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No One Knows What TikTok Is

No One Knows What TikTok Is

“Most of these push notifications went to minor children, and these minor children were flooding our offices with phone calls,” Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois told CBS News. “Basically they pick up the phone, call the office, and say, ‘What is a congressman? What is Congress?’ They had no idea what was going on.”

Maybe TikTok won’t rapidly lose its relevance with young people after all.

That’s not what Krishnamoorthi is worried about, but maybe he should be. Not because all of those Gen Zers will one day be able to vote, but because TikTok is their lifeline to the world, and they don’t know what a congressman is. TikTok is where a lot of young people have found their community, their voice, their income. Eradicating TikTok, like the killing off of Vine, rips up a piece of the social fabric.

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

Kayla Gratzer, a TikTok creator in Eugene, Oregon, who had a recent viral video about the mysterious pregnancy of Charlotte the stingray, noted that she would “hate to see the time, effort, and love gone into growing their platform be stripped away from them.” (Side note: Without TikTok, I may never know if, or when, Charlotte has her pups.)

There is also something to the notion that some TikTokkers make a living while also being a part of the cultural discourse and zeitgeist. Alex Pearlman, known on the platform as @Pearlmania500, has built a large following thanks to his humorous TikTok rants. When I emailed him about the bill, he noted that, thanks to TikTok, he’d been able to launch a podcast, build a community, and book a nationwide comedy tour. It also provided the income he needed for the birth of his son in December.

“If we had a functioning government,” he wrote. “I wouldn’t have had to yell on TikTok to be able to afford to start a family.”

What happens next with the TikTok bill is something of a mystery. It needs to go to the US Senate, but the timing on that is uncertain. If it passes, President Joe Biden has said he’ll sign it. Steven Mnuchin, the former US treasury secretary, claims he’s assembling a group of investors to buy TikTok if the measure goes through.

Watching all this unfold, I kept thinking about something Norman told me. As a biracial, bisexual person, she’s found a lot of her own corners of TikTok and remains unsure if she could just up and create that on another platform if the app gets blocked. Black people and queer people, she noted, already face censorship, so the question becomes, “Is there a future for me in America? That’s not really about how I am going to pivot on TikTok, but it’s more saying ‘Are there any areas in this country where I can exist?’”

‘Dune: Part Two’ Fulfills the Prophecy of ‘Dune’

‘Dune: Part Two’ Fulfills the Prophecy of ‘Dune’

The second part of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation, efficiently titled Dune: Part Two, contains a single line that is as much about fans of Frank Herbert’s book as it is about its protagonist, Paul Atreides. It’s delivered by Chani, Paul’s concubine in Herbert’s novel and equal/skeptic in Villeneuve’s meticulously crafted reimagining. “You want to control people?” Chani says, rhetorically. “Tell them a messiah will come. They’ll wait. For centuries.”

Dune acolytes didn’t have to wait for centuries, but the anticipation for a well-executed, faithful adaptation of Herbert’s 1965 book is the stuff of legend. Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky tried and failed to make the film in the 1970s. David Lynch made one in the ’80s that’s a camp classic but struggles to stay coherent. Sprawling and intricate, Dune’s pages carry an all-but-unfilmable weight. Unfilmable to anyone but Villeneuve.

Except, in Villeneueve’s eyes, Paul isn’t a messiah. That’s the trick. Dune: Part Two fulfills the prophecy of what Dune can be rather than what it was. For years, the Dune novel has been treated, by directors, and many readers, as a hero’s journey—the quest of a young man in a strange land who saves the people of the resource-rich planet Arrakis, the Fremen, from foreign rule while working out some Freudian issues along the way. Swap in Luke for Paul and Darth Vader for Baron Harkonnen and it’s Star Wars all the way down (though Dune did it first). No tension, just a blink of internal struggle, and then Paul—the messiah, the Lisan al Gaib—rides to the rescue on the back of a sandworm.

Dune: Part Two, picking up where 2021’s Dune left off, buffs out the white-savior sheen of that telling of the story. Instead it presents Paul (Timothée Chalamet) as a guy aware that his hero status is just the result of decades of myth-building by his mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and the Bene Gesserit (basically, space witches). They’ve been promising the Fremen a savior for years, and when Paul arrives and Stilgar (Javier Bardem) starts yammering on about prophecies fulfilled, Lisan al Gaib whispers to his mom, “Look how your Bene Gesserit propaganda has taken root.”

Jessica’s role, like the one of Chani (Zendaya), has far more dimensions in Dune (the movies) than it did in Dune (the book). Villeneuve told me this deepening of womens’ perspectives would happen back before he even released the first installment. He wanted equality between the genders, and for Harkonnen to not be a caricature, like Ursula on a way-worse power trip. “The book is probably a masterpiece,” he said when I spoke to him in 2021, “but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.” Its heteronormative patriarchal shortcomings provided space for him to explore. Chani now fills the role of warrior who refuses to bow to her boyfriend and doesn’t buy the messiah bullshit. Paul, as my colleague Jason Kehe so succinctly put it when connecting the dots between Dune and Burning Man celebrants, goes “into the desert, becomes a messiah, and ends up a goddamn monster.”

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

How an Iowa School District Used ChatGPT to Ban Books

How an Iowa School District Used ChatGPT to Ban Books

For bookworms, reading a headline like “School District Uses ChatGPT to Help Remove Library Books” can be blood boiling. As Vulture put it earlier this week, it creates the sense that the artificial intelligence tool is once again “[taking] out its No. 1 enemy: original work.” And it is. Using ChatGPT’s guidance, the Mason City Community School District removed 19 titles—including Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Toni Morrison’s Beloved—from its library shelves. But there is another truth: Educators who must comply with vague laws about “age-appropriate” books with “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act” have only so many options.

Signed into law by Governor Kim Reynolds in May, Iowa’s SF 496 is one of those “parental rights” bills that have become popular with Republican lawmakers of late and seek to limit discussion of sexuality and gender identity in schools. (Some have likened Iowa’s bill to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.) Its stipulations are a sweeping attempt at eradicating any discussion of sex or sexuality, and as Mason City School District’s assistant superintendent Bridgette Exman explained in a statement to the Mason City Globe Gazette, “it is simply not feasible to read every book and filter for these new requirements.”

Under the surface of this is a unique conundrum. Broad bans on sexual content that use vague language like “age-appropriate” already leave too much room for interpretation. It doesn’t matter if what’s in the book is the equivalent of softcore slashfic or a harrowing account of childhood molestation. Now, in Iowa, there’s a case of AI—which doesn’t always fully comprehend nuance in written language—being asked to interpret a law that already lacks nuance.

The result, then, is districts like Mason City asking ChatGPT, “Does [insert book here] contain a description or depiction of a sex act?” If the answer was yes, the book was removed from the district’s libraries and stored. But what about when the answer was neither yes nor no? The Bible, for example, “does contain passages that address sexual topics and relationships, but it generally avoids explicit descriptions of sexual acts,” according to ChatGPT. The Bible isn’t on the list of 19 books that got banned, but you can see how quickly this can get confusing. (David going to bed with Bathsheba isn’t a description of a sex act? Uh, OK.)

When I relate this story to Exman, she says she got similar answers, where ChatGPT would say a particular book had sexual depictions but then give context. The example she gives is Patricia McCormick’s Sold, about a young girl who gets sold into prostitution. “ChatGPT did give me what I would characterize as a ‘Yes, but’ answer,” Exman says, but “the law doesn’t have a ‘yes, but.’” Ergo, McCormick’s book is one of the 19 on her district’s list.

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

Marvel’s VFX Workers Have Moved to Unionize—and It’s a Huge Deal for Hollywood

Marvel’s VFX Workers Have Moved to Unionize—and It’s a Huge Deal for Hollywood

One of the many knock-on effects of Marvel making post-credit scenes a feature of the studio’s cinematic universe is that fans get a glimpse of just how many “below-the-line” workers it takes to make all that superhero movie magic. Production designers, hair and makeup folks, camera operators, the lists run on and on. Amongst them, usually toward the end, as theatergoers are eagerly anticipating that tease for the next MCU movie, are lists of the visual effects studios—places with names like Framestore, The Third Floor, Cinesite—that created all of those space scenes and Wakanda visuals. But unlike most of the other names in those credits, the ones attached to VFX artists have never been in a professional union.

On Monday, some folks at Marvel made a move to change that, with a supermajority of Marvel Studios’ VFX crew signing cards saying they want to be represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).

To be clear, the Marvel team is a small faction of a huge industry and doesn’t represent all those outside VFX houses that also work on MCU films. But their move marks a huge shift in Hollywood at a time when people in other industry unions—the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA)—are on strike to get better deals with the major studios. VFX workers have been talking about unionizing for more than a decade, says Bilali Mack, a VFX supervisor who has worked on everything from The Whale to The Flash. The fact that one group, albeit a small one, has taken steps to unionize is “huge,” he says.

This moment has roots in 2013, when Life of Pi won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects just as the company that worked on those effects, Rhythm & Hues, was facing bankruptcy. When the movie’s VFX supervisor, Bill Westenhofer, took the stage to accept his award he said the traditional thank yous and then added “Sadly, Rhythm & Hues is suffering severe financial difficulties right now. I urge you all to remember …”—at which point his mic was cut off and the theme from Jaws began to play.

Rhythm & Hues wasn’t the only VFX studio facing troubles. Some 21 similar companies shuttered between 2003 and 2013, due in part to production delays and the fact that many jobs were going to companies based outside the US, where tax subsidies and incentives give VFX houses a better shot at survival. Attempts to organize have been bubbling up ever since, and this week they bubbled over. “We are witnessing an unprecedented wave of solidarity that’s breaking down old barriers in the industry,” IATSE president Matthew Loeb said in a statement. “That doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

Dunkin’ Donuts Drama Is the Internet at Its Best

Dunkin’ Donuts Drama Is the Internet at Its Best

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

If you live on America’s East Coast—or date Ben Affleck—chances are you have an affinity for Dunkin’ Donuts. Even if you don’t like their baked goods or hate their coffee, you still know that pastel logo as a sign that you’re home. Same goes for the yellow checkerboard pattern of Waffle House in the South or the golden In-n-Out arrow out West. People feel brand loyalty to the Dunkin’ name. Or, well, they did until this week.

Actually, the problems started two weeks ago, when the breakfast food chain swapped its consumer loyalty program, DD Perks, for a revamped one called Dunkin’ Rewards, “designed to help keep you running all day long with the best that Dunkin’ has to offer.” Sounds amazing, but there was one problem: Coffee drinkers can do math. Soon, folks realized that, under the new program, they’d have to get twice as many points to get free drinks, and their beloved free birthday drinks had disappeared.

“What idiot do you think I am, Dunkin’?” wrote one Reddit user. “This reward system is CRAP,” wrote another. Someone called the removal of the birthday drink “a slap in the face.” In an excellent dig, a redditor with the handle PeepnSheep said, “Good thing I live 5 mis from a Starbs lol. RIP dunks, it was nice while you were actually rewarding, even tho you only got my drinks right ⅓ of the time.” There were calls for boycott; people were encouraged to submit complaints.

All told, it felt like the kind of consumer revolt only the internet can pull off. In meatspace, familiar restaurant signs unite people under a common love of “animal style” burgers or Mexican pizzas. Online, they come together to share their disgruntlement as well as their fandom. In recent months, chains ranging from Subway to P. F. Chang’s have altered their loyalty programs. Amidst a recession when rising food costs are leading people to look for ways to save, the internet is a place for them to mobilize when their loyalty becomes less rewarded. It’s also no surprise that a lot of the chatter on the Dunkin’ subreddit involved people just trying to figure out how to get the most out of the new Rewards system.

It’s unclear exactly what will come of all this. Maybe Dunkin’ will revert back to its old system; maybe customers will just give up on the chain and never come back. No matter the outcome, it’s a helluva way to ring in Posting Your PSL on IG season.