The idea of ‘cancel culture’ as something new and uniquely threatening is a red herring. There has always been 'cancel culture' – newspapers and current affairs shows, for example, have long defined the boundaries of acceptable discourse and freely expressible thought in our society. And they ‘cancelled’ those who fell or ventured outside of those boundaries. The only difference in modern ‘cancel culture’ is that it has been democratised thanks to social media. And the people who would have done the cancelling in the past, the one-time guardians of ideological and behavioural ‘properness’, have been dethroned, cast into the proletariat and can now themselves be ‘cancelled’ as the mob bays. Ain’t no fun when the rabbit got the gun (sic).
Nevertheless, there is a social media related phenomenon we probably should be paying greater attention to. And it relates to Part III of Chimamanda Ngozi Adechie’s viral essay, "It Is Obscene". The issue is not cancel culture but clout culture and how it impacts writers and publishing.
Leverage is the secret ingredient of walking into a business meeting and successfully leaving with everything you want. In contrast, walking into any business-related meeting without leverage is akin to walking into a room with a begging bowl: what you seek is charity. You might get lucky and find a generous donor, but you’ll usually leave with, at best, small change.
Leverage of course plays a huge role in the publishing business. And a key part of leverage now in publishing – especially for unknown or lesser-known writers – is your popularity on social media.
The alluring nature of the hypothetical exchange is obvious: "I bring a built-in audience to the table thanks to my Twitter followers, (which means half of your job is done) and you give me a book deal and a blank cheque in return. And together we unleash The Science of Clout Chasing onto the world and make a shed load of money: deal?".
Facetious simplicity aside, it is a fair and just exchange: a buoyant social media page is naturally commercially appealing as it arguably does bring a built-in audience. The social media pages of many publishers are nowhere near as vibrant or popular as the social media pages of the average influencer. Business wise it is also a fairly sensible bet that a person who is popular on the timeline will also prove popular on the page.
There is however one issue: on social media your numbers count more than your ideas, for the numbers are an indicator of clout. Ideas and content, on the other hand, are indicators of talent.
The fair yet fallacious assumption is that good content garners ‘good’ numbers and therefore the numbers are indicative of talent. But in reality, this is often not the case. Nevertheless, when it comes to social media as a form of leverage (within publishing and beyond): we are more likely to be judged by the count of our followers than by the content of our content (with apologies to Dr Martin Luther King).
In short: clout is well positioned to replace talent. And it may be well on its way to doing so.
Talent is nurtured, strived for and honed. Clout is acquired (often chased). Sometimes clout is indeed acquired through talent, other times it results from being a bit of a circus, a cloutrage machine (i.e. someone who harnesses outrage for clout), wild contrarianism bordering on lunacy, bigotry, being sexually suggestive on a near fulltime basis or, preferably, a well packaged brand of all of the above (barring talent).
There are billions of people on social media so doing something that makes you stand out as as one of social media’s bright stars worthy of a mass following can be a sign of smartness or silliness. The pursuit of clout can take you into rather unconventional or even poisonous territory.
A one-time acquaintance, a failed rapper, aligned himself with the alt-right for clout. He now has over 400k Twitter followers and was a guest at Trump’s White House and is now a Fox News go-to black guy for things racists want to hear about black people (a very lucrative role). He has also been excommunicated by most people who knew and loved him – including family. I estimate that he is a 5000-word proposal away from at least a decent six figure deal.
It is this self-destructive social media clout culture that Chimamanda touched on in Part III of "It Is Obscene". People saying and doing things they otherwise wouldn’t normally do, certainly not in real life – as a means of garnering a greater following, to improve their numbers: compromising critical relationships and blocking vital future ones. Super short-termism. And who can blame them? Clout demonstrably pays.
Normally I would attempt to offer an answer or solution but I don’t have any. Nevertheless, as clout culture becomes increasingly prevalent and powerful in our society and industry – and muscles out talent, I am left wondering if modern Shakespeares or Orwells will find themselves ghost-writing for the dukes or duchesses of Instagram about their latest body enhancements, Bitcoin hauls or needlessly butchered relationships.
Addressing the man in the mirror: in writing this piece, perhaps I too, as Chimamanda said of all of us, am no longer a human being but just a mere "angel jostling to out-angel everyone else". Who knows? Either way, my Twitter handle is: @NelsAbbey. Feel free to give me a follow – Lord knows I could do with the numbers.
Nels Abbey is a writer, satirist and media executive based in London. He is the author of Think Like a White Man (Canongate, 2018), a satirical self-help book. He is the co-founder of The Black Writers’ Guild. He is also a former banker.