanye West and Taylor Swift have had albums go platinum since their feud. Natalie Wyn has multiple recent videos with over one million views and Lacee Rains still performs live and posts videos to social media that get tons of positive feedback. They have all had time to tailor their craft and present it to their audiences who adore them.
Other content creators, smaller ones, do not have the same benefits. Mia Mulder, a trans Twitter user, was virtually attacked for tweeting an emoji of a heart to the Philosophytube channel after Olly, the one-named channel creator, refused to denounce Wyn’s content.
Cancel culture is not a healthy or successful process for holding people accountable for negative actions. The process of attempting to hurt someone’s career and refuse any type of forgiveness is a faulty method that has no ability to bring down people in power.