government, region, people, helped

Experience: I steal from museums  

I don’t consider myself a thief but an activist. I believe these objects should be given back to the African people they were taken from

I am a pan-African activist, campaigning for reparations for the crimes against African people committed during colonialism. Recently, I have taken matters into my own hands: I go to museums that exhibit African artefacts; I tell the truth about how these items were looted and stolen from Africa – and then I take them.

I have been deeply political for as long as I can remember. I was born in 1978 in Kinshasa, the capital of what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My father was a revolutionary, and led the 1968 coup d’état that overthrew the Congolese government. When I was a child, my mother would tell me stories of Patrice Lumumba, the father of Congolese independence.

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Listen: How to Cancel Thanksgiving   -33%

The United States has passed a terrible milestone: 250,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. But with the holidays approaching and the spread worse than ever, the situation could become even more dire. Now is the time to have hard conversations about Thanksgiving, even though it will be awkward.

On this episode of the Social Distance podcast, James Hamblin and Katherine Wells answer listener questions about the holidays and give advice on how to cancel plans. Listen to their conversation here:

Subscribe to Social Distance on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or another podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they’re published.

Below is a transcript of listener questions and responses, edited for length and clarity.

Katherine Wells: Here’s a general question from a listener: “How do I decide whether I celebrate the holidays with family if everyone in our family is being safe and masking and we live in a lower-risk area, but the holidays are inside? Is it still a giant mistake to celebrate with our family for the holidays? Thanksgiving is my favorite.”

James Hamblin: It’s really hard to imagine a gathering inside where people are also masked, because usually Thanksgiving involves eating. If you have a small family and you can do things outside and everyone tries to really quarantine for two weeks before and after this gathering, there are ways that it could be done. But there’s a sort of cultural dynamic, especially when you’re among friends and family, that people let their guard down. So I think it would be safest—unless you really know your whole family to be really vigilant about this ...

Wells: This is the thing ... there is a wide variation in how people interpret “being safe and masking.” Everyone may say they’re being safe and masking, because they’re being more safe and wearing masks more often than they did before the pandemic. But it doesn’t mean they’re 100 percent careful. So the answer to the question is yes, it is a big, giant mistake, right?

Hamblin: Yeah. Because traveling, bringing people together as multigenerational families, gatherings like this ... remember there was this wedding in Maine over the summer that they’ve traced to seven deaths now among people who weren’t even at the wedding. And so even if everyone in your family were ready to become seriously ill and possibly die, it’s not just about you.

So yeah, just don’t do it. But the hard thing is talking to your family about that—friends, family, whoever you might spend Thanksgiving with.

Wells: Here’s another question about that: “How do I convince my parents, who have been living very carefully to avoid the virus, that they shouldn’t travel home for Christmas to stay with the rest of my extended family? I understand it’s tough and sad to miss a family holiday, but my extended family has not been living in a similarly careful way. I’m very nervous.”

Hamblin: Yeah, I’m sure that stuff is going to happen. Part of it depends on your families. What is their thinking? If they’ve been in a Fox News bubble and think the whole thing is a hoax, that’s different than if they have made some internal calculation and think they can do it safely. But in any case, a heartfelt conversation where you’re expressing concern for them, and probably a series of conversations.

Wells: I tell you, I’ve done it with my parents: “I don’t want you to die!” Almost a quarter of all hospitals in the U.S. right now don’t have enough staffing to deal with all the patients they have right now. This isn’t really a time for gentle, hopeful prodding.

Hamblin: I think it’s a time for being evidence-based in your approach. We have a tendency to think the more forceful or emotional or angry we sound, and the more scolding we get, the more effective it’ll be. For some people, it may work. For others, it requires a kind of Socratic path.

And I think those are the kinds of conversations that are actually going to turn the tide at this point. My writing and others’ writing are probably pretty futile at this point. I don’t know what more I can do to talk to audiences of national magazines if people haven’t already gotten the picture. But there’s a lot that can be done person-to-person.

Wells: What we’re talking about is this in-between where people definitely know it’s a problem, they know what they’re supposed to do, but the strictness is just hard. It’s genuinely hard to keep up. I think a lot of people are just feeling tired right now. We’ve been doing this for six months. Can I just have one single meal with my family? But the answer is you can’t, not the way you did before.

Hamblin: Yeah. Don’t do it.

Wells: Here's another scenario. This is a tough one. A listener wants to visit her 91-year-old mother. It’s not an emergency, but her cognition is declining. If she quarantines and travels by plane wearing a mask, can she see her mother?

Hamblin: This is the one big caveat to Thanksgiving gatherings: people with terminally ill relatives. You might not see them again. Honoring people’s wishes if they want to see you and they don’t care if you infect them, and they are homebound, not seeing other people, that’s a situation where I think the right thing to do is honor their wishes and go see them. If you can do that safely. It doesn’t mean bringing your whole family together to see them simultaneously. But if it’s a one-on-one situation with a family bubble going to see an elderly relative who desperately wants to see them, that’s something that I wouldn’t categorically say we should not do.

And that’s what makes it so hard to say simply: Don’t go at all. But that’s a different situation than just having Thanksgiving in May. Postpone it and do it outside. Everything will be pretty similar then, except we can actually enjoy it.

Wells: Okay, we’ve also gotten some plane questions. If you’re going to break this recommendation because you have some extenuating circumstances and [have to] travel, how are people supposed to think about travel by plane versus car versus train?

Hamblin: Planes are not what I’m worried about. We are not seeing significant transmission on planes. Planes have good ventilation. They have good airflow and filters. People mostly wear masks. You pretty much kind of sit quietly not facing other people. You’re not having loud, boisterous conversations and you’re not eating. That’s a much safer scenario than a prolonged period of having a loud conversation, eating with a big group. It’s really about once you arrive.

Wells: So it’s not getting to Thanksgiving that is the riskiest, necessarily; it’s Thanksgiving?

Hamblin: Yeah, that’s the unfortunate thing. On other forms of travel: riding in a car with strangers is not a good situation. Taking a ride-share or a taxi to an airport is not a good situation.

Wells: A car alone or with people in your household, not a problem. Train: bad?

Hamblin: I don’t know how they’re doing trains right now, but I believe trains have ventilation systems that are similar to subways and planes and are generally pretty safe. And once again, most people on the train are sitting quietly, keeping to themselves.

Wells: But again, don’t do it.

Hamblin: People will have a need to travel occasionally, so we’re just being pragmatic, but yeah, elective travel right now is not a good idea. This is the worst of the pandemic.

Wells: So to reiterate, don’t go to Thanksgiving. Just don’t do it. Okay, one last question; this one is from Kevin Townsend, producer of the show.

Kevin Townsend: My family is spread all across the country and every holiday season is a negotiation of who’s going where when. Canceling Thanksgiving probably means shifting around Christmas. I have to call my dad right after taping. Am I canceling Christmas, too?

Hamblin: Oh gosh. You know, if people have Thanksgiving in traditional ways on anywhere near the scale that Americans normally do, it’s going to be a nightmare around Christmas. Any hope of gathering at that point will be in doubt. There will be serious travel advisories; many cities will have extreme lockdowns. We’re going to be in a much worse shape.

There’s that three- or four-week lag between spreader events like Thanksgiving and when you actually see the big uptick in hospitalizations. We’d be seeing it right around Christmas. So without regard to any particular religious holiday, which is going to be especially fraught, any negotiation about how to handle the December holidays is going to be much worse if we are overloaded from people having gotten together on Thanksgiving.

Wells: So what’s Kevin supposed to say to his dad? I think the breakup “It’s not you; it’s me” tactic works well. I’m just not ready to have a Thanksgiving ... I’m not in a place where I can really have a Thanksgiving right now.

Hamblin: If you really feel like you can’t have an honest conversation with someone, then do that. But if you see an opportunity to actually talk directly about the concerns about the virus, you can at least make other people question if it’s really smart to be getting the family together.

Wells: Yeah, if you feel uncomfortable with it, don’t push through it and go. And not just for you but for everyone, because hospitals are already overwhelmed in so many places. You don’t know if you’re even going to be able to get care in the hospitals in a couple of weeks.

Hamblin: It’s honestly a great opportunity to just take the holiday off, too. Just go with an excuse. I have to work. I need to save money. I’m not feeling well. Those are going to be ways to avoid it if you know that you have family members who just really couldn’t honestly talk to you.

Townsend: The dog ate my plane tickets.

Wells: Exactly. This is genuinely very difficult. I hope we’ve given a range of options for how to say no, but the answer is no. And I think the vaccine news is, at least for me, making this a little bit easier, because we’re not going to be locked down forever. There is an end in sight. It’s not going to be immediate, but there is an end in sight. So all the more reason to really tighten up right now.

Womens Super League: talking points from the weekends action | Rachel Brown-Finnis   17%

Casey Stoney out-thinks her Manchester City counterpart, Birmingham continue to shine and Bristol City get off the mark

Following on from last season’s success, the WSL used the men’s international weekend to schedule three huge games, and were rewarded with a scintillating set of high-level thrillers. In the UK, 250,000 people watched the Manchester derby, and I’m excited to see the figures for the US–rights have been bought by NBC.

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For those with prediabetes, dropping four to six pounds can cut the risk of getting diabetes   25%

In a study of 1,028 people, researchers found that weight loss and greater physical activity helped in avoiding this disease.

Suspected French church attacker carried photo of extremist who killed teacher   -30%

The suspected Tunisian assailant in an Islamic extremist knife attack that killed three people in a French church had a photograph in one of his mobile phones of the perpetrator of another attack that shocked France: the killing of a schoolteacher who was beheaded after he showed caricatures of the prophet Mohammed to his class, anti-terror prosecutors said on Friday.Also found in the phones of the 21-year-old arrested after the October 29 church attack in Nice was an audio message that…

Heroic Jewish Brigade fighter who downed Egyptian plane in 1948 dies of coronavirus at 95  

German-born Abraham Grossman sang to displaced Holocaust survivors in Bavaria at the end of World War II and helped found the Negev city of Kiryat Gat

'Something to be proud of': UK graphic novel highlights homeless  

The Book of Homelessness, launched this week by a youth homelessness charity, compiles drawings, texts and poems by people living in shelters, hostels and temporary accommodation.

Protests turn deadly in Uganda   -6%

At least 16 people have been killed in Uganda in a crackdown on protesters calling for the release of presidential candidate Bobi Wine. But first, in Ethiopia, leaders from the Tigray region say a university has been targeted in air strikes by government forces. Also, the head of a South African panel investigating state corruption under Jacob Zuma rejects a bid by the ex-president to have him step aside. And exhausted voters in Burkina Faso are hoping Sunday's presidential election will prompt a return to stability. The country has been marred by jihadist violence for the past five years.

When Discrimination Targets the Privileged   11%

Updated at 1:05 p.m. ET

In 2015, Charlotte Carew Pole gave birth to her first child, a daughter she named Jemima. Having her was “a bit of a struggle,” she told me, with some understatement. Carew Pole had been through miscarriages and IVF before Jemima arrived, tiny and blonde and—to her mother—utterly perfect.

“We were absolutely delighted,” she said, over coffee and biscuits at her family’s home in Cornwall, southwest England, “but I was surprised by some people’s reactions. Even if it was tongue-in-cheek, people said, ‘What a shame’ … ‘You must try again,’ and ‘Don’t worry, it can go to your nephew.’”

Ah, it. Charlotte’s father-in-law, Sir Richard Carew Pole, is a baronet, an aristocratic title bestowed on his family by King Charles I in 1628. Like many English titles, it can be held only by a man. Sir Richard is the 13th baronet; Charlotte’s husband, Tremayne, will one day be the 14th. But baby Jemima could not be the 15th. And so Charlotte was told by well-meaning acquaintances that her baby daughter was a disappointment. She must have a son.

In a very quiet, English way, the experience radicalized her. She began to see how acquaintances had lower expectations about the education of their daughters. She noticed how businesses were often passed from father to son. And she realized why great swaths of land and property stayed in the hands of men. The year after Jemima was born, 25-year-old Hugh Grosvenor inherited the multibillion-dollar estate of his father, the Duke of Westminster, ahead of his older sister, Tamara. It included 300 acres of Mayfair and Belgravia, London’s most desirable districts, as well as land in Lancashire, Cheshire, Scotland, Wales, and Spain.

Flushed with polite zeal, Carew Pole decided to act, taking over an existing campaign to change the law so that English and Welsh titles could be passed down to firstborn sons and daughters equally. (Many Scottish titles already operate this way.) She quickly rebranded it from The Hares to the snappier Daughters’ Rights. At stake are not just names, estates, and money, but the 92 seats in the United Kingdom’s Parliament reserved for hereditary peers, all of which are currently held by men. In Britain, the traditions of the upper class distort democracy for everyone.

Read: [What It’s Like to Be a Leftover Woman]

What follows is a strange story, because it is about discrimination toward the privileged: feminism for aristocrats. It reveals a country trapped between tradition and modernity, between the Middle Ages and the 21st century. Britain allows those who have inherited dukedoms created half a millennium ago to sit in our Parliament, while recording on the legislature’s official website how many of them are nonbinary. (None, as yet.) Britain permits transgender people to change their legal sex—unless it would affect the inheritance of an earldom. And Britain gives the male heirs of men who fought in the Wars of the Roses a special right to pass laws about Uber and Facebook.

Before we start, a short explanation of the peerage is necessary. Britain has more than 800 hereditary peers—aristocrats whose titles were bestowed by the monarch of the day, and are handed down to their descendants. Perhaps your ancestor won a big battle against the French. Perhaps he was a favored courtier, or a valuable politician. Perhaps he was the king’s bastard son. In descending order of swankiness, the titles go: duke, marquis, earl, viscount, baron. Their holders are entitled to run for election to the 92 places in the House of Lords allocated to hereditary peers.

There are also more than a thousand baronets, a title associated with country squires that ranks below a baron and is not part of the peerage. Many baronetcies can also be inherited only by men. A baronetcy gives you the right to be addressed as “Sir,” as Sir Richard Carew Pole is, but is not to be confused with a knighthood: Sir Elton John is not the descendant of a long line of noblemen who fought valiantly for some long-forgotten monarch; he grew up in social housing in a London suburb and was given an honor by the Queen for performing the best song in The Lion King.

The wife of a marquis, incidentally, is called a marchioness. Because Britain has had an aristocracy for more than 1,000 years, we have forgotten how ridiculous that sounds. In fact, while we’re here, let’s try a quiz: Hereditary peer or Harry Potter character? Alexander Scrymgeour, Valerian Freyburg, Merlin Hay, Godfrey Bewicke-Copley, Rupert Ponsonby, Edward Foljambe, and Roualeyn Hovell-Thurlow-Cumming-Bruce. Trick question! They are all current members of the House of Lords.

Peerages and baronetcies are hereditary, and only children whose parents are married can inherit them. Most are passed down to the firstborn son, a practice known as “male primogeniture.” Some can be inherited by the eldest daughter if a younger brother doesn’t arrive; others go extinct if there is no male heir. This practice drives the plot of Downton Abbey—in which the Earl of Grantham has three daughters but no son—and Pride and Prejudice, in which the Longbourn estate will go to Mr. Collins, a cousin, rather than any of the five Bennet sisters. Until 2011, the British monarchy ran on male primogeniture too: Queen Elizabeth II would have been elbowed out of the succession if her parents had gone on to have a boy. The law was changed ahead of the birth of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s firstborn.

The reasons behind male primogeniture were, for centuries, obvious to everyone. Most titles came with a grand estate: a castle, tenant farms, perhaps a summer house or two. These stately homes cost a fortune to run, so keeping the title and all the assets bundled together made sense. The eldest son inherited the lot. The danger of passing on titles and wealth to an eldest daughter was that she might marry into another noble house, uniting both sets of titles and land. From the monarch’s point of view, that was dangerous, potentially allowing aristocratic families to become an alternative power base to the throne.

This all made perfect sense in 1620, or even 1720. But it’s harder to understand in 2020, when Britain has had two female prime ministers, 50 years of equal pay under the law, and its female monarchs are generally agreed to have a better batting average than their male counterparts. Yet despite all the advances made by feminism in Britain, male primogeniture endures among the nation’s aristocracy.

In fact, let’s call the British situation what it is—son preference. This phenomenon is seen across the world, in India and China, where female fetuses are aborted in their thousands, in sub-Saharan Africa, where boys are regularly given better access to schooling, and even bigger portions of food and across pretty much the entire world, where they often get fewer chores at home.

The British version is of course much more limited, yet it has persisted. Robin Neville, Baron Braybrooke, had eight daughters in the hope of eventually having a son: Amanda, Caroline, Henrietta, Victoria, Arabella, Sara, Emma, and Lucinda all came along, but no heir. When he died in 2017, the title went to a distant cousin.

Sarah Long

The most absurd election of modern times took place four years ago. The prize was a seat in the House of Lords, Britain’s second legislative chamber, which has the ability to amend or block legislation sent there by the House of Commons. Every member of the Commons is elected: The average constituency has 66,000 voters. The members of the Lords, by contrast, are mostly appointed, and include former political advisers, distinguished athletes, business leaders, and yes, a good dollop of cronies.

Until 1999, every one of Britain’s hereditary peers was also entitled to sit in the House of Lords. Tony Blair’s Labour government decided to put a stop to that anachronism, which jarred with its vision of a modern, classless society. The late foreign secretary Robin Cook once observed that Britain and the small African nation of Lesotho were “the only two countries with reserved seats in their parliament for hereditary chieftains.”

The Conservatives, however, were opposed. As the traditional party of the upper class, they benefited from the fact that most aristocrats were right-wing. Blair’s government came up with a compromise: 92 hereditary peers could stay in the Lords, with their party affiliations based on the existing ratio. There would be 49 Conservatives, then four each from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, plus 35 who were not linked to any party. This would continue until the end of time, or until further reforms were passed. Whenever one of the party-affiliated peers died or retired, their ideological allies in the House of Lords would vote on their replacement, choosing from all the hereditary peers who had registered an interest.

So when Lord Avebury died in 2016, the other Liberal Democrat peers were the only people allowed to vote in the election to replace him. All three of them. The process used the alternative-vote model, in which candidates are knocked out over several rounds. It need not have bothered: Viscount Thurso got all three votes. Bad luck to the six losers: Lord Somerleyton, an Eton-educated hotel owner; Lord Kennet, whose father was a left-wing journalist; the Earl of Carlisle, family motto: “Volo non valeo” (“I am willing, but not able”); Charles Rodney Muff, the third Baron Calverley; Earl Russell—family motto: “Che sera, sera” (“Whatever will be, will be”)—and Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, the great-grandson of the former prime minister.

These candidates, you might have noticed, are all men. Because fewer than 90 titles can be passed to female heirs, no women are among the hereditary peers currently sitting in the Lords. (The most recent, the Countess of Mar, retired in May.) Yet since taking over Daughters’ Rights, Charlotte Carew Pole said, she has found it hard to enlist mainstream feminist organizations and activists to support her. She suspects they fear being represented as elitist and out of touch. But the glib left-wing retort—Who cares about feminism for aristocrats?—ignores the fact that Britain’s son preference deforms the very institution that sets our laws. There are, essentially, seats in our Parliament reserved for men.

The Labour peer Lord Grocott has proposed a bill to scrap these by-elections three times, so far without success. He told me that he wanted to have the hereditary peers “humanely removed” from the House of Lords, a phrase that makes them sound like a much-loved family dog making a final trip to the vet. “The by-elections are idiotic,” he added. “A hundred percent turnout. A hundred percent [of votes] for one candidate. It’s better than North Korea.”

Charlotte Carew Pole

Until taking on Daughters’ Rights, Carew Pole was—as she described herself—“just a housewife.” But what a house. We met at her family’s country home, a gorgeous gray-stone mansion called Antony. It stands in 42 acres of woods, on a peninsula in southwest England, with grasslands stretching off into the distance and down to the sea.

In 1961, the family gave Antony to the National Trust, a charity dedicated to preserving historic houses, and now rents it back. “It means the roof gets repaired,” Carew Pole observed pragmatically. Her son, Lucian, arrived a year after she had Jemima, and there is a jarring disconnect between the family kitchen, which is very clearly the domain of two small children, and the main house, with its wood panels and generations of dour-faced ancestors staring down from the walls. (I would say they’re no oil paintings, except they are.)

Life at Antony feels almost parodically English. During Britain’s first lockdown, Tremayne donated tons of turnips, grown on the estate’s farm, to the local food bank. To help the nearby stables, which were closed because of the pandemic, the family took in two ponies—Candyfloss and Dancer—which the children learned to ride, taking them down the peninsula to the sea. A greyhound, Alba, completed the picture. Carew Pole greeted me in a pale-pink sweater, with pearl earrings and swept-back hair, paired with jeans and sturdy boots. “I’m Zoom-ready on the top, and horse-ready on the bottom,” she said.

She was not born to this, and loftier aristocrats have occasionally reminded her that she, as a middle-class girl raised on a farm in southern England, has “done quite well.” She worked for an advertising agency and as a motorcycle test driver before meeting Tremayne. As an outsider, she is polite and deferential to the aristocracy’s strange codes. In fact, this politeness itself reveals her class: One of the hallmarks of poshness is blithe, bluff insouciance—not caring what anyone thinks.

Carew Pole took over the equal-rights campaign from the journalist Victoria Lambert, the wife of the Earl of Clancarty, whose title will become extinct when he dies, because the couple’s only child is a daughter. Lambert bowed out amicably, having “had enough.” She initially tried a “private members’ bill,” a proposed law which can be introduced by anyone sitting in the Commons or the Lords. Most of these fail, unless they are adopted by the government of the day, because debating time is limited and the government controls the timetable. This one was no exception.

The campaign also took a case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that Britain was practicing sex discrimination. This action required claimants, so Carew Pole rounded up five daughters willing to fight for their right to inherit. Assembling the women was difficult, she told me: Many did not want to upset their families. Eventually, enough names were collected, and the claimants submitted their applications on July 13, 2018. They are still waiting for an answer.

Despite the failure of the private members’ bill, Carew Pole has not given up on the parliamentary route. She recently made her case to Chloe Smith, the minister for the constitution, but came away feeling dejected. Carew Pole believes the government fears that the bill would be amended from a narrow reform to a nuclear bomb: Perhaps someone would suggest the removal of all hereditary peers from the Lords, depriving the government of reliable votes for its policies. To calm ministers’ nerves, Carew Pole has secured a promise from Lord Grocott—who introduces exactly this proposal every time he gets the chance—that he would not hijack the bill. “I have no intention of amending any bill designed to promote equality,” he told me.

In Carew Pole’s telling, the government threw rock after rock into her path: How would large estates handle their tax planning? What would we call the husbands of women who held peerages in their own right? What would her proposal mean for titles bestowed by acts of Parliament, rather than the monarch? Unable or unwilling to defend the principle of male primogeniture, the government fixated on the practical hurdles that any change would create. (When asked for comment, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said, “Reform of the succession to the hereditary peerage raises a variety of complex issues, and any changes would need careful consideration and wider engagement.”)

The real reason for the government’s reluctance to engage, I would imagine, is that ministers don’t want anyone looking too closely at the House of Lords, in case we commoners get revolutionary ideas. Women make up only 28 percent of the upper house. Its members’ average age is 70. Former politicians and bankers are overrepresented. For years, the Lords has been dogged by complaints that, although its members do not receive a salary, they are entitled to generous taxpayer-funded expenses. Last December, The Guardian revealed that the Labour peer Lord Brookman, a former labor-union official, claimed nearly £50,000 in attendance allowances and expenses without speaking in a single debate or asking a single written question. “Forty-six peers did not register a single vote, including on Brexit, sit on a committee or hold a post,” the newspaper reported. “One peer claimed £25,000 without voting, while another claimed £41,000 but only voted once.”

What do the British public think about the House of Lords? The answer is, they don’t. In 2018, the pollsters YouGov found that 59 percent of us volunteered that we knew “not much” or “nothing at all” about the upper house. A third of respondents supported its replacement with a chamber that is at least partly elected, and 21 percent would be happy to see it abolished entirely. The last time a hereditary peer made the news was when Lord Bethell, a minister in the Conservative government, claimed in August that “fluffing” his exams at school “taught me how to hustle.” He might have added that attending a £41,000-a-year (about $54,000) private school and inheriting a peerage didn’t hurt.

Tanya Field

When I reached Lady Tanya Field by phone, she joked that it was “Blursday.” She is a social worker, and her life has become even busier since the pandemic began. Field might have joined the European Court case, but she has comprehensively rejected her aristocratic upbringing: She doesn’t use her title, she married a man who grew up in public housing, and she lives in a semidetached house near Oxford. She collects vintage cars—but not rare, high-end ones. She likes Minis. “The reason that I’m interested in mass-produced cars is because I’m much more interested in normal people,” she told me.

Field, the eldest of three daughters, is cheerfully unembarrassed about wanting to inherit her father’s right to stand for election in the House of Lords. She left her job at a car factory, where she met her husband, to have three sons, then spent 15 years as a carer for her mother-in-law, who had mental-health problems. The 49-year-old now works with youth groups and as a legal advocate for those with learning disabilities, as well as running a community larder in a deprived area of Oxfordshire. “I would want to talk about all those issues,” she said. “I’ve got the hands-on experience.” She would sit as a cross-bencher, because she is not a member of any political party.

I was struggling, I told her, with the idea of Carew Pole’s modest reforms rather than revolution. Would she support the removal of all hereditary peers from the Lords? “Yes, I would in principle,” Field responded. “But if they are there, it has to be equitable.”

The Honorable Sarah Long’s motivations are similar. Her younger brother, James, is disabled, blind in one eye and in constant pain, after their mother took the morning-sickness drug thalidomide during pregnancy. He was bullied at school, and spent months in hospital as a child, but later worked as a fashion photographer. As James approaches 60, however, his condition has deteriorated, and he now lives in social housing in London. He would love to campaign for others affected by thalidomide, but doesn’t have the strength. Both siblings wish that Sarah could take up the cause on his behalf. “I adore my brother,” says Long. “But he won’t be having any children … I’ve got things I would like to say about the thalidomide families.”

Long was very young when she realized that she was seen as inferior because she was a girl. “I must have been about six,” she told me. Her father produced a gold-and-red leather tube. “And I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘That’s not for you.’” Inside that leather tube were letters patent—the official documents, issued by the monarch, granting her father his title as Viscount Long. They were destined for James.

All three women—Long, Field, and Carew Pole—reject the idea that they are motivated by money. Field grew up on a farm, in her family’s grand house, Shirburn Castle, in Oxfordshire, where she remembers that she never had to visit a gas station; the family kept its own petrol tanks and usage was noted in a ledger in the hall. But those days are gone. Her grandfather decided to divide up the estate, and in 2004 her father was evicted from Shirburn Castle after a legal quarrel with his younger brother. In any case, Field is happier in her normal home, surrounded by normal people, driving her normal cars. Long also grew up in a manor house, in the Wiltshire village of Steeple Ashton, which came with a butler, but when she was 17, the family could no longer afford its upkeep, and she “left that life behind.” She has worked all her life and is now an art dealer.*

These stories are common across the aristocracy: The titles endure, but the grand fortunes have gone. The stately homes, once bustling with footmen and undergardeners and scullery maids, are now financial black holes, draining the remainder of a family’s savings. Yet most of them are now visited by more people than they ever were in their glory days as private homes. The National Trust owns 300 buildings and had 5 million members in 2018. Britons might claim that we find aristocrats embarrassing, antiquated, and undeserving of their unearned advantages in life, but good God, do we like poking round their rose gardens on a sunny weekend.

During my visit to Antony, Carew Pole was never less than kind to me, but I could sense her nervousness. After all, when your newest high-profile supporter is Charles Henry John Benedict Crofton Chetwynd Chetwynd-Talbot—otherwise known as the Earl of Shrewsbury—your campaign is easily dismissed as Rich People’s Problems. Some British women don’t have a safe place to sleep tonight, so why should we care that some others don’t have dukedoms?

And yet. We wouldn’t accept a new law barring racial minorities or LGBTQ people from inheriting peerages, so why accept the old law barring women? Traditional sexism is still sexism. The government must know that its current position is indefensible, but ministers fear that Carew Pole and her supporters are pulling on an ermine thread. Tug too hard, and the whole thing might unravel.

All that explains why, when we spoke, Carew Pole repeatedly emphasized the limit of her ambitions. Feminism is regularly described as radical, but many of its pioneers have been conservatives who just want to be included by the system, rather than tear it all down. (Think of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the violent suffragettes, who later stood for Parliament as a Tory.) Perhaps the right person to remove the sex discrimination at the heart of British democracy is not a firebrand, but the mistress of an imposing manor house with grounds as far as the eye can see.

After finishing our coffee, Carew Pole and I went through the family kitchen to the back garden, where Jemima painted my nails with more enthusiasm than skill, spattering my fingers with varnish, and Lucian lay on the floor, starfished, enraptured by the cloudless Cornish sky.

Watching them both, I had an echo of the thought that their mother had five years ago. All the other arguments are secondary: The law of England currently says that one of these children is worth more than the other. And that simply isn’t right.

* An earlier version of this article misidentified where Tanya Field grew up. It is Shirburn Castle, not Shibden Hall.

98 Million TikTok Followers Cant Be Wrong   -10%

Photographs by Michael Schmelling

Collab day at Clubhouse Beverly Hills was scheduled to start at 2 p.m., but that time came and went and the mansion was still as sleepy as a college dorm on Saturday morning. In one of the house’s four living rooms, an enormous oil painting of George Washington loomed over a pale leather couch. A whiteboard listed ideas for future TikTok videos: shooting range, wine tasting, go-karts, Joshua Tree. Outside, by the sparkling pool, the lawn was studded with statues of Greek gods and human-size hamster balls.

In the kitchen, Casius Dean, an 18-year-old from Hawaii who moved to Los Angeles on his coronavirus stimulus check and is now a full-time photographer at the house, told me that the weekly collab days are an occasion for “people with different levels of social media to create together.” A videographer breezed through on his way to Starbucks. “The girls don’t even have their makeup on,” he said, rolling his eyes. The only one who appeared ready was Teala Dunn, the house’s oldest resident at 23, who was wandering around the mansion in a bright-turquoise bikini. As a child, Teala had played a kidnapped girl on Law & Order: SVU and voiced a bunny in a Disney movie. But those were the old ways to build a career in entertainment. Her TikToks, many of which are about how she has a lot of bikinis but can’t swim, have been viewed more than half a billion times. Teala enlisted Dean to take pictures of her by the pool, where she tossed her hair and tilted her chin at various angles. After a few minutes, she grabbed his phone and squinted at the images. “These are everything,” she said.

A rotating cast of 12 influencers lives in Clubhouse Beverly Hills, their every move documented by three full-time media staff. A real-estate developer, Amir Ben-Yohanan, pays the rent and supplies the creators with whatever gear they need to make content: tripods, ring lights, dirt bikes, pool floats shaped like flamingos. In exchange, the residents make several TikToks a day. “I would compare it to a Hollywood studio,” Ben-Yohanan told me. “The only difference here is the influencers live in the studio.” That, and the movies are a maximum of one minute long.

Teen culture used to be a subset of mass culture; kids may have watched different television shows and movies than their parents, but they were still watching television and going to the multiplex. These days, if you talk to a teenager, you’ll find that they seem to exist in an entirely separate entertainment universe, one in which they’re both the consumers and the producers of the content. As early as 2014, young people were more likely to admire YouTubers than traditional Hollywood celebrities. By 2017, 71 percent of teenagers reported watching three or more hours of video on their smartphone a day. TikTok surpassed 2 billion downloads in the spring, and the pandemic only accelerated its ascendance: As schools closed and children quarantined with their parents, the app claimed an even greater share of teen attention.

Michael Schmelling

Over the summer, TikTok faced an improbable foe, the president of the United States, who, citing privacy concerns, threatened a ban or forced sale of the Chinese-owned app. Yet Donald Trump’s war on TikTok did little, if anything, to slow its growth. In the third quarter of 2020, it was downloaded nearly 200 million times worldwide, more than any other app, even Zoom.

Magazines and gossip websites began covering its stars alongside, or instead of, traditional Hollywood stars. “You don’t see the typical celebrity, because they’re not doing films, they’re not on the red carpet, they’re not doing anything—they’re with their family or whatever,” Morgan Riddle, who was at the time the head of brand development for Clubhouse Beverly Hills, told me in August. “In these content houses, we have a full media team. So in the weirdest way, the pandemic has benefited us in that we’ve all been cooped up and no one has anything to do except make content.”

By 3:30, the house was beginning to fill up with young people, few if any wearing masks. Some came from other creator mansions that are part of the larger Clubhouse family: Clubhouse Next (for up-and-coming creators), Clubhouse FTB (“for the boys”), Not a Content House (an all-girls house for younger creators). Girls brought plus-ones, boys brought plus-ones, plus-ones brought plus-ones. Kids on the cusp of social-media fame had flown in from Georgia or North Carolina to boost their profiles by making content with bigger creators. A tiny girl in ripped jeans, a white crop top, and impeccable makeup turned out to be Coco Quinn, a YouTuber and TikToker who is, according to the Gen Z encyclopedia, the second-most-popular 12-year-old in the country.

The crowd spilled out onto the patio and the lawn surrounding the pool. The girls claimed the tripods and broke into small groups to film themselves dancing. They wore outfits optimized for movement—sweatpants, crop tops, sneakers. Several of the older ones drank from plastic cups filled to the brim with rosé. They all knew the dance trends that were popular on TikTok that week and performed them over and over again until the energy was right, tweaking the hand gestures to put their own spin on the moves. The air was full of a purposeful, pep-rally enthusiasm. Inside, a catering company served up unlimited poke bowls. Teala watched Coco swivel her hips. “I wish I was 12,” she said with a sigh.

A cluster of boys stood on the patio, discussing legal documents. The influencer contract for one agency was “like 80 pages,” a 17-year-old complained. Another boy was grateful he’d checked with a lawyer before completing his paperwork. “It had me for perpetuity,” he explained. “You have to know what you’re signing.”

The major gossip that day was about Sway House, a content mansion populated by a crew of rowdy, photogenic boys ages 17 to 21. The Sway guys had been hosting enormous parties despite Los Angeles County’s prohibition against gatherings of any kind. One week earlier, the county’s public-health director had warned of “explosive growth” in coronavirus cases among young people; 18-to-29-year-olds had a higher case rate than any other age group. Mayor Eric Garcetti had just disconnected Sway House’s electricity. “Despite several warnings, this house has turned into a nightclub in the hills,” he said in a statement. The house’s most famous member, Bryce Hall, responded by adding a new hoodie to his Party Animal merch line; it featured a shattered light bulb and the phrase lights out.

Previous photos and above: TikTokers making videos at Clubhouse Beverly Hills in October. A rotating cast of influencers lives in the house. “When you have three people in a video together, that’s what users want,” one TikTok observer explained. “The content does so much better.” (Michael Schmelling)

The Clubhouse collab day, several people assured me, wasn’t a party; it was work. By late afternoon, there were more than 50 people hugging and dancing and laughing, with still no masks in sight. “It’s hard because our job puts us in touch with so many people,” one girl told me. “If you’re in social media, you have to collaborate.”

When a group of boys began jumping off the roof into the pool, I decided it was time to go. More kids were filing into the mansion, and the long driveway was packed with nearly two dozen cars, with more crowding the surrounding street. A masked woman was moving slowly down the sidewalk, writing them all parking tickets.

In November 2017, the Chinese tech company ByteDance acquired, a social-media app whose content consisted primarily of teenage girls lip-synching. was widely considered cringey; the videos were too eager, too nakedly attention-seeking. When ByteDance merged with its own video-sharing platform, TikTok, in August 2018, the newer app was initially tainted with the older one’s reputation. Compilations of awkward TikToks—furries dancing, Goth tweens emoting—circulated on YouTube and Twitter. In a world dominated by a handful of tech companies that tend to either squeeze out or acquire any viable competition, the new app seemed unlikely to expand beyond a niche audience. “I was skeptical. I didn’t know if TikTok was going to evaporate,” Evan Britton, the founder of Famous Birthdays, told me. “I was shocked by how quickly it grew.”

Ahlyssa Velasquez, a redheaded theater kid from Avondale, Arizona, began posting TikToks as @itsahlyssa in 2019, during her senior year of high school. She didn’t mind that people made fun of the app; she felt like an outsider anyway, so who cared? Posting a 15-second TikTok was less work than making a YouTube video and less filtered and posed than Instagram. TikTok videos had a cozy, bedroom vibe (though many TikTokers prefer to film in the bathroom, where the lighting is more flattering). Kids filmed themselves doing what they’ve been doing for ages—singing, dancing, pranking their siblings, mocking their parents—but now they had a potential audience of millions. ByteDance was willing to dig deep to build that audience: The company reportedly spent nearly $1 billion on advertising for TikTok in 2018, largely on other social platforms.

Ahlyssa Velasquez joined TikTok in 2019. That summer, when she arrived for her freshman year of college, girls she didn’t know would run up to her and say, Oh my God, it’s TikTok girl! (Harry Toohey)

Young women were among the first to cotton on to TikTok’s appeal. At a time when other social-media platforms were embroiled in political scandals, TikTok emphasized fun and entertainment; its stated mission is to “inspire creativity and bring joy” to users. This commitment to lightheartedness can be refreshing as well as disconcerting. When ByteDance was accused of suppressing posts about prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong, the company claimed that there was no censorship—those posts just weren’t as interesting to users as viral dance challenges.

The app’s central feature is the For You page, or FYP, a personalized content feed in the form of an endless scroll of videos. The FYP relies heavily on passive personalization; an algorithm learns what you like by analyzing your viewing patterns and rapidly adjusting the feed to suit your tastes. By watching TikTok videos, you’re training the algorithm to entertain you—and the results are extremely, sometimes uncannily, compelling. The app can seem to know what you want better than you do. Part of the pleasure of TikTok is seeing what unexpected subculture the FYP will serve up for you that day. (Friends and acquaintances I surveyed have recently been steered toward militant-child-socialist TikTok, attractive-ceramicist TikTok, and Draco Malfoy fan-fiction TikTok.) For creators, the app provides sophisticated video-editing tools, as well as a library of sounds and songs to riff on. The platform’s commitment to prioritizing engagement makes it “weirdly meritocratic,” Eugene Wei, a tech executive and blogger, told me. Celebrities and influencers weren’t the only ones getting the views; on TikTok, anyone could go viral.

[Read: How quickly can a girl go viral on TikTok?]

After her high-school graduation, Ahlyssa went to VidCon, an annual convention in Anaheim, California, for creators and fans of video content. While the big YouTube stars spent much of the weekend talking on panels, the TikTokers had more time to engage with fans. A lot of them asked Ahlyssa to be in their videos; she had distinctive flaming-red hair and a sunny, easygoing disposition—plus, she knew all the dances. By the time she flew home, she had nearly 700,000 followers. Over the course of a weekend, she’d gone from being a fan to being low-key famous.


I tried to teach him 😂 @connor.tanner

♬ original sound - celeste 🤎

The content on TikTok is fueled by memes—dance challenges, joke formats, or sound clips that users repeat and parody. To people unfamiliar with the app, TikTok can seem like a bewildering onslaught of trends and in-jokes. This self-referential quality makes it particularly suited to teen culture; watching memes cycle through TikTok reminded me of how swiftly certain pieces of playground lore, like the “pen15 club,” rocketed around my middle school in the pre-social-media era. The memes mutate so quickly that if you log off for a week—or a day—you’ll return to an incomprehensible world. Why is everyone posting about being possessed by an owl? Better, perhaps, to never log off at all.

When Ahlyssa started college at the University of Arizona in August 2019, she got busy with her sorority and stopped posting as much. But then a funny thing began to happen. At parties, drunk girls she didn’t know ran up to her: Oh my God, it’s TikTok girl! The app seemed to have crossed some invisible threshold of popularity. Her sorority sisters were obsessed; when she went home for Christmas break, all her friends wanted to do was post dances. “When Charli started growing big, that’s when it really popped off,” Ahlyssa told me. “Everyone downloaded the app to figure out who this person named Charli was.”

A year ago, Charli D’Amelio lived in suburban Connecticut, in a roomy stone house with homey sayings on plaques in the kitchen. She was a high-school sophomore who loved Judge Judy and scary movies; on weekends, her mom drove her to dance competitions. Then, over the course of a few heady months, she became wildly, inexplicably famous. In March of this year, two months before her 16th birthday, Charli officially became the most popular person on TikTok. As of October, she had 94 million followers on the platform—about 6 million more than Rihanna has on Instagram or Taylor Swift has on Twitter. Now when Boomers want to reach the youth, they call Charli—as Ohio Governor Mike DeWine did in March, enlisting her for a social-media campaign encouraging young people to socially distance. Famous Birthdays’ Evan Britton told me that Charli’s fame is an indication of TikTok’s move from the fringes of youth culture to the mainstream. “J.Lo asked Charli to be in her music video. She’s interested in Charli’s audience, and not vice versa,” he told me. “That’s how you know it’s broken through.”


dc @marywithoutalamb

♬ Originalton [MARINA - Bubblegum Bitch] - carlamalz

Charli often says that she has no idea why she, of all people, was anointed with TikTok stardom. She downloaded the app in May 2019 at her friends’ urging. Some of her first videos were filmed horizontally—better for showing off traditional dance moves, but not at all how TikTok was meant to be used. She quickly adapted to the app and became one of thousands of girls posting videos of themselves dancing. Two months later, a relatively unremarkable post—a duet, or side-by-side response, to a dance video by @move_with_joy, a woman who makes easy dances—blew up.

The app has had its share of one-hit wonders, but Charli kept adding followers at a rapid clip. Her success was, in part, an accident of timing. Many of TikTok’s earliest stars had cut their teeth on YouTube or Vine, the beloved short-form video app that was shut down in 2017. By mid-2019, though, TikTok had grown enough that it was primed to create a breakout star of its own, and that was bound to happen during the summer, when kids are out of school. (The second-most-followed TikToker, 20-year-old Addison Rae Easterling, posted her first viral video shortly after Charli’s.)

As Charli’s follower count grew, her popularity acquired a reflexive quality; essentially, she became a meme for other TikTokers to react to. There was a flurry of I don’t get why Charli is so popular posts, followed by backlash-to-the-backlash videos tagged #teamcharli and #unproblematicqueen. “It became a runaway feedback loop,” Wei explained. “The more controversy there was about why she was popular, the more popular she became.”

By the fall, kids were coming up to Charli and asking for pictures. Her older sister, Dixie, started posting on TikTok in October and promptly gained millions of followers too. (Gen Z stardom is big on siblings, and particularly twins.) Strangers filmed the family when they went out for ice cream. It was an adolescent’s nightmare/dream—everyone is looking at me. “Every other TikTok rn is about @charlidamelio,” Taylor Lorenz, a New York Times reporter and expert chronicler of Gen Z trends, tweeted last November. That month, Charli switched to an online school that allowed for a more flexible schedule. Soon, Charli, Dixie, and their parents, Heidi and Marc, were traveling to the West Coast nearly every week to hang out with other TikTokers and explore business opportunities. In May, the family—including their four cheerful, extroverted dogs, Rebel, Cali, Cody, and Belle—relocated to Los Angeles.

This summer, I met the D’Amelios at their current home, a starkly contemporary mansion in the Hollywood Hills. In one corner of the open-plan living room loomed a large black sculpture that looked like a shiny fish-man; the kitchen was spotless and intimidatingly white. The real-estate upgrade coincided with a similar update to Charli’s image. On TikTok, I had noticed her looking like a sleeker version of herself, her nails and lashes always done. In person, though, she was soft-spoken and appeared small in an oversize hoodie; I felt acutely aware that she was a child.

When I asked her which milestones had meant the most to her, Dixie piped in: “I feel like 100,000 is the last time you got, like, Oh my God.”

“When did I hit 80 [million]?” Charli said. “Like, yesterday? I cried because I got nervous—why are there so many people …” She trailed off, as if even completing the sentence was too overwhelming. By the time this story is published, she’ll likely have hit the 100 million mark.

Charli’s appeal is tied to her ability to be both relatable and aspirational. She manages to telegraph an ordinary kind of specialness; she’s the pretty babysitter, or the captain of the field-hockey team. (About 80 percent of her followers are female.) Although she’s danced competitively since kindergarten, on TikTok her moves have an offhand, casual quality. People sometimes wonder why more skillful dancers aren’t more famous than Charli, which misses the point entirely—her fans appreciate that she dances in a way that’s approachable.

Charli and Dixie have also deftly managed to avoid scandal. The D’Amelio sisters told me that their careful approach to social media predates their fame. “My friends would post whatever they were doing, and I wouldn’t even post if I went to a party,” Dixie said. “It just kind of worked out in a way that we’ve always been protecting our brands.”

The sisters avoid lip-synching profanities, for the most part, and don’t participate in trends that strike them as questionable, like last spring’s “mugshot challenge.” The week of my visit, TikTok (and the world) was obsessed with “WAP,” Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s delightfully profane song about, well, vaginal lubrication. The most popular dance to the song, which was created by Brian Esperon, a dancer and choreographer from Guam, involved “lots of twerking,” according to Charli, and her mother had declared it off-limits.

“The whole internet wants Charli to do it,” Dixie said.

“I mean, I can do it. I’m just not allowed to … show the people,” Charli said. She looked down and away, and for a minute she seemed like any other teenager teetering between obedience and rebellion.

Dance videos—the dominant form of “straight,” or mainstream, TikTok—have been key to Charli’s rise, and to the success of the platform. TikTok dances fit the constraints of the medium, typically involving front-facing upper-body movements and hand motions referencing the lyrics, sometimes in a playfully naughty way: Draw a heart in the air when lyrics reference love; roll your hips when they’re about getting it on. What you do with your face is just as important as what you do with your body. When I asked Charli what made a good TikTok dance, she answered without hesitation: “Facial expressions.” As she dances, she grins, she purses her lips; for a second, she looks angry enough to hit you, then she breaks into a sweet smile.

Lily Kind, the associate director of the Philadelphia studio Urban Movement Arts, told me that she considers TikTok dance a form of folk dance, drawing from adolescent-girl culture and Black vernacular dance traditions: hand-clapping games like Miss Mary Mack; earlier pop-music fad dances, to songs like “Macarena” and Soulja Boy’s “Crank That”; double Dutch; and even vaudeville-era routines. “It’s engaged and playful with the viewer. It’s all about improvisational composition and one-upping each other—you did this; now I’m going to twist it, flip it, and reverse it. All of that is part of the legacy of Black dance in the U.S.,” Kind said.

The legacy of Black dance in this country, of course, has also been coopted and commodified. This effect is exacerbated by TikTok’s structure, which encourages a kind of contextless sharing and repurposing and, at its worst, the 21st-century minstrelsy known as “digital blackface.” “If you look at some of the dances on TikTok—the Mop, the Nae Nae, the Hit Dem Folks, the Woah—they were dances that young Black folks have done in parking lots, at cookouts, at home. Then they fall into the TikTok hemisphere and become something else,” says Michele Byrd-McPhee, the founder and executive director of the Ladies of Hip-Hop Festival.

Last December, Charli saw a TikTok of two kids dancing to the Atlanta rapper K Camp’s “Lottery (Renegade).” She hadn’t seen the dance before and assumed they had made it up. “I did the guy version of the dance, and I guess that caught on,” she told me. The Renegade was more complex and faster-paced than many TikTok dances; after Charli’s post, it became enormously popular. High-school students held Renegade dance battles. Lizzo did the Renegade; so did Kourtney Kardashian and her son, and Alex Rodriguez (badly) and his daughter. Videos tagged #renegade have been viewed 2.2 billion times.

Though Charli never claimed credit for coming up with the dance, it became informally associated with her. The dance’s creator was actually Jalaiah Harmon, a Black 15-year-old from suburban Atlanta. Like Charli, Jalaiah had taken dance classes from a young age, and regularly filmed herself dancing in her room. She was goofing around before dance class one day when she came up with the Renegade choreography. She posted it to Instagram, where it got several thousand views. The dance eventually made its way to TikTok, where it arrived without context or credit, another meme appearing from the void. Jalaiah felt both proud and frustrated as she watched it take off. “I was commenting under people’s posts, telling them I made the dance, but they didn’t really believe it, because I didn’t have much of a following on TikTok,” she told me.

As the dance continued to spread across the app, Jalaiah claimed credit for it in a video that gradually gained traction. When Taylor Lorenz told Jalaiah’s story in the Times, Charli’s comments were flooded with people accusing her of being a thief. But Jalaiah wasn’t out to shame Charli so much as let the world know the dance was her invention. “Jalaiah has always defended Charli. The way TikTok was set up, it was hard to figure out who started” the Renegade dance trend, Stefanie Harmon, Jalaiah’s mother, told me.

Getting credit has made a meaningful difference in Jalaiah’s life; she’s since been hired to work with Samsung and American Eagle, and appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and in a music video for Sufjan Stevens. In February, Jalaiah, Charli, and Addison Rae Easterling attended the NBA All-Star Game and posted a video in which they all did the Renegade; a few hours later, Jalaiah performed the dance during the halftime show.

Left to right: Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae Easterling, and Jalaiah Harmon. After D’Amelio was criticized for popularizing the Renegade dance that Harmon had created, the girls performed it together during the NBA All-Star Weekend in February. (Kena Krutsinger / NBAE / Getty)

Kudzi Chikumbu, TikTok’s director of creator community, told me that the company is working on better ways to attribute original dances. In the meantime, the Renegade scandal has inspired users to come up with their own solution: citing dance creators in video captions. “Now it’s so normalized; when you do a dance, you give credit, and if you don’t know who made it, then you just ask,” Charli said.

This year, the D’Amelios have focused on establishing themselves as the first family of TikTok. Marc, an entrepreneur and onetime Republican candidate for the Connecticut state Senate, has more than 7 million followers; his TikTok bio now identifies him as “CEO of The D’Amelio Family.” Heidi, a former model, has more than 6 million followers. Their brand—nice, relatable family!—doesn’t seem far from reality; in person, they have an easy affection for one another. Casius Dean, the Clubhouse photographer, told me that he’d recently had dinner with the D’Amelios. “I haven’t felt a home environment in so long,” he told me, sounding wistful. “It made me forget about social media for a minute.”

Unlike some young TikTokers who are negotiating the world of viral fame more or less on their own, Charli has benefited from having business-savvy parents. “I work in New York City,” Marc told me. “I’ve been around brands my entire career.” The family has signed with United Talent Agency, which manages its growing ventures. In October, the co-head of UTA’s digital-talent division announced that he was leaving the agency to become president of D’Amelio Family Enterprises, the family’s attempt to establish itself as a media company. Between them, the D’Amelio sisters have a podcast, a book, a hit single, and several ad campaigns. Charli, who has repeatedly pledged her love for Dunkin’ in unsponsored posts, now has a signature drink at the chain (cold brew with whole milk and three pumps of caramel swirl). This summer, Forbes estimated that Charli and Dixie were the second- and third-highest-earning TikTokers, after Addison, netting an estimated $6.9 million from mid-2019 to mid-2020.

That’s a lot of money, though it’s a fraction of what J.Lo makes in a year. Eager, perhaps, for the kind of recognition, and remuneration, that older entertainment media can provide, the family has started documenting their lives in professionally filmed and edited YouTube videos that feel like test runs for a future reality-TV show. A recent video tracked Charli’s quest to get Dixie a pair of $32,000 Dior sneakers for her 19th birthday. The video involves classic reality-TV plot points (a prank, a surprise reveal), but Dixie doesn’t externalize her reactions; instead, she gets quiet. The more I watched their YouTube videos, the more I realized that both sisters, though they are accustomed to opening their lives up to viewers, still have a slightly interior quality, some part of their personalities that they keep to themselves. This seems good for their mental health, although not, perhaps, for ratings.

Shortly after my visit, Charli posted two versions of the “WAP” dance. In the first, she doesn’t appear at all. Instead, the camera is trained on her friends’ faces. We’re meant to understand that she’s offscreen, doing the dance for their delighted, scandalized eyes only. In the second, she performs a slow, balletic interpretation of the dance. The videos were peak TikTok—savvy, creative, playful. They’ve been viewed more than 100 million times each.

A couple of years ago, Amir Ben-Yohanan, the Clubhouse investor, noticed that his four kids were “obsessed,” first with and then with TikTok. “Like many adults, I looked down on it. I thought they were just messing around, dancing. It didn’t seem very serious,” Ben-Yohanan told me. When his family moved to Los Angeles in 2019, though, he began to meet people who had turned social media into a lucrative career. “It seemed to me like the Gold Rush, like the Wild West,” he said. And as far as he could tell, the kids were running the show: “They were doing everything, creating the content, engaging in brand deals, doing the marketing, doing the PR.”

Hype House, a content house that Charli and Dixie were briefly affiliated with, is a prime example. The loose collective of about a dozen teenagers and 20-somethings rented a Hollywood mansion late last year; within weeks, videos tagged #hypehouse had more than 100 million views. Since the heady days of Vine, influencers have seen the benefit of living and working together. But TikTok, where fame arrives swiftly and is particularly social, pushed the trend into overdrive. “When you have three people in a video together, that’s what users want—the content does so much better,” Evan Britton explained. “Traditional Hollywood wasn’t like that. People might’ve acted together, but they didn’t need to be together for their brand.”

Life at Hype House looks like a teenage dream. Members appear to make a living off flirting, dancing, and pranking one another; their jobs are, essentially, to maintain their popularity. No one ever seems to cook; the house gets 15 or 20 Postmates and Uber Eats deliveries a day. The group’s relentlessly viral posts helped establish the aesthetic of straight TikTok—young, pretty, mostly white people dancing. (The platform has many stranger, older, less white, queerer, and more absurdist pockets, though they tend to get less traction.)

Shortly afterward came Sway House, the content mansion of “dudes being guys,” as Bryce Hall has put it. While straight TikTok’s version of femininity—sweet, coy, lots of bare midriffs—is familiar, the Sway guys veer from fratty aggression to “eboy” sensitivity to boy-band earnestness to ambiguously ironic homoeroticism.

TikTok’s popular crowd cemented its fame this spring, when everyone else was stuck at home. I can trace my own overconsumption to late March. The more I was afraid to leave my house, the more I became unexpectedly invested in the love lives and shifting friendship alliances of TikTok’s young stars: Were Dixie and Noah a thing? Did Addison unfollow Bryce? My own social universe offered no gossip; of all the pandemic losses, this was the most trivial, but I nonetheless felt it acutely. The TikTokers stepped in to fill that void. “The drama has been popping off way more during quarantine, for sure,” one of the teenage founders of First Ever Tiktok Shaderoom, a popular social-media gossip account, told me. There were breakups, angry neighbors, arrests, lawsuits—all of which fed the content machine. “It’s like back in the day with the Kardashians on TV. The audience knew every week there’s going to be something crazy that goes down,” Josh Richards, one of the founding members of Sway House, told me.

The popular kids of TikTok project an image of easygoing fun and success. Part of the pleasure of their videos is the implicit promise that you, too, could be just a viral moment away from joining them, hanging around a mansion and earning money by posting content. An influx of kids has moved to L.A. to make a go of it.

Ben-Yohanan, who had no previous experience in Hollywood, said he started the Clubhouse group as an attempt to professionalize the booming content-house scene. Even so, it’s sometimes hard to know who, if anyone, is in charge. Many young influencers are managed by people barely older than they are. At least one Clubhouse manager is just 20; TalentX Entertainment, the company behind Sway House, is run in part by grizzled veterans of new media, which is to say 23-year-old YouTubers.

Earlier this year, Ahlyssa Velasquez dropped out of the University of Arizona to focus on making TikTok videos full-time. She was the first influencer to move into Clubhouse Next, which was decidedly less glam than Clubhouse Beverly Hills—10 residents shared the five-bedroom house. As house manager, she was responsible for getting everyone out of bed and keeping track of everyone’s content quotas. “People think, Oh she lives in this big mansion and just posts 15-second videos,” she told me. “It’s a lot harder than it looks.”

And the margins are leaner than you might think: While TikTok may have captured Gen Z’s attention, brands have been slower to advertise on the platform, and the fees they offer for promotional TikToks are typically less than what they pay on Instagram. Influencers with 1 million TikTok followers can make about $500 to $2,000 for a sponsored post. After seven months, Ahlyssa left Clubhouse Next, which was dropped from the Clubhouse family because it didn’t generate enough revenue.

In the old model of celebrity, stars were propped up by studios and agencies with a stake in their enduring appeal. TikTok’s young stars have grown up in a world where fame can arrive in an instant, but also disappear overnight. Trends come and go swiftly; even platforms don’t last. (The 21-year-old Bryce, who got his start on the live-streaming platform YouNow six years ago, has already outlasted three of the sites where he used to post.) A few TikTok creators are being assimilated into larger, older, more stable forms of media; others will hustle to keep up until they lose touch, or just lose interest.

I spoke with Ahlyssa this fall, when much of California was on fire and Trump was once again threatening to ban TikTok. Terms of a potential deal with Oracle got more convoluted by the day. Ahlyssa told me that she wasn’t following the story too closely. She had been on TikTok for only a year and a half, but she was already nostalgic for the old days, before posting was her job, before all of her friends were influencers. Back then, she would scroll through her FYP and see all sorts of different people doing all sorts of different things. Back then, the app had felt like an engine of surprise and delight—anything could happen, anyone could blow up. Now it felt like the same people over and over again: Charli, Hype House, Addison, Sway House. She loved them all, but maybe it would be good if everyone had to start fresh. “TikTok is the platform I started on,” she said, “but I’m ready for the next one.”

This article appears in the December 2020 print edition with the headline “The Hardest-Working Kids in Show Business.” It was first published online on November 20, 2020.

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Ethiopian military says it will use tanks, artillery to capture city of Mekelle  

The conflict erupted on November 4 after what the government described as a surprise attack on federal troops by forces from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party that controls Tigray

EE Football Team's record-setting raffle will build on legacy of beloved sports icon Joey Moss  

'Joey was so blessed with opportunities that he had. ... He changed people's view on the difference that can be made by employing someone with disabilities.'

Bittersweet life for Israeli-Arab food vendors during Ramadan   70%

A trip to Lod during the Muslim month of fasting to sample the delights of qatayef and despair at the neglect of this fascinating city.

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'I fast out of respect for the congregants. But I would feel great eating shrimp on Yom Kippur'   -45%

What do ultra-Orthodox people do if they cease to believe but are fearful of losing all they hold dear? Answer: They lead a double life

UK PM Boris Johnsons next coronavirus test: end lockdown, plan safe Christmas  

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will announce a massive increase in community coronavirus testing on Monday as part of a plan to reintroduce tiered restrictions in place of the England-wide lockdown that ends on December 2.Areas under the highest level of curbs will have access to regular tests. People who come into contact with someone with the disease will be able to avoid quarantine by taking a test every day for seven days, Johnson’s office said.The programme, which will be trialled in…

Engineer produces three tons of fertilizer a month  

An agricultural engineer in the eastern province of Şırnak has advised the unemployed people to breed Californian worms, telling that he produces three tones of worm fertilizer a month by only working an hour a day.

Michigan hospital workers face burnout as public support fades, COVID-19 cases rise  

Months into the pandemic, more than 3,800 people in Michigan have been hospitalized with the virus.


Coronavirus: Can vitamins really help with a COVID-19 infection?   20%

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Heather Mallick: Hiring of family shows that in politics, ethics are all relative   -33%

Why did Liberal MP Yasmin Ratansi hire her sister and give her a fake name? Why did former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer hire his sister? It’s a phenomenon I call clumping: being so insecure that you surround yourself with people you grew up with, who are then in your debt.

Osman Yousefzada: 'Shades of unity in hope of a new brown and black coalition'   12%

Designer and writer Osman Yousefzada’s jumpsuit for Beyoncé shot him to instant fame. But it’s being the son of Pakistani-Afghan migrants that shaped him most. Here, he describes his personal and political struggle against racism, and why ethnic solidarity is paramount

Don’t go to bed!” my PR messaged from LA. It was midnight in the UK and Beyoncé was about to step out wearing one of my designs at the 2013 Grammys. The image of Beyoncé in my jumpsuit was everywhere the next day. The phone calls and emails flooded in; there were interview requests and order inquiries. With just one appearance, Beyoncé had put my emerging fashion label on the map. My appointment book was filled back-to-back for the international buying season in Paris the following month. Armed with my latest collection in two gigantic wheelie suitcases, I passed through security screening for the Eurostar train. Snaking through the immigration queue, I stepped forward to the counter with my British Passport in hand…

Before I tell you any more, there are two things you need to know about me. The first is that I am the British-born son of Pakistani-Afghan immigrants who came to the UK seeking a better life for themselves and their children. The second is that my skin tone is brown – brown enough for people throughout the course of my life to hurl a variety of racial slurs at me.

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Coronavirus: hundreds of corpses stored in New York freezer trucks for months  

Hundreds of bodies are still stored in freezer trucks at a disaster morgue set up during New York City’s coronavirus surge in the spring, according to the city’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner.Many of the 650 bodies at the disaster morgue on the Brooklyn waterfront are of people whose families can’t be located or can’t afford a proper burial, officials told The Wall Street Journal.Normally, the deceased would have been buried within a few weeks in a gravesite for the indigent on Hart Island…

A terrible time for the UK to cut foreign aid | Letter   9%

There are no grounds for breaking legal commitments or for turning our backs on countries and people at a time of great need, write Sam Hickey, Uma Kambhampati and others

News that the UK government is set to renege on its commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid could not come at a worse time for the world’s poorest countries and people and for international cooperation more broadly (UK aid budget facing billions in cuts, 17 November). The World Bank estimates that the Covid-19 pandemic will push an extra 88-115 million people into extreme poverty this year alone, rolling back years of progress that UK aid has helped contribute to. While there is room for debate about the best way to set aid budgets, there are no grounds for breaking legal commitments or for turning our backs on countries and people at a time of great need.

Taken together with the parallel proposals to boost spending on national defence and to restrict employment within the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to British nationals – which will greatly limit the talent pool from which to recruit and undermine FCDO’s ability to operate effectively in different contexts – this latest move suggests Britain is rapidly becoming a parochial rather than progressive presence in the world. The UK, with its reputation as a global leader on foreign aid and for scientific excellence in vaccine development and beyond, remains well placed to play a leading role in both responding to the pandemic and helping to build a more equal, safer and sustainable global order.

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Dont Eat Inside a Restaurant   5%

Editor’s Note: The Atlantic is making vital coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find the collection here.

Thinking too hard about saliva can really ruin a nice meal. And to eat inside a restaurant in 2020 requires ignoring the harsh reality of drool: the residue left behind by a chip dipped in a shared bowl of guacamole, the flecks of spit flung loose by a drunken laugh, and the veritable makeout session that is sampling someone else’s cocktail.

The unfortunate ubiquity of mucus is why restaurants, it brings me no pleasure to report, are contributing to the spread of the coronavirus. Indoor public places, including restaurants, played a significant role in the spread of COVID-19 this spring, according to scientific analyses of cellphone data. In a September study, people who tested positive for COVID-19 were more than twice as likely as those who tested negative to report eating in a restaurant recently. Talking with someone who has COVID-19 for 30 minutes or longer—about the time between your bloomin’-onion appetizer and molten-chocolate dessert—more than doubles your odds of catching it.

So why on earth would anyone eat inside a restaurant right now?

This is the question I mulled as I walked up and down the Crystal City strip in Virginia last week, dressed in a mask and an Ann Taylor sweater. I had journeyed to this chunk of suburban Washington, D.C., near the Pentagon, because, despite its concrete-y soullessness, it has the advantage of being home to several restaurants in a row. And they are popular restaurants—not your TGI Fridays, but not your two-tables-and-a-vegan-tagine either. In all, I approached and interviewed about a dozen random people as they walked out of restaurants in Crystal City, and later in another little patch of Northern Virginia called the Mosaic District, a mixed-use development off a giant highway.

These were not anti-mask COVID-19 deniers; people were clearly following the official rules. Nearly everyone on the street wore a mask, including the diners as soon as they exited their restaurant of choice. A man watching TV from the bar inside a Thai place had a mask on. So did the women walking down the street talking about their pharmacy-school applications.

Still, lots of people were eating indoors, even though it was a balmy, 66-degree night in early November. Unless you’re extremely plugged into the public-health world, there’s little reason you would pause before eating inside. Many of the places I passed had signs outside announcing We’re Open! Like 44 other states as of this writing, Virginia hadn’t banned eating indoors, even though the day after my interviews there were 14 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in Fairfax County and 17 in Arlington. That’s well over the 10-per-100,000 measure that Caitlin Rivers, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told me recently was her ceiling for socializing indoors with friends and family only.

[Read: The pandemic safety rule that really matters]

Outside McCormick & Schmick’s, a chain seafood place, I stopped three men who had just had a business dinner together. They refused to give me their full names, so I’ll identify them by the color of their masks.

These three seemed relatively unconcerned about the virus. One of them, Red Mask, said he was still going to the gym; Blue Mask said he had gone to the barber recently and was impressed with how long his hairdresser spent wiping down his chair. (This is largely for show; surfaces are now thought to be less important to the spread of the virus than aerosols and droplets from other people). Black Mask told me that he was willing to go into any open restaurant. “I’m not in a high-risk category, so if I got it, it wouldn’t bother me that much,” he reasoned.

They asked me, somewhat aggressively, if I would eat inside a restaurant. I said I probably would not. And then of course I sounded weird, because why wouldn’t you eat in a place that’s open?

Each of us, to get through this terrible time, has clung to some coronavirus factoid or another that we believe protects us. Here’s mine: The odds of catching the coronavirus are about 20 times higher indoors than outdoors. This year I have eaten on patios, in backyards, and on benches outside. But I haven’t sat down inside a restaurant since March, and probably won’t for many more months. “Indoor eating and bars and coffee shops are among the riskiest activities you can do. Outdoors is dramatically better,” says Alex Huffman, an aerosols researcher at the University of Denver.

Several of the restaurant patrons I talked with didn’t share this belief. One man, Steve Harris, even suggested that he was taking a bigger risk talking with me outdoors, with a mask on, than he was eating indoors, without a mask. (Our conversation was much less risky, but I felt awful nonetheless.) Think about when you’re standing on a back patio at a friend’s house, he said, just having a couple of beers, and the sun is setting. You can see peoples’ spit glimmer as it flies out of their mouth into the twilight air. Disgusting, right? Probably more disgusting than having a Blue Creek cheeseburger at Ted’s Montana Grill in November 2020. (Except that indoors, these speech droplets stay in the air for eight to 14 minutes. Not everyone would know this, because Donald Trump and his coronavirus advisers constantly spread incorrect information about the virus.)

Most people told me that they wouldn’t eat at just any restaurant; they’d have to see “precautions” in place. Peoples’ desired precautions ranged from the waitstaff wearing masks to air purifiers to seeing tables spaced apart with partitions separating them. One couple told me, charmingly, that during the pandemic they will eat only in restaurants they are already “familiar with,” as though knowing your way around a menu can protect you from an invisible virus.

The thing is, the precautions restaurants advertise aren’t all very effective, according to experts. One woman who was dining out with her boyfriend told me that she likes to see temperature checks at restaurants. That makes sense, because retail establishments have been ostentatiously taking their patrons’ temperatures for months now. But temperature checks are security theater; not everyone who has COVID-19 has a fever, and a fever can be caused by something other than COVID-19. Measures such as spacing tables apart and installing air purifiers can be helpful, experts told me, but they can’t eliminate the risk entirely. Partitions don’t do much, Huffman says: “They could actually help the aerosol pool on one side of it by disrupting the whole ventilation flow.”

Near the Mosaic District, Silver Diner displayed a sign that claimed the establishment was Making Indoor Dining Like Outdoors, in part through the use of ultraviolet lights, both inside its HVAC system and beaming toward surfaces. Do Hyung Kim, who had just finished up a meal with his wife inside the diner, told me that the UV lights made him feel safer, since he had read about them in the newspaper. But two experts I spoke with said there’s still not much evidence that UV lights prevent infection. “The data behind that is not definitive,” said Tom Tsai, a health-policy professor at Harvard.

Why are people willing to risk it all for a T-bone? In general, humans tend to fall victim to “comparative optimism,” in which we believe that bad things are more likely to happen to other people. There’s still a relatively low likelihood of contracting COVID-19 during any given restaurant outing, but “people aren’t particularly good at perceiving that kind of risk,” says Toby Wise, a researcher at Caltech who has studied coronavirus risk perception.

[Read: The difference between feeling safe and being safe]

People don’t learn from statistics, such as cases per 100,000, but rather from their own experiences, says Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and the author of The Biggest Bluff, about the psychology of gambling. Eating at restaurants is comforting and familiar, which breeds “overconfidence and the downplaying of downside risk,” she says. How could something so fun hurt us? Plus, it’s not like authority figures are telling us to stay out of restaurants. “When there’s a muddled message, you don’t err on the side of safety,” Konnikova says. “You err on the side of desire, especially if you’re tired of quarantine.”

Though some of my interviewees were drawn to the soft glow of a noodle joint because of their boredom at home or their desire for a date night, others were venturing out for the good of the restaurants themselves. With no additional coronavirus aid coming, “the money we just spent in there is gonna make sure that people are employed,” a man named Mark told me in Crystal City. “It’s absolutely important for all of us, if we’re comfortable, that we should do that. Because I’ll tell you what: The economy is our most important asset in our country.” This is the bind the government has put us in: Risk your life to eat inside a beloved restaurant, or it might not exist when this is all over.

I asked all the people I spoke with whether they would be angry at government officials, the restaurant, or any other powers that be if they caught COVID-19 from eating indoors. They all said they wouldn’t be. After all, restaurants are just one of the many types of businesses that remain open; they could have contracted it anywhere.

In part because our leaders have let the virus spread uncontrolled, it sometimes seems like it is an unstoppable threat and, like the weather, there’s not much you can do about it. That thinking can lead to a certain kind of fatalism. When I talked with Gabrielle Velasco and George Kosmidis, a young couple outside a Spanish restaurant called Jaleo, Kosmidis said he was still going into an office regularly. So “I think there’s a level of risk no matter what you do,” he said. Velasco added that she was nevertheless frustrated with the overall government pandemic response. If you think about it, she said, the service staffers, who work in close quarters all day, are taking on a bigger risk than the diners are. Why not risk a little when other people are risking so much?

Reached for comment about the state’s indoor-dining situation, a spokesperson for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said he “is working closely with state and local health experts, and he will continue to base his decisions in data, science, and public health.” A few days after my interviews, Northam announced that he would require restaurants to stop serving alcohol after 10 p.m. and to close by midnight. Of course, how much time people spend inside restaurants before then is still entirely up to them.

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Tinnitus   -13%

In Jersey’s Pine Barrens crickets rub their saw-toothed wings and I’m a child.

A city child now a city man with woods between my ears behind my eyes.

Swarms, throngs, populist masses, agglomerationists, millionings.

Louisiana katydids of a wet summer night beep inside my brains.

Live theater. Intermissions. Who programmed that siren test pattern?

You cicadas and your washboard jingle bells and what’s that boing-ing?

Mississippi mosquitoes. Maine black flies. Vermont hornets.

Acetylene. Blackbirds. Power lines. Aluminum foil.

All tuned up at once. My skull plates ache. Is that hail?

Editorial: COVID-19 curfews? Better than returning to total lockdown   27%

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The strange, booming market of Florida's palmetto berries   11%

Despite no clinical evidence, the oil is used to treat prostate issues in an international market estimated at $200m this year

Mockingbirds announce the first signs of light as Elbin Sales Pérez disappears into a tightly knit maze of saw palmetto, a creeping, palm like shrub that blankets Florida. He’s searching for a berry nestled under the stalks of the spiky plant that grows wild in the American south.

While the native plant is almost synonymous with the state’s landscape, few people know the plant bears fruit. Even fewer understand that those berries – the oil of which is used primarily to treat prostate issues, despite next to no clinical evidence of its efficacy – are at the center of an international botanical market estimated to exceed $200m this year.

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Americans Got Tired of Looking Bad on Zoom  

In the mid-2000s, news anchors found themselves with a problem: They didn’t look so hot anymore. Their real-life visages hadn’t changed, but the technology that beamed them into millions of households had outpaced their faces’ ability to keep up. High-definition cameras proliferated, as did the enormous HDTVs that render blemishes, pancake makeup, and flyaways in larger-than-life detail. Local newscasters with limited budgets fretted over judgment from viewers. CNN’s Anderson Cooper considered plastic surgery. Makeup and lighting crews scrambled to adjust.

When the pandemic hit, the same thing happened to millions of Americans. This was hardly our worst problem in March, but it was a problem nonetheless. While people had been living their in-person life, blissfully unaware of their expression at any given moment, the cameras around them had been multiplying and improving. Once office work and socializing went online, everyone looked terrible. Americans had spent the past decade mastering the momentary muscle movements of a good selfie, but starring in a high-quality live video in front of co-workers or romantic prospects for hours at a time is a different beast entirely. People had no idea how to contend with broadcasting their own face—weird shadows, awkward backdrops, and under-the-chin shots from low-slung laptops abounded.

Things stayed like that for a little while, in the suspended animation of collective uncertainty. But looking at your own bored face during an interminable Zoom call is brutal. Once it became clear that a quick return to normal life wasn’t in the cards, many of those trying to look professional while working from home (or look presentable to their friends at a Zoom happy hour, or look enticing on a FaceTime date) began to search for help.

They found it in the tools and tactics of internet influencers. For years, YouTubers, podcasters, TikTokers, OnlyFans models, Twitch streamers, and Instagram baddies have stockpiled the best affordable, user-friendly tools to make themselves look and sound better—smartphone tripods, laptop stands, external webcams, microphones, and the like. In the first few months of the pandemic, some of these devices became as difficult to find as paper towels and Lysol.

Most crucial of all, though, has been the ring light, a glowing halo that sits atop a tripod or attaches to your phone or laptop. Ring lights are a quick-and-dirty approximation of a professional lighting setup. When positioned carefully, their glow evens skin tone, brightens eyes, and, perhaps most importantly, helps people create an aura of competence and productivity on camera while their kids or roommates wander through the background on the way to the fridge.

Online influencers have been working in the fishbowls of their own homes for years, trying to impress those peering in for a few minutes or hours at a time. The recent mad dash of those in the work-from-home class to crib influencers’ methods happened for a reason that YouTubers and TikTokers understood long before many of the people now haphazardly emulating them did: No one wants to look bad online.

Before the pandemic, if anyone could get you a ring light, it was Guy Cochran. In the early 2010s, Cochran started selling his own lines of ring lights through DVE Store, his Washington-based video-equipment company, to makeup artists with large followings on YouTube. As these beauty experts’ audiences grew, so too did curiosity about how people who seemed to be broadcasting from their spare bedroom managed to look so beautiful while methodically applying layers of eye makeup. In 2013, Cochran appeared on the beauty vlogger Judy Travis’s YouTube channel, ItsJudyTime, to explain her lighting setup to subscribers. He built some simple lighting kits that her fans could buy, and sales exploded.

This popularity with makeup influencers helped ring lights cross over to the mainstream consumer market, where they have since proliferated on Amazon, in electronics stores, and among home-decor retailers. Nothing, however, prepared Cochran for pandemic-level demand. DVE Store has been “pummeled” this year, he told me. Its stock of ring lights was wiped out by the end of April for the next six months, as people rushed to correct their pallid, shadow-distorted faces.

[Read: Why everything is sold out]

A couple of months ago, Cochran himself couldn’t even scrounge up a ring light from his supplier to give to his son’s third-grade teacher, newly ensconced on Zoom. The teacher, wonderful as she is, didn’t look so great on-screen. “She was just really dark and super green,” Cochran said. “The lights in her classroom must have been really off. Humans don’t see the green in person, but photographic sensors see it, so she looked kind of ill.” Before Cochran’s next shipment of ring lights came in, the teacher took matters into her own hands. One day, Cochran noticed that her lighting was much better, and there it was—the telltale circular reflection of a ring light in her eyes.

Similar decision-making processes have taken place in homes across the country, as people realized they weren’t getting off Zoom anytime soon. In the days after the election, I saw the same gleam in the eyes of local government officials interviewed on the news. I ordered one in a huff after logging on to a work Zoom on a day when the natural light in my apartment made me look inexplicably greasy. (I was not greasy.)

As working from home has worn on, some companies have told employees that they can expense a ring light for work meetings, along with things such as a desk chair and an external monitor. That’s the case for Asante Hatcher, who works in health care and says he’s been looking for ways to fiddle with his current setup to improve how video-conferencing software picks up his dark skin tone. “When you don’t have in-person meetings, a visual representation you’re confident in and other people seeing you properly can be important in making connections,” Hatcher told me. “Not everyone has optimal lighting where they’re working, or a stable workspace.”

People in all kinds of professions who have sequestered themselves in basements or odd corners of their apartment to avoid family or roommates have now had almost a year of Photography 101, and they have learned something important: You can’t rely on natural light every day or in every space. Since many workers spend much of their time on Zoom quietly inhabiting their own little box, telegraphing professionalism means controlling that space to the best of their ability. Little by little, many of those with the relative luck of being stuck at home—as opposed to those still required to show up to work in person—have constructed amateur video studios, even if they don’t quite realize what they’ve done yet.

Under the weight of the pandemic, the already crumbling barrier between traditional success and internet influence has all but fully collapsed. YouTube, with its readily accessible pockets of niche expertise, was just the beginning. User-generated videos have gobbled up more and more space on the internet in the past decade, spawning new services and features to encourage even more people to get in front of their camera for both business and pleasure. Instagram and TikTok have taken the phenomenon to its logical extreme, with their own celebrities, visual codes, and dance crazes that have helped mold the nascent aesthetic norms of a generation of young Americans.

[Read: How quickly can a girl go viral on TikTok?]

For much of their existence, consumer-grade ring lights were dismissed as intolerably vain, and most famously embraced by people who relished that vanity. In 2015, Kim Kardashian, who once published an art book of her own selfies, endorsed an iPhone case that functions as its own ring light. But exposure is the enemy of revulsion, and people have grown comfortable with the necessity of stagecraft. In the atomized economy of internet influence, it’s up to individuals to make the entertainment that, in a different era, might have been produced by larger media companies. That includes the patina of professionalism that would otherwise be provided by the company’s resources and expertise.

As opportunities in traditional media wane and more people are using platforms such as YouTube and Twitch to strike out on their own, re-creating that sense of quality is especially important for people who want or need their creative output to generate income. On Reddit, Twitch streamers trade advice on their setups like people going on Zoom job interviews or logging on for performance reviews. They just want to look a little better, a little more credible.

Such is the case for far more people now than it was in February. Using online-image-enhancing devices such as ring lights might be new for lawyers or insurance salespeople, but many of them are making a living online now too. Given the limited time per day to make a direct impression on your colleagues and the people who determine your salary, working from home means being the star of the most boring YouTube channel ever, with the smallest audience and highest personal stakes. In this new reality, ring lights are just another tool in the pursuit of perceived legitimacy, whether you’re hoping to impress your fans or your boss.

As anyone who has tried to record a decent video or podcast for the first time has probably found, when you do it yourself, “you begin to realize what professional media content looks like and how it takes additional resources,” Lee Humphreys, a social-media researcher at Cornell University, told me. “It’s often something that we really take for granted when we consume it, but when we have to produce it, all of a sudden it becomes really quite apparent that our expectations are based very much on this hidden professional production process.”

Consumer-grade ring lights, tripods, and microphones give people a sheen of professionalism for gig-worker prices. As independent creatives, largely excluded from the structure and trajectory of traditional careers, have professionalized their work, the jobs of many professionals have also become more like those of influencers—less stable, less certain, more dependent on projecting a sense of well-managed competence from afar. The work of influencing has always been a direct product of the conditions of making a living in America, not an anomaly. Now, on some level, the pandemic has made influencers out of us all.

Mob bosss threat against CHP leader threaten constitutional order  

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Reasons to have Indian food for weight loss   50%

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China has 8 million blind people, but only 200 guide dogs   4%

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In the Israeli wilderness, the perfect summer salad is yours for the picking   10%

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