In 2020, the far right began weaponizing the term “woke” to mean far left individuals bent on forcing everyone to march in a gay pride parade. At some point in the conversation, the left and right began throwing slurs at each other, which only ostracized where most of us fall – the middle.
At its core, being woke is just being aware and actively attentive to essential facts and issues like race, social justice, and equal rights. It does not mean you are browbeating everyone else for their personal beliefs. It means you are aware of what is happening around you and adjust your own lifestyle accordingly.
Think of it this way. Being woke in the 1960s would have meant fair treatment of women wearing flip-flops on a plane. In the 80s, it would have been showing more skin on a beach. The 90s had the counter-culture of grunge and underground rap fighting “the man,” and the early 2000s was all about using technology to spread information that used to be held behind corporate barriers.
Woke is highly relative to the individual. One generation may have thought of it as the ability of a black man to walk down the street without being questioned by police, and another as the ability to purchase a beer under the age of 21. Whatever you want to characterize wokeness as in today’s world, it is drastically changing the world in entertainment, technology, business, and lifestyle.
Woke culture in technology
Being woke has become synonymous with youth culture. As more and more teens raised on social media become consumers with actual buying power, technology has shifted to accommodate their needs. The primary change is in personalized user experience. Everything is related to the user and their preferences.
If you have a digital startup, you need to accommodate these social changes by being more inclusive, diverse, and equitable to the various users who interact with your brand. It is not enough to create a revolutionary platform anymore. It must be made to welcome anyone who wishes to use it. Free speech is welcome, but so is the social justice of the masses.
An interesting side effect of wokeness in technology relates directly to work from home and employment needs. Before the pandemic, it was about finding a job that cared for you. Something that had the opportunity for growth in return for being chained to a computer for most of the day.
Now employees have had a taste of a more accessible work style. While income is still the leading predictor of a good job, next in line is the ability to work from home, access to health care, and whether or not the company hiring you has a reputation for social change. In this case, being woke doesn’t mean race or sexual orientation. It implies an openness to shifting the workplace from cubicles to private homes.
That means technology has had to accelerate the creation of tools supporting this change. Video conferencing and the advent of the Metaverse, where everyone can meet up, are now the norm. Avatars where you can choose to be anything you want, free from the social conventions of race, gender, and other physical characteristics, morph the company culture into one of productivity and belongingness.
Woke in business
You cannot succeed in today’s marketplace if your company is unaware of social issues. Cancel culture and the ability of the masses to organize through social media means one significant hiring or firing mistake can lead to a boycott of your brand. Recently, the Instagram community, including the Kardashians, let their voices heard, resulting in a roll-back of its video features similar to TikTok. Consumers want to spend their money in places that share their personal beliefs.
A great example of this is Chick-fil-A. The owner is far more conservative and religious than many in the consumer marketplace are. When the owner contributed to anti-gay marriage legislation, it resonated with the rest of the world. Active boycotts were organized at various Chick-fil-A locations, even though most were owned by franchise managers who did not share this same belief as the founder.
That is the double-edged sword of wokeness in business. Sometimes it helps to be a canary in a coal mine to ensure your business is operating in alignment with social change. Still, it can also be a dramatic overreaction out of mutual social outrage. That makes it incredibly hard for a business to build a brand story without offending some group, organization, or ethos. This is causing more brands to either become a little bland in their direction or blindly dedicated to ideas they know will piss off a large segment of the crowd.
Woke in entertainment
This is probably where wokeness has the firmest footing. The TV shows, streaming media, and films we see today directly result from the masses. Film producers know the best way to fill theaters is by attracting audiences to the enormous explosions, storylines, and characters that are a bit more inclusive. That is why you see a massive initiative in the Marvel Cinematic Universe toward more women and diverse character development.
In a way, weakness in media is a great way to test how we will change over time. The United States has a rich history of music, film, and books at the forefront of new socially acceptable ideas. When a book about two gay penguins raising a young chick inspires incredible family support as much as book burning in conservative states, you know you have a hot topic that will continue to impact media until a resolution is achieved – or the next issue becomes more critical.
This is probably why you see many storylines mirroring today’s social woke issues like LGBTQ+, race, environmental change, and gun rights. With the changes to Roe V. Wade happening recently, you can almost predict that the movies will have some plot points over the next few years about abortion and health privacy rights.
The chicken or the egg
There are benefits and problems with woke-ness. It allows us to look at an issue causing fear, anger, distrust, and confusion in our society from different angles. Think back to being out of the closet in the early 90s. The idea of gay rights was still in its infancy, but significant stars appearing on film as openly gay shifted the social convention so much that even the military changed its tone.
There is no way to know whether being woke benefits or harms our society. That would take an extended historical analysis that is still unfolding in real-time, from Ukraine to school shootings. However, the impact of this counter-culture is shifting how we do business, the technology we use, and the entertainment we enjoy. For that reason, it is not likely to go away anytime soon.