James Charles and The Power of Cancel Culture

You might not have heard of ‘Cancel Culture’ yet, but the social media phenomenon already has its own Wikipedia page.

(Photo by Dia Dipasupil/FilmMagic)

A perfect example: just last week, YouTuber James Charles was walking the pink carpet at The Met Gala in Alexander Wang, being hailed as an influencer deservedly breaking into the mainstream media. This past weekend saw a complete flipside to the scenario: the online beauty community were riled up by a feud that took place between James and his ex-friend Tati Westbrook, or ‘glamlifeguru’ as she’s known online. The result? James lost a staggering 5 million subscribers in just a few hours – according to the audience that so quickly made him famous, James is officially “cancelled.”

Previously to this feud, Tati had been something of a mother figure to Charles, who is only 19 years old. Tati launched her own wellness vitamin brand earlier this year, and then at Coachella – apparently in exchange for security – James agreed to promote US vitamin brand SugarBearHair via his socials. Tati felt betrayed by this, triggering a huge reaction that lead to her posting a 43 minute video on YouTube entitled ‘Bye Sister’ that shames James for a number of betrayals towards herself and her husband and various wrongdoings such as being a “predator” whose millions of dollars have gone to his head. The video Tati posted now has over 43M views and has been up for less than a week. Whilst this all might seem like self-indulgent, petty gossip on a surface level, the interesting element to this scenario is the cultural power behind it: since the release of both videos, the internet has spoken. Where James saw his following nosedive, Tati has gained 3 million subscribers since hitting publish.

Just a quick scroll through Twitter throws up countless memes around not knowing who James or Tati are – yet still settling in to watch the full 43-minute video. Humans have always been interested by gossip and obsessed with conformity – you only have to think of the way transgressive women were hailed as witches and burned or drowned, to realise cancel culture has been knocking around for some time. Interestingly, the temporality and hysteria of the internet means that when someone – usually an influencer – is plagued with cancel culture, they can go on to succeed amidst the storm, similarly to someone like Kanye West. In 2018 Kanye West told TMZ, a US based tabloid website, that the slavery was a choice. After that interview, he spoke to the New York Times and said that ‘Half the people that are listening to [my] album are supposed to not listen to the album right now. I’m cancelled. I’m cancelled. I’m cancelled because I didn’t cancel Trump.’ People still listen to Kanye West’s music, and whilst he hasn’t tweeted since January, he still has nearly 30M followers, so is cancel culture a myth, or are there exceptions to the rule?

Another huge question at the heart of James Charles’ scandal, is whether or not we should be holding a 19-year-old responsible for the rumours swirling around him – or perceive him as a role model in the first place? This demonization of the masses is nothing new – in the 00s, tabloids could paint celebrities however they saw fit – the takedown of Britney Spears in 2007 being just one example. In contrast, social media is the first scenario where someone’s career rests solely on their popularity as a persona regardless of talent, so it feels unfair to destroy that by being excited about someone’s downfall, siding with a story that has been edited to very unfairly show us just one side.

The internet has always been about creating greater access and bigger communities, but with that comes the consequence of excess opinions and greater scope for confluence. YouTube’s CEO Susan Woiciciki rightfully said at the Code Media conference in 2018 that ‘We can’t just be pulling people off our platform… What you think is tasteless, is not necessarily what someone else would think is tasteless.’ Quite frankly, Woiciciki’s point sums it all up really – if we collectively judged everyone by the worst thing they’d ever done, we’d all be simultaneously depraved and angelic. Holding a person accountable for their actions is dependent on so many variables – how popular they are, the quality of their apology, and in some unfortunate cases, their gender. Cancel culture; whilst it should be a personal journey towards an ultimate decision of whether or not to incorporate someone into your life or not, has been turned by the internet into a sweeping, universal frenzy of hate, based on somewhat wobbly benchmarks.

To safeguard our brands, we build a morality clause into our influencer contracts that protects our clients if an influencer we’re working with is caught in a bad PR storm where they are at fault. You can read more around our mortality clause here: http://seenconnects.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Whitepaper-Morality-Clause-33.pdf

Not only has the internet noticed James Charles’ follower count take an obvious hit, but there’s talk he may have been buying followers in the fallout, since his subscriber count on YouTube spiked by 20k out of nowhere. This panic belief that building a career on social media is a numbers game, is one we consistently counteract at Connects. We believe that if you focus on the authenticity of an influencer, their connection to their community and the quality of the content they produce, the numbers and popularity will follow regardless. “The internet’s only currency is attention,” Robinson Meyer wrote for The Atlantic – bad or good attention, in 2019 this certainly rings true. The culture of the internet right now tends to feed off destruction, instead of celebrating the authenticity of influencers who give us content we all appreciate. At Connects, we will always work to celebrate the influencers who engage in empathy, humanity and authenticity, working to inspire their own communities and positively influence the world around them.

Get in touch: Info@SEENConnects.com