The Ethics of Rebooting the Dead

On Halloween, Stacey Dowden spoke to her 91-year-old father over FaceTime as he lay in bed in Nebraska, his eyes closed. He was already in a hospice when he began exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19 that Thursday, and Dowden thought if she didn’t talk to her dad soon, there might not be another opportunity. Facilitated by a nurse’s iPhone, she and her sister spoke to him at 3 pm from their homes in Pittsburgh and Brewster, Massachusetts, respectively. “We were able to see him and say ‘I love you, and bye,’” recalls Dowden. By 5 o’clock, he had passed.

As the Covid-19 quarantine has worn on, digital interfaces have become enmeshed in our emotional connections to loved ones. Friends and colleagues stay in touch over Zoom. Almost everyone has a go-to group chat. Family members, like Dowden and her sister, say goodbye using technology, which often provides the only tool a dying person has to help them through the last transition. “We often see people hanging on until that relative arrives or that child is born,” says Christopher Kerr, chief medical officer at Hospice & Palliative Care Buffalo and the author of Death Is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End. Video calls, he adds, can help facilitate passing on.

But what about the whole expanse of time after they die, and the people they leave behind? Kerr has long studied end-of-life events, and he notes that often the bereaved experience sensory visitations from deceased loved ones. These phenomena “tend to be very vivid, and they tend to leave them with a sense that the loved one is OK.” He hesitates to speculate on the underpinnings of a natural physiological response to loss, but he says these extraordinary experiences point to “a spiritual capacity that clearly exists in people.”

Explicable or not, when someone has the sense that the people they’ve lost are still there, they want to retain that feeling. And recently, some have turned to technology to simulate it. Earlier this year, the devastating South Korean documentary Meeting You showed a mother, Jang Ji-sung, in a virtual reality headset trying to touch an avatar of her late 7-year-old daughter, Na-yeon. In 2017, Eugenia Kuyda built Replika, an AI chatbot designed as a digital remembrance of a friend who had died, then released the code so that anyone could try to build one of their own. That same year, in a piece for WIRED, journalist James Vlahos chronicled his similar quest to create a “Dadbot” of his father after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The same week that Dowden’s father passed away, Kanye West gave his wife Kim Kardashian West a birthday present: a hologram of her late father Rob Kardashian dancing and offering her a birthday wish from the beyond. And innovators like Finnish engineer Jussi Tuovinen are pushing technology even further—Tuovinen is at work on a haptic teddy bear that can transmit touch from one user to another.

As the functionality to recreate a person’s touch, appearance, voice, and unscripted dialog progresses, the notion of resurrecting people as digital entities is becoming less hypothetical. So much so that it almost feels inevitable. It’s already been a Black Mirror episode. But just because something can be done, doesn’t always mean it should be.

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For starters, such a thing isn’t always a healthy form of coping. If someone conjures a visceral memory of a lost friend, that’s one thing. (Kerr’s work on this topic will be featured in Surviving Death, a Netflix docu-series premiering in February.) But, Kerr says, allowing them to synthesize one virtually is quite different. “Let’s say somebody is having trouble transitioning and becoming functional in some way,” he says. “And then, all of a sudden, they click a button and that person’s recreated—that could be extraordinarily traumatizing.”

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Can Pepe the Frog Ever Be Redeemed?

Amongst all the talk of the 2020 election, it’s easy to forget everything that led up to Donald Trump winning the presidency in 2016. But if you keep your eyes shut and concentrate you might remember a few things: heated debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton, a chaotic Twitter landscape, and an otherwise cute frog that became the mascot of internet-savvy 4chan users who were trying to meme Trump into the presidency.

Back in 2016, Pepe the Frog was added to the Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols. But before that, he was just a part of a layabout group of friends in Matt Furie’s comic series Boy’s Club. He was never intended for anything but a good time. But when the internet got ahold of him, he became a face of the NEET 4chan masses and ultimately a symbol of the so-called alt-right.

The documentary Feels Good Man, which is currently available on PBS and several streaming services, traces that journey. It also chronicles how Furie, a mild-mannered San Francisco artist, attempted to reclaim Pepe and turn him back into a symbol of love. It’s a formidable task, but perhaps not impossible. As filmmakers Arthur Jones and Giorgio Angelini show in their doc, Pepe actually became a symbol of resistance to authoritarian rule during the protests in Hong Kong just last year.

In this week’s episode of the Get WIRED podcast, senior editor Angela Watercutter talks to Jones and Angelini about the journey they went on with the creator of Pepe—and what the little green frog means now.

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Inside Parler, the Right’s Favorite ‘Free Speech’ App

There are only two rules on Parler, the “free-speech” social network: First, nothing criminal. Second, no spam. Other than that, you can post what you want, the site advertises, “without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.”

For that reason, Parler has gone kablooey in the past week, growing from 4.5 million users to more than 8 million. Its laissez-faire moderation stands in contrast to other platforms, where you can decidedly not post whatever you want. In the days since the election, Facebook has cracked down on political misinformation, Twitter has added warning labels to dozens of @realDonaldTrump’s tweets, and slighted conservatives have flocked to Parler. Activity on the platform increased twentyfold. For most of the week, it has been the top free app in both Apple and Google’s app stores.

The freewheeling disposition of the app has made it a strange mirrorworld to the rest of the social internet. When a post gets flagged by Twitter, it is sometimes reborn on Parler, like a phoenix in 280 characters. Accounts are reborn too, after they’ve been banned elsewhere. Right-wing luminaries who still have profiles on “lamestream” social media have made posts encouraging their followers to get off Facebook and Twitter and join them on Parler instead. This week, I decided to follow them.

I created an account for Parler on Monday. After I chose a username, the app prompted me to follow a few of its star users. The suggestions included the conservative political commentator Sean Hannity, who has called for an exodus from Twitter; internet personalities Diamond and Silk, who were throttled by Facebook in 2018 for sharing “dangerous” content; and conservative talk show host Mark Levin, whose Facebook account was recently restricted for “repeated sharing of false news.” Influencers like Dinesh D’Souza, who Vox Media has called “America’s greatest conservative troll,” and politicians like senator Ted Cruz and representative Devin Nunes also feature prominently. I subscribed to all 16 accounts recommended by the app.

It didn’t take long to get up to speed. Many of Parler’s users take issue with Twitter, which they see as biased and restrictive. But they have remade their new home in its image, like refugees who wish they’d never had to leave. The familiar features have been replicated, but renamed: Retweet is called “Echo.” Likes are called “Votes.” Instead of a blue checkmark, Parler’s elite get a yellow badge that says “verified influencer.”

Parler’s influencers are prolific—Sean Hannity posts roughly 20 times per day—and my feed quickly filled with posts from those I had opted to follow. “Men can identify as women. Women can identify as men. Joe Biden can identify as President-elect. But I can’t identify as a journalist,” wrote Avi Yemini, a far-right activist, who was banned from Facebook in September. “You’re not a journalist, you’re a truther,” someone replied in a comment. “Journalist [sic] is now intertwined with lies.”

I also identify as a journalist, but I decided not to out myself. Instead, my first Parler post was the one that Parler automatically generates for each new user: “I just joined Parler! Looking forward to meeting everyone here.”

Exactly five minutes later, I saw that I had a comment on my introduction post. It came from Team Trump, “the official Parler account for the Trump Campaign,” which bears Parler’s “verified influencer” badge and has 2 million followers on the platform. “Welcome to Parler! Help us MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN by clicking the link below. Be sure to text TRUMP to 88022!” I navigated to the Team Trump page. It had left this exact comment on many, many other Parler users’ accounts—up to 1.6 million times, based on a review of the account’s comments.

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The Agony and Anxiety of the Internet on Election Night 2020

In 2020, television feels slow and one-sided. It talks to you but never listens. At 3 pm Eastern on Tuesday, CNN still had a countdown clock promising that “Election Night in America” would be starting in one hour. Starting? Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and TikToks from sea to shining sea had been giving updates since sunrise. Folks on TikTok requesting a calendar invite for the next civil war. People on Twitter photographing empty grocery store freezers as proof of an anxiety-fueled Ben & Jerry’s shortage. None of those missives contained actual election results, mind you, but they were part of America’s 2020 presidential selection process all the same. This latest election isn’t one night in America; it’s been playing out trepidatiously, nervously, across the country and across our connected devices, for what feels like one long, interminable slog.

Not all of this is new. Sure, no one was live-tweeting the results when Ronald Reagan was elected, but as more Americans came online in the past two decades, our national milestones have, too. Even if Donald Trump winning the presidency in 2016 was a surprise to some, the events surrounding it came from a playbook. People gathered with family and friends to watch the results. Some tuned in at home or went to a bar. In between news segments they posted the occasional tweet, sent out a picture on Instagram of their “I Voted” sticker.

This year, of course, the presidential election found itself square in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Far fewer people are watching in groups or at bars; in many cities, establishments were boarded up over fears of unrest. Online, it seemed, was the best place people could gather to watch the night unfold.

There is a strange danger in that. Watching election results get tallied, regardless of one’s political affiliation, puts a person’s brain into a sort of survival mode, each person staring at their country’s future. When I talked to Nicole Ellison at the University of Michigan’s School of Information about this back in the summer she noted that social media was good at spreading small bits of information but bad at providing any overarching narrative, which can lead to stress and anxiety. “Combine that with the fact that, socially, many of us are not going into work and standing around the coffee maker engaging in collective sense-making,” she added, “and the result is we don’t have a lot of those social resources available to us in the same way.”

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illustration of 2020 in red and blue

At the time, Ellison was talking about Americans doomscrolling for details about the coronavirus or the Black Lives Matter protests, but the same principle applies to the election. Everyone is looking for answers to how the story ends, some sort of signal amid the noise. Last night, they had to make do with vote-count percentages, as the race between Joe Biden and President Trump stayed tight in key states. Of course, experts had been warning for weeks that the chances of knowing who won the presidency in one night were slim. That didn’t stop the president from prematurely claiming, in a press conference around 2 am, “We will win this, and as far as I’m concerned, we already have won it”—another move that had been predicted and telegraphed for days. More noise on top of noise. Throughout it all, I and so many others felt the impulse to keep scrolling. Panic, refresh, retweet.

For weeks, journalist Karen Ho, Twitter’s Doomscrolling Reminder Lady, has been reminding people to put down their phones. On a night like last night, that was nearly impossible for anyone wanting to know what their fellow humans were doing. Perhaps that’s why more than a few people saw the need to share counterprogramming. Ho started posting “calming” dog pictures around midafternoon. As the night went on, for every three tweets claiming to be able to read early exit polls like they’re the Matrix code, I saw someone proffering up serene nature photographs or Twitch streams or home-brewed fanfic. Even The New York Times, a publication many folks would look to for election results, set up an Election Distractor. There was also a Twitter feed featuring videos of bunnies and something called a “digital stress ball.” I squeezed once, then scrolled for another 35 minutes.

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My Life as a Blue-Haired ‘Commie Bitch’ in Portland

I became somebody’s metaphor on my way home last week. I was walking along a busy road in southeast Portland, Oregon, when a pickup truck pulled alongside me. It had a flagpole mounted to either side of the bed, flying Trump 2020 on one side and the Thin Blue Line flag on the other. The driver—a florid-faced white man in a ball cap and dad sunglasses—leaned out the window as the truck coughed by. “Nice ass, commie bitch!” he called. I didn’t have time to do much more than flip him off and hope he caught it in his rearview.

Street harassment always sets my mind buffering. I do the thing that feminism and good sense tell me not to: scrutinize myself for signs of provocativeness. I tried to deduce which criminal slice of my outfit (jeans and a gray turtleneck) or body (white, female, age 28) had betrayed me to his attention while the real culprit drove away and never thought about me again. I came back with nothing: no hammers, no sickles, no dog-eared Marxist text peaking over the edge of my bag. What could have possibly offended this big red man in his big red truck into such a politically charged display of casual creepitude? Then I remembered. I was a woman in Portland wearing a mask in public, and my hair is blue now. And despite what you’ve seen online, the experience of living in Portland in 2020 can actually be pretty purple.

Like a lot of other people, I dyed my hair for the first time ever mid-lockdown because it seemed fun and I was bored. Blue struck me as particularly low stakes—neutrals look good on everyone, and even if it somehow clashed with my skin tone, I’d be seen by next to nobody. My friends liked it. So did my postwoman. But I live in a part of Portland where itty bitty houses start to give way to used car lots, and pro-Trump, anti-Black Lives Matter paraphernalia have become a steadily more common sight as the election draws closer and President Trump continues to denounce the city as a hotbed of definitionally impossible antifa terrorism and nonexistent anarchist looting. Before Mr. Red Scare hollered at me, I had noticed people noticing my hair, and that their facial expressions seemed more complicated than “I think that looks ugly.” So I Googled, and realized that I’d miscalculated.

I’d somehow missed that the blue-haired social justice warrior had entered the online far-right’s pantheon of leftist caricatures. I probably should have known. People have been discussing the politics of blue-haired women specifically in the Reddit manosphere since at least 2015, but most satirical renditions of overwrought SJWs used to have fire engine red hair. That’s probably because of Chanty Binx, a carmine-haired Canadian woman who went viral in 2011 after being caught on video confronting a group of men’s rights activists. By 2016, the so-called alt-right were sharing pudgy, pussy-hatted, pink-haired SJWs drawn by cartoonists like Ben Garrison, supposedly inspired by images taken at protests like the 2017 Women’s March. On the post-TikTok internet though, blue-haired girls (and women who dye their hair anything other than blonde more generally) are drawing snide misogynistic commentary and are assumed to lean hard to the left.

Hair dye and perceived loose morals have gone together since the ancient world. In the Roman Empire, sex workers were required to dye their hair blonde to signify their profession. Though the association is fading now, blonde hair retained the implication of heightened sexuality for a long time—just take a look at Old Hollywood and the kinds of fun that blondes were supposedly having more of. As dyed blonde hair has become a conventional or even slightly conservative style choice (see: nearly every female Fox News host), vibrantly colored hair has inherited its stereotypes of laxity and wildness and general leftism.

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illustration of 2020 in red and blue

To be fair, it’s probably true that women who dye their hair unconventional colors might be more inclined to make other unorthodox choices, including political ones. Dyed hair is maybe most associated with alternative and punk communities that do tend to embrace progressive political ideals, which rightwing media often dismiss as communism or socialism. Blue hair seems to be especially common among progressive teenage girls on TikTok, which isn’t entirely surprising given that highly TikTokable progressive pop stars including Billie Eilish and Ashnikko have both worn the look. It’s not uncommon to see comments like “have fun with the blue hair girls” on the videos of outspokenly feminist men or “Trump 2020” on a blue-haired TikTokker’s videos apropos of nothing.

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Claudia Conway’s TikToks Can’t Save Democracy

Last Friday, former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway sent out a tweet that seemed almost inevitable: “Tonight I tested positive for Covid-19.” As the latest in a cascade of positive tests from a White House outbreak that had already infected the president, her condition was newsworthy—but that news had already broken. Claudia Conway, Kellyanne’s 15-year-old daughter, had announced her mother’s diagnosis in a TikTok post earlier that same evening. She said that Kellyanne had lied to her about the test results.

A few days later, the younger Conway went on TikTok again to assert that Trump’s health was faltering. “Apparently he is doing badly lol and they are doing what they can to stabilize him,” she wrote. The high schooler also posted and deleted a video of her mother chastising her for her previous videos. “You lied about fucking Covid!” Kellyanne fumes, in a tone recognizable to anyone who has ever been a mother or a daughter. Claudia put up another new TikTok clarifying that her mom hadn’t lied to her after all—with Kellyanne in the background, urging her to make the clarification. While the conflict between parent and child had the patina of the familiar—teenager defiant, mother exasperated—its stakes have become a national concern.

Over the summer, Claudia attracted hundreds of thousands of followers on TikTok and Twitter for her blunt, cheeky criticism of Trump and support of progressive politics, her posts a spectacle of Gen Z rebellion. Now she was breaking vital news about his world. Through TikTok, she gave people hungry for information a digital glimpse at the turmoil within an opaque, frequently dissembling administration in crisis. For her efforts, supporters and media outlets are christening her as a new #Resistance hero. She’s the latest figure to fill the maybe-savior role temporarily inhabited by Robert Mueller, Stormy Daniels, and James Comey at various points since 2016. Could she take down Trump? As a story, it’s as gripping as a good YA novel: Brave teen exposes powerful liars, saves democracy, etc.

But that framing is all wrong. This is not a hero’s journey. It’s a sad family melodrama that happens to be taking place smack in the middle of a Venn diagram of overlapping crises in American culture.

The Trump administration is openly hostile to the press, and prefers that the president communicate directly with the American people, often via Twitter. With dashed-off tweets, Trump has signaled major policy and staffing changes; he fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson via Twitter, for example, and announced his decision to ban transgender troops in a series of tweets as well. In doing so, the president has inadvertently conditioned people into viewing social media accounts connected with his inner circle as conduits for knowledge about it.

Unlike her mother or Trump, Claudia Conway does not have a well-documented history of lying to the American people, and her bold public stances against her family and its politics bolster her credibility as someone who is not afraid to speak her mind to power. Accepting Claudia’s assertions about the president’s health is tempting for some because those assertions confirm what they believe to be true (that he isn’t telling the truth about his health) or what they simply would like to be true (that he is suffering). But accepting a private citizen’s secondhand speculations about the White House outbreak as fact speaks to the brokenness of the American information ecosystem.

Claudia should not be in a position where people look to her for updates about a national emergency. Now that she is in this unfortunate role, though, it does no one any favors to ignore what she has to say. In recent years, a number of very young social activists have brought urgent messages to a broad audience; Swedish environmental advocate Greta Thunberg, for example, or the students at Parkland High School who survived a school shooting to stump for gun safety. Their youth does not diminish their seriousness of purpose or make their ideas less worthy of consideration. Likewise, the fact that Claudia Conway is a teenage girl does not discredit her. But idolizing her as a whistleblowing figurehead does her a disservice, as does taking her word as gospel.

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illustration of 2020 in red and blue

Claudia is experiencing the distorting influence of a culture where politics and celebrity have converged into a singular swamp; she rose to prominence with an assist from TikTok, which serves up her distressed dispatches as consumable snippets. Perhaps she would have swum into the pundit class from another stream—think Meghan McCain, turning her blog into a talking-head career—but the accelerationist algorithms made sure she arrived swiftly, without a publicist, parental approval, or a framework for navigating the attention.

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Covid-19 Support Groups Are a Potential Research Gold Mine

Unless you or someone you know has contracted Covid-19, you’re likely just being exposed to the major coronavirus news: the vaccine trials, the updated infection prevention measures, the rising death toll. Smaller, more personal news about the pandemic tends to get drowned out on the open internet. To combat this, people who have tested positive for the virus congregate on their own, finding and founding dedicated online spaces where they post about the minutiae of a crisis more often described in giant, global arcs.

These groups are both distressing and hopeful. “I’m 21, with no prior health conditions,” writes one redditor on r/COVID19positive. “I advise anyone my age to please take all precautions. It hurts my fucking heart knowing I gave my family this horrible virus.” Commenters urge them not to be too hard on themselves, and to focus on getting well. On the Facebook group Survivor Corps, a poster has good news about an ailing loved one: His oxygen levels are finally holding steady. “This is the first improvement we have seen,” they write. “Thank you for your encouragement and your prayers.” Others mourn people lost to Covid-19 with memorial posts, list out their symptoms so people can compare and offer advice, seek help coping with the anxiety of their new or worsening diagnosis, or even just rant about anti-maskers they’ve encountered.

As infection rates continue to rise, these groups have become quite popular, drawing in hundreds of thousands of sick people seeking support. According to Jay Sinrod, founder of the Covid-19 Support Group (have it/had it) on Facebook, their members represent 102 countries from the UK to Tajikistan, and he sends a welcome message to about 300 people per day. Despite the much-heralded perils of social media groups like misinformation and harassment, for many people with Covid-19, these groups have been a source of solace. For medical researchers, they’ve been a source of data—free, easily harvestable, and ripe for analysis.

Online support groups tend to surge after any major crisis, whether it’s a terrorist attack or a natural disaster. However, according to John Naslund, who studies digital mental health at Harvard Medical School, the Covid-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented surge in online activity. “What we’re seeing is the impact of the pandemic on mental health,” Naslund says. “It’s increasingly difficult to access in-person services. Here in Boston, most hospitals have stopped outpatient mental health services. It’s interesting that they’re not considered essential.” In his research into online groups dedicated to mental health issues, he’s found such communities to be incredibly helpful for some people’s wellbeing. But “I want to be careful about saying it can work for anyone,” he cautions. “People who are still in crisis or have maybe more complex challenges need professional help.” Returns also diminish the less the group is moderated, as anybody who has ever been on social media could probably guess.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

Covid-19 support groups aren’t purely Pollyanna. “I was really surprised at the trolls,” says Jean Oja, moderator of r/Covid-19Positive. “People have posted that they tested [positive] for Covid and they’re in high school, but then we check them out and none of that is true. Or when a trans girl that was sick [posted]. The hate that came from people who are transphobic—I was very much not happy with that.” Still, Oja and the rest of her team of moderators (about half of whom are teenagers) work hard to scrub all that negativity away, even now when the subreddit has grown to more than 86,000 people. Meanwhile, Sinrod’s Facebook group has cut down on noise and misinformation but limiting all posts to personal experience—no screaming headlines allowed. Yet, even after the culling of meddlers, most groups are brimming with people (mostly women) eager to give testimonials. “I check Survivor Corps daily. It is a strong community. It continues to give me positivity and ways to give back,” says Dina Ganz Traugot, a 51-year-old Covid survivor from New York City.

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How ‘Cuties’ Got Caught in a Gamergate-Style Internet Clash

Even before Netflix released the French film Cuties in the United States, review sites were brimming with emotional audience judgements. The movie, which centers on a panicked Parisian preteen named Amy (Fathia Youssouf) as she joins a rebellious clique and navigates her family life, currently holds an 11 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “Absolutely shocking that this was allowed to be broadcast,” one reads. Another: “Extremely inappropriate.” One more: “The world is worse for having this film in it.”

The debut film of director Maïmouna Doucouré, Cuties is a sensitive, small-scale character study of a French-Senagalese girl—not, historically, the sort of movie that attracts that much mainstream attention in America at all, let alone intense hatred. Yet members of Congress are calling it child porn, Doucouré is receiving death threats, and conspiracy theorists obsessed with secret elite cabals of pedophiles are targeting Netflix under the pretense that the streaming service is part of a global scheme to normalize the sexualization of children. Caught in the internet’s crosshairs, Cuties has become a lightning rod, but not an anomaly—it’s a new front in a culture clash that’s been going on for years.

Cuties is part of a growing subgenre of intimate indie movies focused on outsider girls. Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen is an obvious predecessor. In both Cuties and Thirteen, confused young female leads rebel in upsetting, age-inappropriate ways to win peer approval and avoid stressful family lives. Both treat the bonds between female friends and mothers and daughters as their primary concerns. No romances, no epic endings. Not exactly traditional box-office catnip geared to grab the masses. Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, which focuses on an East London girl named Mia, also has thematic overlap. Like Amy, Mia takes solace in hip-hop, lives in public housing, and has a single mother. Like Amy, she leaves a dance competition when she realizes it’s way too much for her. In its exploration of how social media can distort a young person’s sense of identity, Cuties recalls Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. In French film, it echoes Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, which also follows a Black French girl as she joins a mischievous clique. Thirteen did provoke some hand-wringing upon release, but for the most part, these films have been well-regarded, auteur-driven dives into the experiences of young women. When it premiered at Sundance this year, Cuties looked poised to join this canon.

Maybe it will. But first it has to navigate a backlash of unprecedented proportions, as its reputation gets dragged through some particularly fetid mud.

To be unambiguous: Cuties is not a pornographic film. Doucouré drew from her own experiences—like Amy, she’s a French-Senegalese woman who grew up in Paris—and from the stories of young girls she interviewed to create an intimate, funny, painful coming-of-age story. There is no nudity. There are no sex scenes. It does feature disturbing sequences where its young actors dance provocatively in inappropriate clothing, and it shows Amy taking a picture of her crotch and posting it to social media. These scenes are intended to horrify the viewer, and the plot hinges on Amy understanding that she’s tried to grow up too fast. And, look, France does have a history of producing some frankly gross art about young girls—but Cuties has a fundamentally moderate message. Amy rejects aspects of her traditional Islamic upbringing, but she also ultimately turns away from her misapprehension that growing up means turning yourself into a sex object. In interviews, Doucouré has been very clear on this point. “Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she’s successful. Our children imitate what they see, trying to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s dangerous.”

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Anime Avatars Are Going Mainstream on Twitch

“I will never have to work out again!” Twitch streamer Imane “Pokimane” Anys said on her stream Sunday. She zoomed the camera out to show her full form: waved brown hair, enormous teak eyes, and a cropped purple top showing a flat tummy. Anime as hell, all of it.

In lieu of her face, Anys had commissioned a 3D anime model of herself that tracked her words and movements, enacting them live. Anys was scrolling through Reddit and chatting with viewers, as usual, when one asked what in God’s name was going on. “Usually I stream with a cam,” said Anys matter-of-factly. “Sometimes if I don’t want to use a cam, maybe I’ll just use this! Nyah!” Her 3D model’s eyes closed, looking like a complacent cat’s.

Anys was debuting “Vtuber Pokimane,” adopting a form popularized by the Vtuber communities of YouTube, Twitch, and other video-based platforms. Technologically adept operators use face- and voice-tracking systems to dance, sing, chat, play games, and emote like any other online personality—only through these 2D or 3D anime avatars. Their mouths move as they talk; their eyes widen with curiosity and narrow with anger. (Anys tested her hand-tracking tech by successfully giving the middle finger.) Often the operators are anonymous, their voices modulated onto kawaii frequencies.

To get started, Vtubers commission virtual, interactive models with a variety of animations and facial expressions. Then they map their facial expressions and mouth and body movements, using a camera along with motion capture and voice analysis software. (Anys said she used Luppet, body-tracking software from a Japan-based company.) Around 10,000 of these channels exist globally across YouTube, Twitch, Bilibili, Weido, Niconico, and other video sites; there’s even a Vtuber agency called HoloLive that represents over 50 anime models. In 2019, the number of combined views on Vtuber channels increased by 99 percent, according to AI firm Hyprsense.

Kizuna AI, who has millions of subscribers on YouTube, claims to be the first virtual YouTuber. With thigh-high socks and an oversized pink bow, Kizuna, who started her channel in 2016, is voiced by a human Japanese actress. (For effect, she tells viewers she’s an artificial intelligence.) Fans speculate that her underlying software is the same as that used by virtual, 3D pop stars voiced by synthesizer software—known as Vocaloids—like Hatsune Miku. On YouTube, Kizuna does the same things any other online personality might: plays the horror game Inside, draws cat pictures, debates controversial topics, chats with fans. Now, she’s a culture ambassador for the Japan National Tourism Organization and has appeared in commercials.

In line with trends in anime, some more popular Vtuber channels have strong lewd undertones. Models often boast exaggerated anatomies (with exaggerated “jiggle” physics). Earlier this year, Projekt Melody, who describes herself as “the first … 3D-rendered hentai camgirl”, launched her Chaturbate stream, where she networks her fans’ donations to an internet-connected vibrator. In March, Twitch welcomed her with immediate Partner status, demonstrating the streaming site’s full buy-in on the trend.

Absurdist streams are massively popular, too. A blonde, Sherlock Holmes–looking anime chick named Watson Amelia debuted on YouTube over the weekend with 474,000 views. Over 45,000 live viewers tuned in for shark-girl Gawr Gura’s debut stream Sunday. “You’ve heard of Atlantis?” she asks viewers, wearing a shark costume. “Have you been? Shaaaaaark!” Later, she sings karaoke. Both performers are part of Hololive EN, the English-language branch of the agency.

“Like anime, it once started as a very niche thing and has been slowly growing,” says Vtuber Iron Mouse, a pink-haired girl with devil horns who’s been streaming since 2018. “I think it will only get better and more exciting from here. The more the merrier, I say!”

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Wields Brevity as a Superpower

On the internet, the lingua franca of millennials and Gen Z is brevity. Enclosed by lean timeframes or stubborn character limits, young people have distilled a kind of superhuman power: the ability to make and do more with less.

Several of the most transformative apparatuses of this era tend toward concision. TikTok videos max out at 60 seconds. Tweets are capped at 280 characters (up from the original 140). The entire crux of Vine, which shut down in 2017, hinged on quantitative thrift: Creators had to mastermind spurts of elliptical, comedic genius in six seconds. On each of these platforms, of which teens and young adults make up the core consumer, users bewitch and ensnare, able to create short-form content of the most compelling sort, all within a tight criterion. The lesson being: It does not matter how much time one has, what counts is how uniquely it is choreographed.

That is just another way of saying young people have learned to make the most of what they were apportioned. Since being elected to Congress in 2018, US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York)—who counts herself among this very mutable generation—has worked with the same mindset. On Tuesday, during night two of the first all-virtual Democratic National Convention, Ocasio-Cortez was given just 90 seconds to address the nation. There were people who felt that wasn’t enough time, that her slot in the lineup was an outright snub, if not a total corralling of the party’s destiny. “The failure of a major political party to showcase one of its most talented politicians, a young person whose communicative reach and facility positions her to be among its leaders deep into our future,” Rebecca Traister wrote at The Cut, “is self-sabotage.”

In a way, it was. Establishment Democrats only know how to feed the establishment, despite calls for systemic reform. A progressive like AOC doesn’t, in their eyes, really have a place in the same arena, even as Americans who have been failed by the state so desperately need people like her advocating on their behalf. That has not deterred her one bit; alongside Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Stacey Abrams, she is trying to rebuild government from the inside.

Last night, backdropped by symmetrical American flags, Ocasio-Cortez addressed “a mass people’s movement working to establish 21st-century social, economic, and human rights.” Absent the singular flair that typically animates her speeches on the House floor, she spoke of wanting to build “reimagined systems”—around racial justice, gender equity, immigration, and foreign policy—that would take America in a new direction.

The polished compactness of her speech is as good a metaphor as any for the kind of generational politics that divide the Democratic party; where many of this week’s speakers will be allotted well past five minutes—yapping about why the country needs to get back to the way things used to be, blind to the fact those ways got America in this mess in the first place—Ocasio-Cortez’s capsule soliloquy was a nimble performance in how to get things done, an education in synoptic skill and vigor. (For now, former first lady Michelle Obama remains the exception; her 18-minute Monday keynote was a master class in grace and realness.)

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