What #CancelColbert was really about, and why it matters.
It's usually a bad idea to look at what’s trending on Twitter.
Like any other edifice meant to accommodate millions of people simultaneously, Twitter contains both the comforting hum of human wit and togetherness, and irrefutable proof that we are doomed as a species. As with a happy walk down a Manhattan sidewalk, one can only maintain the poetry while agreeing not to think about the tens of thousands of pipes channeling human shit through the walls of the skyscrapers to the ground below. We live in a massive network of overlapping grids, many of which we would rather not be reminded of.
Last week, Suey Park checked Twitter while she was eating dinner and saw a post from the Colbert Report's account quoting a punchline from an earlier episodeabout Dan Snyder's racial incompetence, imagining a "Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." Park became angry and made a Twitter post of her own, calling for Colbert's firing with the hashtag #CancelColbert. She ended the post with a terse two-word call to action. "Trend it,” she wrote. And so it was.
The eagerness to describe Twitter activism in terms of physical conflict—as weaponized, angry mobs on the move—is a good indicator of how non-threatening hashtag movements actually are. They can certainly have targets, and although Steven Colbert has already been given more than a lifetime's worth of money, having once faithful supporters calling for cancelation must be scary.
What followed was an avalanche of tag-along posts making sure that anyone with access to a Twitter account, or who read a publication that reported on Twitter, was suddenly embroiled in the inescapable grid of racism, representation, and social analytics. The Wall Street Journal's Jeff Yang suggested this kind of activism "weaponized" Twitter by turning a relatively small moment into a flashpoint for confronting generations of cruelty and systemic aggression, producing a dangerous swarm of critical theory and indignation.
Unlike physical protests, riots, or face-to-face awareness campaigns, Twitter makes all forms of action and speech formally indistinguishable from advertisements or opinions about toilet paper. We can certainly perceive more complexity behind an activist’s 140 characters than we could behind one announcing a new kind of smart watch or movie trailer, but the fact that this conviction and urgency must shrink itself into such a tame and controllable form is a kind of preliminary defeat.
The eagerness to describe Twitter activism in terms of physical conflict—as weaponized, angry mobs on the move—is a good indicator of how non-threatening hashtag movements actually are. They can certainly have targets, and although Steven Colbert has already been given more than a lifetime's worth of money, having once faithful supporters calling for cancelation must be scary. So too, seeing an overwhelming list of accusations and counter-arguments that would take a lifetime to respond to individually and which must instead go ignored or, even worse, responded to in aggregate. And in the rare event when Twitter activists win everything they've demanded, they'll only have succeeded in getting a half-hour cable show canceled, or getting someone fired.
Were there a hashtag campaign of people taking selfies while burning down federal buildings, looting banks, taking over college campuses, or beating up cops, it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking it was the hashtag that had been weaponized. "It's not like I enjoy missing 'Scandal' to tweet about 'The Colbert Report,'" Park told The New Yorker, acknowledging the problem was not about racism, but the way racism interrupts our ability to peaceably sit in front of our media device. Making choices about what sort of entertainment to consume counts as purposeful agency. Had the show been more careful about its aesthetic choices, there would be nothing to fight against, even though the architecture of racist social and political aggression would remain safely in place in schools and police departments and city council meetings.
It's no surprise that the efforts to interpret Twitter activism are now as visible as the campaigns themselves. The larger project is not really about firing a celebrity or fighting racism, but instead about proving to ourselves that participating in a Twitter narrative is a sufficient form of political participation.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.