Is the meaning of culture changing? From woke to cancel culture - is this a new social era?

The word culture describes a mindset of thoughts, beliefs and behaviour

Watch more of our videos on Shots!
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

With the rise of phrases such as cancel culture, woke and culture wars, the way we define culture is changing. As language evolves and starts to include new terminology, we begin to see a shift in how terms are being used and the influence it has on society, especially in the digital realm. 

So is the definition of culture changing, and how does it present itself in the digital space? Here is what you need to know. 

The traditional definition of culture

Sociologist Dr Nicki Cole explains in ThoughtCo that culture is a vital part of understanding our lives. It is an important way of shaping social relationships, maintaining social order, and understanding our place in this world and how we make sense of it. However, this also encompasses knowledge, common sense, assumptions and expectations. 

It is also the rules, norms, laws, and morals that govern society through the words we use as well as how we speak and write them and the symbols we use to express meaning, ideas, and concepts (like traffic signs and emojis). These practices and beliefs are shared by a group of people. Culture also shows through how we carry ourselves and how we express identities of race, class, gender, and sexuality but also comes from the way we behave and perform. 

There are two sides to culture - the material side and the non-material. Firstly, the material side is what is made by people, coming in the forms of buildings, technology, film, music, art and literature. The other side, the non-material, consists of values and beliefs. Ultimately one influences the other which leads to patterns. What manifests through film, music and art leads to an expectation of those who interact with them - which then influences the creation of additional cultural products.

The word culture describes a mindset of thoughts, beliefs and behaviourThe word culture describes a mindset of thoughts, beliefs and behaviour
The word culture describes a mindset of thoughts, beliefs and behaviour

What do we mean by the term culture today? 

As more people form an online presence, we created a digital dimension to our social interactions. This became utilised for work, to find love, and to create bonds and friendships with people on the other side of the world as social media platforms made it possible to converse with people in real time. Professor Yasmin Ibrahim, a Professor of Digital Economy at Queen Mary University of London, says cultural phenomena - which are the ways which we react, preside over certain groups and the ways we enact dominance appears in digital culture.

Speaking to NationalWorld, she says: “Just as it was in offline society, digital culture manifested in social media platforms. It was visible, it was in real time and it could also be downloaded. So you can imagine the virality of those reactions.”

Culture could be used interchangeably with lifestyle and represents a series of behaviours and frames of mind. Culture wars can occur when two beliefs clash, for example when Welsh drag artist Aida H Dee received death threats after they were touring across British libraries to read stories to kids. 

Aida, whose real name is Sab Samuel, was subjected to harassment from a small number of protesters disrupting their reading events so they would get cancelled. Aida H Dee told Euronews that most of the protesters who showed up at their events last year were strongly misinformed.

They said: “When asked by journalists, some of them said that we were performing a sex show for kids. These people are victims. These aggressors are victims of misinformation campaigns. And we really need to discuss what we can do to prevent misinformation campaigns from getting to these people.”

Prof Ibrahim explains that online culture and offline culture are not dichotomised so when we see something online we can take the effort to move it offline, when people can be convinced to protest. This can move antagonistic behaviour from a digital space to an offline space - with people with the same interests banding together. 

She explains: “Let's say you did a protest outside 10 Downing Street. People have protested and that protest was carried out in social media so we'll get another lifeline on those spaces, and vice versa, you create something of contention online and that could also ignite communities to have protests offline in different contexts. That conjoining, that's quite dynamic.”

What is meant by culture? 

The term encompasses many aspects of life that are now attached to culture. These include a mix of traditional and digital terms

  • Stan culture: the behaviour and beliefs of an extreme fandom 
  • Cancel culture: when someone who has acted or spoken in an unacceptable manner is boycotted and shunned
  • Cultural appropriation: the inappropriate adoption of cultures, practices and ideas of one culture by members of another, usually more dominant, people or society. 
  • Corporate culture: the values and behaviours of a company's employees expressed via social interactions and work environment
  • Hustle culture: an environment - usually a workplace - with a high focus on ambition, success and productivity, often at the expense of rest, self-care or work-life balance
  • Hollywood culture: associated with power, glamour and money in line with the entertainment industry
  • Culture War: a conflict between groups that hold different cultural ideals
  • Woke: being aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)

Prof Ibrahim says that words have a way of circulating in popular consciousness which can enact certain modes of behaviour and certain reactions. Online, this can be shielding as people who have similar interests may converge together, or you may have groups that want to dominate each other. This can lead to polemic commentary. She explains: “It could be a form of violence in its own right and people attack each other because they feel it's not the kind of responsibilities you might have in an offline situation. So ostracising somebody where they feel they should be censured publicly becomes a sort of a public activity.” Eventually this leads to a pattern, and creates terms such as ‘Cancel Culture’. 

Going beyond material and non-material culture, the word encompasses a broader collection of activities and events. For example, corporate culture transcends race, religion, and sexuality as it focuses on events that happen in the workplace - how people interact with each other or work gatherings for social meetups. Popular culture does something similar by referring to books, music and films which are location dependent. 

Why is the definition of culture changing?

Culture is part of society, which means it is constantly evolving and updating. Prof Ibrahim explains that just because we feel cultural aspects more intensely, due to the sheer saturation of information available to us, does not mean culture has not always been evolving. As we move through social mobility, or changing standards, culture evolves with the way society is thinking at that moment. 

She says: “Culture has always evolved, whether it’s bottom up or top down, those interventions remain at the intensity of feeling saturated by news, by misinformation, by things that besiegers all the time because we are in a very connected state of mind. We feel like culture is chasing us even though we are co creating it all the time.”