“‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
When world-famous author J. K. Rowling posted a trans*phobic tweet in 2020 (see Fig. 1) the internet exploded. Rowling her tweet clearly exposed her problematic views on trans* people. TERF’s (trans*-exclusionary radical feminists), like Rowling, like to refer to themselves as ‘biological feminists’ and wrongly believe that, in short, trans* men are women who are trying to escape the patriarchy and trans* women are men who are trying to invade women’s spaces. These feminists are the opposite of intersectional feminists and exclude the experiences of trans* people completely.
Fig. 1: A tweet by J. K. Rowling posted on the 6th of June in 2020 at 11:35 PM which comments on an article called ‘Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate by stating ‘‘People who menstruate. I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”.
Luckily, the internet was just as outraged as I was and made sure that Rowling her views were publicly challenged. Call-out culture is one of the most prominent digital phenomena that has emerged in the past few years. Social media platform users publically pointing out individuals or companies out on their actions happens frequently. Geert Lovink, in Delete Your Profile Not People, a chapter of his most recent book Stuck on the Platform, defines it as follows: “the removing of support for public figures in response to their objectionable behavior”. Often this phenomenon is countered by statements such as ‘you are not allowed to say anything anymore these days’ and ‘what happened to freedom of speech?’. Is call-out culture truly a new form of the witch hunt in the digital age, or is it a tactic used by marginalized groups, and is it an attempt to hold people accountable and get justice? Does call-out culture have potential as an activist practice and in what way do social media platforms limit that potential?
Before I continue, let me make a quick statement about my situated knowledge. As a cisgender, queer woman, with an intersex trans*gender father and bigender partner, I feel strongly about this subject, while also being aware of my own privilege. I am aware of the fact that I cannot write this essay while being free of my own personal interpretations and biases, nor do I try to be free from them. Let me be very clear: trans* women are women and trans* men are men. This is not something I will ever debate and therefore will not justify here. As a researcher, activist, and human being, I will always side with trans* people and fight for their rights. In my opinion, it is of great importance not to be neutral when it comes to human rights (insert Desmond Tutu quote here) and that, as researchers, we should not be claiming that objectivity is something we should strive for, to begin with. In the tradition of Donna Haraway and Teun van Dijk, I find it important to take an explicit position while being aware of the context of the place I have in society – only then it is possible to expose power abuse and inequality. Or as Lovink puts it, “it is the duty of activists and researchers to make power visible”.
“Do better, JK. Do better.”
In the week that followed Rowling her tweet, 490 Twitter users called Rowling out on her trans*phobic views by tweeting about the situation. 7 of the most liked tweets of this period are shown below in Fig 2.1 – 2.7.
Fig 2.1 – 2.7: Most liked tweets, screencaptured in the Digital Methods Initiative tool 4CAT, that contain the hashtags #jkrowling and #terf between 06-06-2020 and 13-06-2020. Hashtags such as #biologicalfeminism were intentionally left out here, as I am researching call-out culture, not the ‘defensive-culture’ that happens in reaction to it.
Both trans*gender and cisgender allies called the famous author out in various ways; from pointing out the fact that Rowling tweeting this in pride month makes this worse and the fact that using biology as an excuse to hate trans* people is outdated to pointing out that TERF’s do not know what it means to be trans*gender and pointing out the fact that Rowling is reducing trans*people their autonomy. Multiple statements were also published on other platforms such as Facebook and Instagram and multiple international newspapers (both in print and online) commented on the issue. Rowling herself made various statements about the ongoing critique she was receiving, which were very much in the line of call-out culture critics mentioned before, which caused the public debates to go on for multiple weeks after the tweet that originated the call-outs. The debate even still continues today.
Call-out culture as uncoordinated abrupt mass activism
Lovink refers to call-out culture as an act of shaming and as a form of mass hysteria a couple of times. However, I think call-out culture is not necessarily about shaming, but about attempts of holding people accountable, and is not a form of mass hysteria but collective action. Lovink does acknowledge the fact that call-out culture has activist potential as well, as he calls it “a wild beast that seems to leap out of nowhere, provoking moral panic with the ruling media elites”. According to him, “if anything, cancel culture is an expression of the limited ways we have to express ourselves through dominant social media and in the world in general”. In this spirit, I would like to argue call-out culture has a great potential for social media activist practices, giving marginalized people, such as trans* people and their allies, empowering opportunities.
Pascal Lupien states that there is a shift in civic engagement that centers on new media and communication technologies, where technology is seen as potentially empowering for marginalized groups. His work revolves around indigenous movements, but many of the mechanisms he mentions can be applied in a broader context. He explains that actors are more likely to mobilize if there are resources in place that facilitate this mobilization. According to him, technologies, such as social media, can be used for new forms of cultural resistance and the rewriting of narratives, for communicating messages independently of the mainstream media, for challenging dominant stereotypes, and for mobilizing allies and supporters. Without Twitter, it would have been harder for trans* people and their allies to publically criticize Rowling for her exclusionary feminism and present a more truthful narrative about trans experiences. More importantly, according to Lupien, social media can create more visibility by getting messages from marginalized groups themselves out there, instead of letting them be told about them by other people. Social media allows marginalized “actors to perform, represent debate, and re-conceptualize [their experiences] in new and innovative ways. They provide tools for cultural positioning and survival, for countering essentialized understandings [of their experiences], as well as for new expressions of culture and identity”. In the case of Rowling, Twitter gave trans* people and their allies an opportunity to present a counter-narrative and make their own experiences public, exposing the problematic views of a powerful figure that could have remained the dominant discourse about trans* people otherwise. These users do not try to shame Rowling, they are fighting for a better and accurate portrayal of trans* people. They are not induced in mass hysteria, they are trying to hold Rowling accountable.
The empowerment of marginalized groups can also be linked to what Paolo Gerbaudo calls the mass web. He writes about social media in the context of populism. He explains that populism works in a similar way for both problematic alt-right movements and radical leftist movements; they are about a yearning to represent the underrepresented, providing a voice to the voiceless and unifying divided people. Social media are an amplifier for the voice of the underdog, where individuals can express themselves and the marginalized have the freedom to criticize the elites; a common enemy, if you will – whether that enemy is a corrupt politician, a capitalist banker or, in this case, a TERF. Gerbaudo states that it is significant to mention that in the era of the internet and social media the crowd is making a comeback in political and social discourse. According to him, social media presents new possibilities for mass collaboration. On this he elaborates:
“The personality and celebrity element of social media […] provides a sort of focal point around which the crowd can gather and millions of […] individuals, otherwise deprived of common organizational affiliation, can come together as an online crowd multiplying the power of each of its members.”
The Twitter users calling Rowling out would have never come together in a crowd, criticizing Rowling in a collective manner, if Twitter did not present them with the environment to act immediately and collectively.
Stefania Milan identifies 3 macro trends in collective action from the 1960s onward. Firstly she defines the more traditional type of movement, which is formal, organized, normative, and controlled. Secondly, she defines informal networks with horizontal forms of leadership that emerged because of the internet in the mid-1990s. Thirdly she introduces cloud protesting, a temporary, elusive and action-orientated form of organization by mirco-organizations, as a result of mobile media. “The cloud becomes the environment where the cultural and symbolic production of the movements takes place through the contribution of many individuals acting on their own account. Exchanges in social media become the main conduits through which activists can shape in the first person the meanings associated with collective action.” Milan explains that cloud protesting connects individual stories into a broader context and gives them meaning.
7 years after Milan her paper was published, I would like to propose that call-out culture could be seen as a new form, or perhaps an evolution, of cloud protesting. Call-out culture is an uncoordinated abrupt form of mass activism, where multiple individual users unintentionally form a crowd by commenting on the same event, without any prior organization. The 490 Twitter users who were the first to comment on Rowling her problematic views did not plan to collectively comment on trans* rights beforehand, but Twitter gave them the option to express themselves individually, which in sum, became a collective action and meaning-making practice, aiming to challenge oppressive and incorrect discourses about trans* people.
The limitations of call-out culture as activist practice
Call-out culture is an uncoordinated abrupt form of social media mass activism then. However, the activist potential of call-out culture has limits because of the social media platform environment it happens in. Lovink observes that there is a paradox where call-out culture actually limits discussions because users move within a split second and there is no space for Habermasian consensus finding. Indeed, the calling out of Rowling did not delete trans*phobia from the world by convincing TERF’s they are wrong. This is the case because of the way platforms are built. Gerbaudo states that the narrative that emerged during the Web 2.0 discourse where ordinary people could freely express themselves for political change on the web is problematic, as “the social web was also a corporate web and has been rapidly controlled by […] capitalist companies […] who’s profit-driven agenda sees to have little to do with ordinary people’s interests”. Lupien also states that the capitalist market structure of social media is embedded in there and that this threatens to limit activism. Lovink elaborates on this same notion by stating the following:
“In the age of platform capitalism, […] millions of users are simultaneously presented with the same “outrageous” moralistic content. This rage-inducing material is selected by algorithms, which aim to provoke as much interaction (clicks, retweets, comments, likes) as possible, in order to keep us on the same service for as long as possible. In the age of social media, users are “paying” (with) attention. […] Social media in its current form is dominated by large marketing firms that organize brand campaigns, from politicians to pop stars and influencers. This global management class despises all things negative. They are not hired to critique, and debate, but to generate clicks and money.”
As a result, there seems to be no real accountability or the addressing of underlying issues such as social inequality, but call-out culture remains an empty and performative spectacle. Lovink states that artists can be boycotted, consumers can stop buying products, politicians can be voted out, and investigative journalism could, in theory, lead to prosecution and legal changes. “The problem with all of this, of course, is that it rarely happens.” Indeed, Rowling is in fact, still, a billionaire with a huge platform, and trans* people are still marginalized.
Refusing social media activism altogether
So the activist potential of call-out culture is being limited by the way social media platforms are built. Lovink states that we should be deleting our social media profiles (instead of people) and that we should get rid of social media-driven cancel-culture altogether. According to him, we should be focusing on creating alternative tactics and platforms. Should users who engage in call-out culture indeed become social media rejectors, a term coined by Sally Wyatt, in a search for social justice?
Wyatt investigates the non-use of the internet, where she distinguishes between four types of non-users; the resistors, the rejectors, the excluded and the expelled. Resistors have never had internet access and do not want to have it either, rejectors tried it but gave it up voluntarily, the expelled had access but lost it without their choosing and the excluded have never had access but not by their own choice. For Wyatt, it is important to gain insight into why people choose to give up digital technologies voluntarily. According to her, rejectors are interesting because they challenge the digital imperative. They challenge the idea that there is a single, digital logic for all individuals, organizations, and countries. What is specifically interesting in the context of call-out culture are the social media activists who choose to put their efforts into different offline tactics as they find their attempts for accountability too limiting in the context of the platforms, and therefore become rejectors. The users who are being called out and risk the chance of being expelled are also worth mentioning here. According to Wyatt, rejectors also remind us to think carefully about what the expansion of the online world means for the offline world. They make us realize that the universalist claims, both the utopian (call-out culture as an activist practice for social justice) and the dystopian (there is no point for engaging in call-out culture because of the limitations imposed by social media platforms) versions, about the diffusion of digital technologies may not even be realized in the first place.
Does the potential outweigh the limitations?
Perhaps, the most famous magic-fiction writer in the world was not being hunted like a witch, as most call-out culture critics would proclaim. It is actually those who would have been hunted as witches for their intersectional feminist and progressive views, who have taken their agency back through social media activism. However, Twitter might have created the environment for call-out culture, it did not for cancel-culture. Did a large number of people criticize Rowling for her problematic views? Yes. Did this cause more awareness for trans* rights worldwide? Probably. Did some people stop buying Harry Potter merchandise and making Harry Potter references in their daily conversations? Most likely. However, is Rowling still a billionaire with a huge platform? Yes, she is, and therefore, ultimately, she was not canceled. Was it worth the effort of the multiple people trying to hold her accountable in the end then? Who knows. Call-out culture has a great potential for activist practice, while at the same time the social media platforms on which these practices are executed limit that same potential at the same time. The answer to the question of whether the potential outweighs the limitations would be a nuanced one without a clear conclusion. I agree with Lovink that tweets cannot be seen as a true form of protest or resistance. I do think it is important to challenge public figures with power and influence and that call-out culture can help with that. When it comes to actual accountability we need to self organize outside of the controlling and centralized environments of social media platforms that have been designed by those in power. Imagine what could have happened if those 490 Twitter users would have come together to actually organize after their abrupt moment of collective action. Perhaps Lovink was right, and it would be better to just refuse social media platforms altogether in a search for more effective alternatives and become rejectors, in a search for justice.
*I use the same definition of ‘trans*’ as Loren Britton and Isabel Paehr, which they define as follows: “Trans* and in trans*gender studies, accounts for the fact that gender, as it is experienced, is more varied than can be accounted for by binary ideologies. The asterisk is taken to signify an opening of trans*gender to a greater rate of meanings.”
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Lovink, Geert. Stuck on the Platform. Amsterdam: Valiz: 2022.
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MELT, Loren Britton, en Isabel Paehr. ‘Con(Fuse)Ing and Re(Fusing) Barriers’. A Peer-Reviewed Journal About 10, nr. 1 (20 augustus 2021): 70–83. https://doi.org/10.7146/aprja.v10i1.128188.
Milan, Stefania. ‘When Algorithms Shape Collective Action: Social Media and the Dynamics of Cloud Protesting’. Social Media + Society, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305115622481.
Wyatt, Sally. ‘Challenging the Digital Imperative’. Inaugural Lecture gepresenteerd bij Inaugural Lecture, Maastricht, 2008. http://www.virtualknowledgestudio.nl/staff/sally-wyatt/inaugural-lecture-28032008.pdf.
This essay was based on an assignment that was handed in for the Digital Activism course, which is an elective of the New Media and Digital Culture MA program at the University of Amsterdam.