Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s family photo keeps appearing in my social media feeds. Perhaps you’ve seen it, too. The picture shows the politician alongside his wife and daughter, holding his son in his lap. Father and son grin, wearing superhero facepaint. It is a happy moment. This photo is captioned with a snippet of Zelensky’s inauguration speech from 2019: “I do not want my picture in your offices. The president is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”
As Ukraine continues to fight against Russia’s invasion, its 44-year-old president has transformed into a beloved wartime leader. As such, this isn’t the only Zelensky imagery going viral right now. There’s also a front-facing video he made with his cabinet members as they hunkered down in Kyiv, as well as photos of him dressed for combat. His quip turning down an evacuation offer from the United States (“I need ammunition, not a ride”) is already emblazoned on shirts, mugs, and flags for purchase on Etsy. Admirers are photoshopping his head onto Captain America, professing to have raging crushes on him, and creating “fan cam” video collages as digital tributes. Zelensky is the number-one target of the country with the most nukes in the world, and he’s not backing down—if there was ever a time to idolize a political figure, it might be this moment.
But politicians aren’t meant to be idolized, even in their finest hours. That was, in fact, the point excerpted from Zelensky’s speech. And there is a difference between admiring a leader’s actions and adulating them like a K-pop star. Believing that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an atrocity and that Zelensky is behaving courageously does not mean that it’s wise to apply the googly-eyed logic of fandom to his actions. In fact, it’s distinctly unwise. Treating Zelensky like a superhero—call it Marvelization—recasts a geopolitical conflict in which real people are really dying into entertainment, into content. As Russia bombed Kyiv, the New York Post published an article about who might play Zelensky in the inevitable film adaptation of the conflict. (The consensus? Avengers actor Jeremy Renner.)
Who does this help, exactly? The same people who benefitted from canonizing former Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as “the Notorious RBG,” I suppose: nobody. Despite her exaltation, when Ginsburg died, she was replaced by a woman who is in every way her ideological foe. When certain segments of the liberal crowd in the United States treated the Robert Mueller investigation as a hero-studded spectacle, buying T-shirts with the former special counsel’s face on them and calling former FBI director James Comey “daddy,” it didn’t negatively impact the Trump administration. If anything, this behavior helped Trump, who was always keen to portray his opponents as government elites. (Not that Trump didn’t encourage his own stans—he gave them iconic merch in the form of MAGA hats.) Fan culture has, as critic Amanda Hess pointed out back in 2019, already swallowed American democracy. We’re worse off for it. Political figures are treated as a different flavor of celebrity, rather than as public servants. They have fanbases who give themselves names— Kamala Harris has the #KHive, for example, while former New York governor Andrew Cuomo had, unfortunately for everyone, the “Cuomosexuals”—and who see their affinity for their chosen politician as an extension of their identity. With Zelensky, the fandom sprouting up around him in the United States is especially dispiriting because the circumstances he is in are so relentlessly grim. It feels cruel to put the idea of Zelensky on a pedestal when the flesh-and-blood man is begging for help on the ground.
Zelensky, who played the Ukrainian president on television before he was elected, is an inherently likable figure. He won the Ukrainian version of Dancing With the Stars. He voiced Paddington Bear in the Ukrainian version of Paddington Bear. He played “Hava Nagila” with his penis on a piano in front of a live audience. Typing all of this out makes me like him more than I already do, even as I’m sitting here writing about why it’s a mistake to mythologize politicians in this particular way. In this moment of true emergency, Ukraine has benefitted from Zelensky’s talent for endearing himself to audiences, after all. He has rallied international allies to aid Ukraine by effectively communicating his country’s plight with rousing speeches.
Still, onlookers who eagerly treat Zelensky like the latest action-movie star are not doing him any favors. “What we see in studying memes and politics is that while memification helps a political message or cause spread to many people, it often comes at the expense of a flattening of that story,” says Sulafa Zidani, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor specializing in digital culture studies. What’s the harm, one might ask, in viewing Ukraine as the Rebel Alliance and Russian president Vladimir Putin as Emperor Palpatine? Well, for starters, Zelensky is a person, not a Jedi. He doesn’t have magical powers. Thrusting an actual person into the role of Cinematic Savior is wildly unfair. Plus, Putin rules a country filled with actual human beings, many who are putting themselves at risk to protest this invasion. It also reduces Ukraine’s plight to something for people in NATO nations to pause over while looking at their phones, sighing sadly, maybe wiping away a few tears like they did at the end of Avengers: Endgame. Maybe, as Zelensky warned them not to do, they’ll admire his portrait. And then they’ll keep scrolling.
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This week, Spotify removed the musical catalog of Neil Young from its platform. On Monday, the legendary rocker published a letter decrying the Swedish streamer for spreading false information about Covid-19 vaccines. In it, he cited the Spotify-exclusive podcast The Joe Rogan Experience in particular: “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.” Spotify quickly made its choice—Rogan.
Of course it did. Young vs. Spotify has been framed as a culture-war victory for Joe Rogan, but it’s not. There was no battle. Yes, plenty of people are angry at Rogan, including the 270 health care professionals whose highly publicized open letter to Spotify about the podcaster’s content inspired Young. But there is no evidence that this rancor has impacted Rogan’s position as Spotify’s golden boy. His podcast remains number one on its charts in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. (Young, in contrast, is the 778th most popular musical artist.) Spotify didn’t give Rogan a reported $100 million in a noble effort to spearhead a public health campaign. It gave him the money to be his freewheeling, contrarian, and almost constantly controversial self. He’s a shock jock. Spotify knew what it was buying in May 2020. Back then, when it ported over Rogan’s catalog, it left out more than 40 older episodes, including interviews with Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes—and it faced a wave of backlash from angry fans for doing so. This time around, it seems less inclined to rankle Rogan’s acolytes than it is to accept that a fraction of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young superfans who care about public health will be deleting their accounts.
No disrespect to Neil Young, but he was never going to move the needle here. Ever. Even if he got other artists on board to boycott Spotify, it’s unlikely any coalition would have the desired effect. First of all, there are practical roadblocks, as musicians are rarely the owners of their own music. Young didn’t actually have the ability to remove his albums, and had to get permission from his label to do so; it’s far from a given that the major labels would do the same for their contemporary stars. But say they did—and say the streamer’s current top four artists, Drake, Ed Sheeran, Bad Bunny, and Ariana Grande, joined forces and yanked their music from Spotify—even then, it is unlikely that Spotify would exile Rogan.
Remember: Twitter only dumped President Trump when he was a lame duck. And Twitter hadn’t paid Trump $100 million to exclusively appear on its platform. Even if Spotify’s C-suite develops a raging guilty conscience over Rogan encouraging young people not to get the Covid-19 vaccine, it wouldn’t be able to moderate his content without implicating itself as a publisher in addition to admitting its responsibility as a platform. This would then set a precedent for additional scrutiny toward Spotify-exclusive hits. God forbid Call Her Daddy host Alex Cooper starts insisting George W. Bush did 9/11 or Dax Shepherd decides to interview a bunch of eugenicists. The podcasting division would become a minefield. And Spotify needs podcasting to succeed.
Spotify started out with music, but it has thundered into the podcasting space, pouring hundreds upon hundreds of millions into a remarkably efficient effort to unseat Apple and establish itself as the premiere destination for podcasts. It paid $340 million for the podcast network Gimlet Media in 2019 and nearly $200 million for The Ringer (my former employer) in 2020, as part of this blitz. When people listen to music on Spotify, the streamer has to pay a third party (usually the record label). But when people listen to Spotify-owned podcasts, there’s no third party to pay. Spotify can place ads within its own podcasts even for premium users, who do not have ads in between songs. While premium subscriptions are still the company’s primary money-maker, advertisements are catching up, a development credited to the podcast arm. Podcasts are central to Spotify’s growth strategy. Rogan is central to Spotify’s podcasting arm. There would have to be a consumer boycott on an unprecedented scale to make cracking down on Rogan worthwhile from a business perspective. My guess? As long as Rogan stays on the top of Spotify’s charts, he will remain inoculated against repercussions.
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Lately I’ve been feeling like life is passing me by, so I downloaded an app that reminds me five times a day that I’m going to die. I thought it would help me accept my mortality and focus on what really matters, but it just makes me anxious. Is there something wrong with me? Is being anxious the point? Do you think these apps can be helpful?
—Pinged to Death
Dear Pinged to Death,
I don’t think there is something wrong with you. Or rather, you seem to be suffering from a problem that is endemic to the whole of humankind, a species with an almost limitless ability to live in denial of the one inevitability. Even explicit reminders of our demise—be it the death of a loved one or a phone notification—fail to inspire a fear and trembling worthy of the abyss and instead suffuse our lives with a vague disquiet, an ambient dread. “Death,” as W. H. Auden put it, “is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic.” That is, incidentally, one of the quotes featured by WeCroak, the app I presume you are using, which accompanies its death reminders with nuggets of literary wisdom from Kierkegaard, Pablo Neruda, Margaret Atwood, and others.
We live in an age of slo-mo crises, those that unfold at a tempo that makes them easy to ignore. Social security dwindles year after year. The glaciers are melting faster, but still at glacial speeds. The seas are warming at a rate that could boil alive the proverbial toad. Death lurks behind all of them. Occasionally, the direness of our predicament is made real through a natural disaster or a UN climate report, but the alarm bells fade with the rhythms of the news cycle. The Doomsday Clock—arguably the most deliberate attempt to keep our focus on these threats—is currently perched at 100 seconds to midnight, putting us at roughly a minute and a half, in the timescale of existential risk, from our final demise.
Death-reminder apps are essentially a Doomsday Clock for the individual. In fact, some of them contain actual clocks so that you can watch, in real time, your remaining hours slip away. The Death Clock, a website that’s been active since 1998, predicts the day of your death, though its estimations are based on somewhat crude data points—your age, BMI, whether you smoke. Several years ago, the horror film Countdown imagined an app that was able to intuit, down to the second, the time of a person’s death, with the user agreement serving as a deal with the devil. (The film’s tagline: “Death? There’s an App for That.”) The movie inspired a real-life app built on the same premise—minus, obviously, the supernatural knowledge, but it freaked out enough people to get temporarily booted from the App Store.
WeCroak is not quite so morbid. Its inspirational quotes about mortality are meant to remind users to pause and take stock of what they’re doing, a sort of companion to the many mindfulness apps. Its cofounder came up with the idea while in the throes of a Candy Crush addiction, and many users have remarked that the app, which tends to interrupt those hours whiled away on Twitter or TikTok, has forced them to confront how much of their lives is wasted on social media. The product, in other words, belongs to that ever-expanding category of technology that is designed to remedy problems that technology has created. If digital platforms remain our most reliable distraction from the crude facts of our mortality—so the logic goes—perhaps we can channel the same tools to break through those psychological buffers and deliver us to a more enlightened comfort with our impending demise.
WeCroak, as you may already know, is partly inspired by a Bhutanese folk saying that claims that happiness can be achieved by contemplating death five times daily. Bhutan has often been ranked as one of the world’s happiest countries, and WeCroak seems to be trading on a casual exoticism that is not uncommon in mindfulness culture, presenting Eastern traditions as the antidotes that will finally free us from the trance of modernity. The fact that it has only increased your anxiety, however, is not at all surprising to me. It’s not so easy to simply will yourself to confront a truth that you’ve been acculturated to ignore. (If anything, the notion that we can reverse the entire current of Western mortality denial with a free app is more a symptom of our technological hubris than its tonic.) The Bhutanese practice of contemplating death has grown out of a larger cultural context that does not shirk from mortality, as evidenced by the country’s elaborate funeral rites and the tradition of observing a 49-day mourning period. Bhutan’s dominant religion, Buddhism, teaches that transcendence hinges not on escapism but on accepting the brute facts of existence—namely, the fact that life itself is suffering.
Last summer, when clinics began to tentatively reopen, dermatologist Shadi Kourosh noticed a worrying trend—a spike in appointment requests for appearance-related issues. “It seemed that, at a time like that, other matters would be top of mind, but a lot of people were really concerned with feeling that they looked much worse than usual,” she says.
Kourosh, who is an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School, soon discovered that others in her field and related ones such as plastic surgery had noticed a similar phenomenon. And when she and her colleagues asked patients what was driving their decision to seek treatment, a lot of them cited videoconferencing. The pandemic had catapulted them into a world of Zoom calls and Teams meetings, and staring at their own face on a screen all day every day was wreaking havoc with their self-image.
In the age of Zoom, people became inordinately preoccupied with sagging skin around their neck and jowls; with the size and shape of their nose; with the pallor of their skin. They wanted cosmetic interventions, ranging from Botox and fillers to facelifts and nose jobs. Kourosh and colleagues surveyed doctors and surgeons, examining the question of whether videoconferencing during the pandemic was a potential contributor to body dysmorphic disorder. They called it “Zoom dysmorphia.”
Now, with the rise in vaccinations seemingly pushing the pandemic into retreat, new research from Kourosh’s group at Harvard has revealed that Zoom dysmorphia isn’t going away. A survey of more than 7,000 people suggests the mental scars of the coronavirus will stay with us for some time.
Even before Covid, plastic surgeons and dermatologists were seeing a rise in patients coming to them with demands that were “unrealistic and unnatural,” Kourosh says. The term “Snapchat dysmorphia” was coined in 2015 to describe the growing numbers of people who wanted to look like they’d been put through a face-altering filter in real life, all big eyes and sparkling skin.
Before that, a patient might turn up at a plastic surgeon’s office with photos of a celebrity they wanted to look like clipped from a magazine. Even before the rise of social media, psychologists found that people who stared at themselves in a mirror became more self-conscious.
But Zoom dysmorphia is different. Unlike with Snapchat, where people are aware that they’re viewing themselves through a filter, video conferencing distorts our appearance in ways we might not even realize, as Kourosh and her coauthors identified in their original paper.
Front-facing cameras distort your image like a “funhouse mirror,” she says—they make noses look bigger and eyes look smaller. This effect is exacerbated by proximity to the lens, which is generally nearer to you than a person would ever stand in a real-life conversation. Looking down at a smartphone or laptop camera is the least flattering angle—as anyone from the MySpace generation will tell you, the best camera position is from above, hence the ubiquity of the selfie stick.
We’re also used to seeing our own reflection when our faces are relaxed—the concentrated frown (or bored expression) you wear in a Zoom meeting jars with the image of yourself you’re used to seeing in the mirror. “Changes in self-perception and anxiety as a result of constant video-conferencing may lead to unnecessary cosmetic procedures, especially in young adults who have had increased exposure to online platforms including videoconferencing, social media, and filters throughout the pandemic,” write Kourosh, Channi Silence, and other colleagues.
The term “Zoom dysmorphia” was picked up by international media, and Kourosh was inundated with emails from friends and strangers who it resonated with. In the new follow up study due to be published in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, the research group found that 71 percent of the 7,000 people surveyed were anxious or stressed about returning to in-person activities, and that nearly 64 percent had sought mental health support.
That didn’t last long. Less than a week after OnlyFans announced plans to ban porn from its platform due to pressure from its banking partners, the subscription site announced Wednesday that decision may have been premature. Instead of eliminating sexually explicit content on the site, the company said in a tweet, it had “secured [the] assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community,” and “suspended” its policy change, which was slated to go into effect on October 1.
The proposed changes would have been catastrophic for sex workers, who comprise the majority of the creators on the platform, and although the reversal is something of a relief, the about-face left some worried about their long-term futures on the site. “Workers still lost subscribers in this confusion,” says artist and adult content creator Trapcry. “I think they changed their minds, not for the sake of sex workers, but because they realized the backlash would hurt their pockets more in the long run.”
Money has been at the heart of many of OnlyFans’ maneuvers of late. When it announced the porn ban last week, the company said the move was meant to appease its banking partners, which include the Bank of New York Mellon and JPMorgan Chase, and in a follow-up interview with the Financial Times, founder Tim Stokey said Chase was “particularly aggressive in closing accounts of sex workers or … any business that supports sex workers.”
Seemingly, that’s now changed. In a statement emailed to WIRED Wednesday, the company said the ban on explicit content is “no longer required due to banking partners’ assurances that OnlyFans can support all genres of creators.”
Still, many creators who scrambled to find alternatives in the wake of last week’s announcement do not see this turnaround as a victory. “If this is a win, it’s a temporary one,” says Anshuman Iddamsetty, a nonbinary creator who uploads content dedicated to fat pleasure under the psuedonym Boarlord. “I’ve never seen a platform reverse course like this ever. The language they chose in their announcement worries me. ‘Suspend’ doesn’t instill confidence. And they refused to mention sex workers or erotic laborers by name—they went back to the careful doublespeak of ‘creator’ and ‘all genres.’ We’re long past the point of dancing around the stakes. The porn ban could return October 2nd.”
What remains is an uncertain future for both creators and OnlyFans, which has plans to go public later this year. The site has more than 130 million users and 2 million creators, but hostility toward the porn industry has swelled recently, as adult subscription sites have gained popularity. Detractors believe sites such as OnlyFans, in part, are to blame for the rise in child porn.
“We need to talk about how our banking system has quietly crowned themselves the new morality police,” Iddamsetty says, citing payment processors such as Mastercard and Visa, which are being pressured by conservative groups Exodus Cry and National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) to sever ties with platforms that cater to explicit sexual expression.