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Legs in the Metaverse, Heads in Reality

Date:

Hi, welcome to your Weekend!

The observant reader may notice an odd disconnect in this weekend’s newsletter. Above the fold, you’ll see Margaux’s cover story exploring how social media platforms can identify when users are experiencing manic episodes or other symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Her reporting is backed by a decade’s worth of research showing that TikTok, Instagram and other sites can tell when someone is spiraling out of control—often before a user’s friends or family know about it. Though one researcher argued that “a 6-year-old could tell you if someone was manic” on social media, the platforms themselves often do very little to help.

Now, skip to the bottom of the newsletter, and clock what the builders of the metaverse are actually paying attention to: Legs. Avatar legs. Nonexistent virtual reality avatar legs. 

Not to imply that Mark Zuckerberg can’t think about mental health and digital appendages at the same time, but it is striking how disjointed the real world and the imaginary are becoming. As we’re coaxed by social media companies to expend more time and attention in the metaverse, young people using existing social media products are painfully unravelling in the realverse.    

It makes you wonder: As tech leaders’ focus turns to the next massive social experiment, who’s caring for the people still dwelling in the current one?  


TikTok and other social media sites have become an unavoidable outlet for people suffering from bipolar disorder, one that can put them at serious risk of harm. Such was the case for popular influencer Gabbie Hanna, as she melted down last month before millions of viewers. Margaux explores the thorny questions surrounding the interplay between psychological disorders and social media: What responsibility do platforms have to protect users having manic episodes? And what if the technology itself is worsening their conditions?


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Last week, the Meta COO stepped down after a 14-year run. With Sandberg’s next phase beginning, Annie assembled a cabinet of billionaire whisperers, public relations consultants and marketing advisers to game out a number of scenarios. Should Sheryl invest? Join another board? Try her hand at politics? If you’re reading, Sheryl, here’s where you might want to lean next.


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Christopher Bouzy, the founder and director of the four-year-old anti-hate research organization Bot Sentinel, takes a lot of abuse in his battle against trolls and hate bots. But as Jessica Lucas reports, by wading into the hottest cultural flashpoints of the last several years—from the Amber Heard defamation trial, to the slime campaign against Meghan Markle, to Elon Musk’s on-again, off-again battle to take over Twitter—he seems to welcome the fight. 


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All-nighters were once a badge of honor among the tech elite. Now there’s nothing worse than a sleepless CEO. Between sleep trackers, smart mattresses, supplements and subscriptions, there’s no shortage of ways to optimize a night of shut-eye. Arielle spoke to startup founders and tech workers to learn what they’re using to fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer and wake up with more energy.


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Watching: First Chucky, then Annabelle, now M3GAN
What’s scarier: a future where advanced AI becomes sentient, or one where robots can twerk like Miley Cyrus? Terrifyingly, the trailer for “M3GAN” offers both. The film, out January 13, stars Allison Williams (“Get Out”) as a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein, who brings home an AI doll as a playmate for her orphaned niece Katie. You can see where this is going. It’s not long before the robo-doll starts slashing people, pushing kids in front of moving cars, and occasionally running on all fours like one of those TikTok horse girls. The trailer’s virality has all but assured that “M3GAN” will be a box office smash, and not just because of that demented dance scene. —Arielle


Listening: A “new” Steve Jobs interview 
“It’s nice to sit back in the car and listen to you rant,” Steve Jobs told Joe Rogan last week. Of course, Jobs died in 2011, before he had the chance to sit for an interview with the podcaster, but that didn’t stop artificial intelligence from willing the conversation into existence. Podcast.ai, a weekly podcast created with AI tools, reassembled hours of Jobs’ speeches and Rogan’s videos into a 19-minute conversation. The result is eerily realistic, with the two men discussing everything from LSD to Microsoft’s failings. Now the podcast is soliciting suggestions for which famous figures will get to powwow next: Albert Einstein and Buddha are the current favorites. —Margaux


Reading: Bad news, bears
Alas, we bring you a new disturbing tale of attempted election interference: A spam attack this week targeted Fat Bear Week, the annual contest by Alaska’s Katmai National Park in which the internet picks its favorite chunky ursine—all in an effort to raise conservation awareness. The ballot-stuffing resulted in 9,000 fraudulent tallies for a female brown bear named Holly, according to NPR. When organizers detected the vote-rigging, they added a captcha to the selection process, and in the end, Bear 747, a 1,400-pound male nicknamed “Bear Force One,” won for the second time. It is unknown whether Holly will accept the election’s outcome. —Abe


Noticing: The birth of cart-sharing
The Abercrombie & Fitch Co. clothing brand Hollister—rarely at the forefront of technology—is introducing a new feature that retailers should have been using for years. According to the Wall Street Journal, Share2Pay offers customers without credit cards (ie, teenagers) the ability to load up their virtual carts on the Hollister app and then share it with others (ie, their parents, duh) for payment and checkout. The Share2Pay recipient can also edit and delete the sharer’s choices, which presents a win-win-win: teens get to nudge adults for payment; parents maintain control over teens’ shopping habits; and the brand makes it easier to convert browsing into sales. —Annie 


Makes You Think

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Narrator: Sorry tadpoles, the legs are actually not coming soon


Until next Weekend, thanks for reading.

—Jon

Weekend Editor, The Information

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