Cancel Culture and Influencer Marketing for Indie Devs
“The 21st century version of the guillotine, the bringer of justice, the people’s avenger.”
– Natalie Wynn
Cancel culture has recently become a popular term for a practice that has existed online for a few years, dating back to at least 2015 where members of the public ‘cancelling’ celebrities can be found. This process of ‘cancelling’ popular figures is a form of online shaming directed at individuals that many members of the public deem to be immoral or offensive that deserve to face consequences. The idea is to expose that person’s wrongdoing and hurt their reputation, usually by boycotting anything related to them or calling them out on social media, to the point of other people or companies not wanting to support that individual – thus making that person face consequences.
As Natalie Wynn so grandiosely put, cancel culture was meant to be “the bringer of justice” and gave power back to the public to use against individuals that typically had the power to avoid consequence before. However, the practice has become a lot more frequent in recent years and even been used on individuals that more and more members of the public disagree on whether they deserve it. Criticism of the practice eventually adopted a name for it – cancel culture. In the current online climate, it seems that any large influencer could be cancelled at any moment. But what does this mean for anyone who associates with the target of a cancellation?
If we observe previous cancellations, two opposing events could occur. Some gain even more popularity following the cancellation – but others lose out. What separates the two is the popularity. To demonstrate this using examples, let’s first look at the cancellation of James Charles, one of the most high-profile cancellations of 2019. Right before being cancelled, James Charles had 16 million subscribers. Another popular YouTuber and friend occupying the beauty community he is a part of, Tati Westbrook, uploaded a video criticising James Charles’ character and, more importantly, his decision to promote Sugar Bear Hair, a rival hair vitamins company to the one she was promoting. She saw this as a betrayal of their friendship, but the point is that it was an important element of their feud. So what did that mean for Sugar Bear Hair? Searches for Sugar Bear Hair spiked on Google during this period.
The company received tons of popularity, gained millions of likes of their Instagram posts and benefitted from the situation. However, Sugar Bear Hair was already a company that could afford to be sponsored by James Charles and was doing quite well for themselves. Therefore, any boycott of Sugar Bear Hair wasn’t strong enough to take out the company entirely before they reaped the rewards. Similarly, this happened to James Charles subscriber count as it decreased to 13 million during this period but is currently at 18 million in April 2020.
However, events played out differently in smaller cases. Natalie Wynn, the mind behind the YouTube channel known as ContraPoints, also experienced a cancellation at the end of 2019. As of April 2020, Natalie Wynn currently has 880,000 subscribers. In October 2019, she released a video titled “Opulence”. In this 49 minute video, exactly 10 seconds of that video feature a voice-over from a man known as Buck Angel. Buck Angel was already a controversial man that was going through a cancellation on Twitter at the time of that video’s release, and fans of ContraPoints were upset at his inclusion. They deemed association with Buck Angel as support of his views and therefore decided to cancel Natalie Wynn as well. Later, in January 2020, Natalie Wynn released a 1 hour and 40 minute video on the topic of cancelling and in that video, discusses her own cancellation and the effects of it. At 1:05:14 of the video Natalie says:
“People saying mean things about me on Twitter is not the worst of it, not even close … the way you psychologically survive in that situation is you block the people who are harassing you, and you pay it no mind. But there’s some things you can’t block. And a big one is that you can’t block people from going after your friends and colleagues. And that is exactly what people did to me at the height of the Buck Angel incident.”
She then goes on to mention her colleagues that were inundated with tweets demanding that they publicly disown her – or else. Furthermore, she claims that her colleagues lost money from Patreon due to these events.
“And several colleagues of mine, by the way— Lindsay, Harry, Olly — they all took a financial hit over this. They’ve all lost some Patreon support.”
These colleagues are also individuals that rely on fan support and Patreon money to keep their YouTube careers alive. Their direct association with ContraPoints put them at risk.
Similar can be observed with gamer YouTuber, ProJared, who experienced a cancellation in May 2019. He had 1,033,939 subscribers, but lost 100,00 subscribers in just one day after he was cancelled for allegedly cheating on his wife. His subscriber count dropped to 931,237 in that day and continued. Now, as of April 2020, new information that came out about the situation deemed him innocent all along, according to the public. However, some damage was already done. Currently, he has 895,000 subscribers and has not returned to his original 1,000,000. Not everyone can fully recover from being cancelled – regardless of whether it was deserved or not.
When someone is directly associated with the target of a cancellation – two things could happen. They could gain popularity, or they could never recover from what ensues. As demonstrated, if the associated was already big enough to survive being associated with someone cancelled on their own, they may reap the rewards in the future after suffering during a cancellation period. However, this is incredibly dangerous for smaller companies or individuals that would ever need to question if they could handle a boycott.
Imagine a scenario in which an indie developer tried to promote their game through a large influencer, but that influencer was then cancelled. Suddenly, the wrong eyes are on that game. Mobs appear – review bombing the game, angry that you’d support that influencer regardless of whether you knew what they were being cancelled for or not. This is a dangerous period for indie developers.
A company like EA can deeply upset entire gaming communities with bad business practices like in the case of Star Wars: Battlefront 2 in 2018, a game under an incredibly popular IP, still not meet sales expectations due to controversy (selling 9 million instead of the expected 10 to 12 million) but still survive as a company.
Indie developers do not have this luxury.
So what do you do? A much safer strategy is to make sure you aren’t tied directly to one influencer, or a large influencer. As an indie developer, an effective way to market your game while avoiding the danger of running into such a dangerous and popular internet phenomenon such as cancelling is to market your game through multiple, smaller influencers. It is much harder to associate an influencer with a game when multiple influencers are playing that game, making it look as natural as if it was any other indie game that several influencers decided to pick up and play. This is how you avoid the danger of cancel culture – a practice that can kill your game.