Cancel culture is a shame- and blocking-based control mechanism employed by individuals and groups to address problem behavior (i.e., conflict). One might consider how the individualism-centered social media culture that most of humanity is now connected through has made it the main conflict tool in all kinds of electronic social platforms. In VR however, cancel culture might have even more detrimental effects for building diversity inclusive environments. Here's why...
In the most primal sense, we all know the fear of being exiled from whoever we believe our tribe or group is that we belong too. The very nature of being a VR user is an action and admission that our physical reality has not met our human needs of distraction and belonging enough either. Maybe we are seeking adventure, a sense of social play, or even intellectual engagement and learning. Because encountering cancel culture in an environment made by and for those who are at least temporarily are self-exiled from their physical reality, I believe using cancel culture as a strategy for addressing toxic behaviors can create immeasurable psychological harm in users and reinforce a trauma-re-enactment interpersonal cycle that is only likely to also increase these behaviors in virtual and physical reality.
Many social platform users in virtual reality have experienced multiple encounters that are described as vitriolic and debase, and those that stick around and become frequent users often describe a phase of numbness where they lose a sense of interpersonal pain and sense of self when harmful or objectifying behaviors happen around or towards them. Although well-intended, social virtual reality platforms like VR Chat, RecRoom, and most recently Alt-Space are increasingly supporting a polarized and divisive culture of group clicks and trolling behavior that only seem to worsen with time. Many individuals who use these platforms readily identify their original intention in these digital spaces was to find and build social connection, and yet their sense of self (who am I as a human being to relate to you through your avatar as another human being) often and rapidly can become fractured and reactive or predatory in nature over time.
Cancel culture is an instinctual social intervention used to diminish problem behavior. When someone is being “canceled” they are receiving feedback from an individual or group by either targeting or abandonment (i.e., blocking) that informs them they have behaved in an unacceptable way and violated some type of implicit or explicit social exchange rule. Cancel culture in virtual reality has a higher consequence than in physical reality because a user who has made a mistake does not have the opportunity to see their behavior reflected on a group of people who turn their back or change their language to intervene intentionally. A user can literally see people vanish in front of them, never learn why they vanished, and keep behaving the same way without ever understanding the harm they are causing. Cancel culture overall is a passive-aggressive default response that under-reacts and over-reacts to irritants or aggressive behaviors without providing a reparative and inclusive follow-up invitation that allows a problem-user to increase their social competency.
In any type of socially creative and collaborative work, mis-understanding and conflict are inevitable ingredients that can either lead to dissolution of relationship or more connective rituals and purposeful connection.
Social exchange theory is a social psychology concept that acknowledges that we are always attempting to get our needs met more efficiently through cooperative social behaviors. When the exchange we are making in virtual reality is pleasure-based instead of basic-needs based, I can become particularly emotional when our needs are not evenly being exchanged or benefited. So, what is the solution? How do we work with cancel culture in VR?
Here are a few options:
These are reflections on VR community design experiments, collaborations, and my individual user experience. How do we connect through the virtual reality medium in a way that enhances our connection with self and our real life relationships?