Call-out Culture: a powerful tool, bullying, or both?

By Alisha Stilwell

Spin class and political activism don’t typically go hand-in-hand, but today’s “call-out” or “cancel” culture changed that. 

SoulCycle touts itself as more than just a workout; “it’s an experience” that helps cyclists find their soul. That’s a bold promise, but it resonated with the masses as SoulCycle grew from being less of a gym into a profitable lifestyle and identity brand centered around inclusion and safe spaces. So when members learned that owner Stephen Ross was hosting a $250,000-a-plate fundraiser for President Trump this past summer, all hell broke loose. A SoulCycle boycott ensued that ultimately decreased overall memberships. The company has yet to regain ground.

The SoulCycle boycott illustrates the power of the mob and the dangers of stepping out of line with expectations. It’s a compelling tool to send a message and make an impact. Remember BBQ Becky and Cornerstore Caroline? Public shaming in the form of social media call-outs helped publicize the issue of white folks calling the police on innocent black individuals. It even led to some catchy nicknames.

credit: Katrina Cole

But mob mentality is often fleeting and we act swiftly without thinking things through. Knowing the impact of social media call-out culture, and that the underlying force is mob mentality, it’s easy to see how it could go wrong. 

The case of Justine Sacco is a prime example. Her infamous pre-flight tweet, while in poor taste, was taken out of context and ruined her career. Even Taylor Swift fell victim to call-out culture, only recently venturing back into the public eye to speak about her mental health struggles after being “cancelled”.

At the risk of adding more to your to-do list, I found Loretta Ross’s New York Times opinion piece on the toxicity of call-out culture a fascinating read. Does our urge to cancel those we disagree with crack the foundation upon which we can build understanding? Does the fear of public shaming prevent folks from pursuing dialogue on culturally-relevant topics they don’t know much about? Ross’s take: “The heart of the matter is, there is a much more effective way to build social justice movements.”

If call-out culture had rules, what should they be? Can we rein in call-outs and cancels, or is it too late?

This Article Has 3 Comments
  1. Hayley S. says:

    You provide an insightful response to a complex issue, thank you. I mulled this over in the context of successful marketing campaigns—ones that get to the truth and get people to react on those culturally relevant topics you speak of. It is a balancing act that many marketers and communications practitioners face: To evoke a sense of truth, does it mean you have to ruffle feathers along the way? If you are not offending people, are you doing your job? I like Ross’s take, too.

    In response to your question, ‘If call-out culture had rules, what should they be?’ Twitter recently unveiled its plans for providing a better definition of public interest in relation to monitoring outspoken rule-breakers—namely certain world leaders who break their terms of service. This may not qualify as a “rule,” but according to the plan, Twitter has upheld that certain tweets are in the public interest even if they violate its rules or is controversial. It will keep the tweet, but the user is notified and is required to provide more context and clarity to the original meaning of the tweet in question.

  2. Anna Campbell says:

    I think John Oliver is onto something when he says that those who choose a public life or “whose bad behavior affects others” should be held accountable by their public audience. However, there should be limits, as Monica Lewinsky’s take-down by American mass-media illustrates. The magnitude of her public shaming was far larger than her own responsibility as a young intern involved with the most powerful man in the country. The problem now is that people don’t self-regulate and in the age of social media. Any onlooker can spread the shame without knowing the facts. If a funny insight catches fire or they have a lot of followers, that person is wielding real power.

    The one place I find hope in all this is: it’s become more difficult for large corporations and powerful people to make racist or homophobic comments or support hateful political campaigns anonymously. Barilla pasta is a great example: the boycott of the brand sponsored by LGBTQ+ organizations like GLAAD was relatively ineffective financially, however the ongoing social media attacks on Barilla ended up spurring action when Barilla realized that the overall value of their brand was taking a hit. Today, Barilla is under new leadership, actively campaigns to win back LGBTQ+ fans and supports major anti-bullying campaigns. This wouldn’t have happened without call-out culture – and possible Chrissy Teigen’s tweet that “Barilla has a right to believe whatever they want. And I have the right to boycott them or fully fund a gay porn made in a tub of linguine.”

  3. I really found your post fascinating, Alisha!

    I didn’t realize that there was an actual name for this, but it nails a lot of things on the head of what has been happening in the news media. I do think that this “Call-Out” culture can be negative when it impacts a person’s livelihood or mental wellbeing. In the same vein, I feel like it also skews the story in the favor of the individual who tells the story first. For instance the recent Caroline Calloway scandal absolutely fascinated me. But, since her friend was able to tell her side of the story first in the CUT article, Caroline immediately became the bad guy. What if the roles had been reversed? Would Caroline’s friend been called out and not Caroline? I can’t help but think that the individual who tells their story first or the most persuasively has the power in Call Out culture.

    However, I do think Call Out culture does have some good in that it helps drive opinion and forces people to make a decision on how they feel around a specific topic. I feel that social media and the current state of our culture has caused a lot of people to not have opinions. Call Out culture seems to be filling that void by forcing people to take a side on a specific topic. Of course, this is only positive when it isn’t bullying or severely impacting someone’s life.

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