The scar first appears on Annie Bonelli’s TikTok onMarch 18, 2021. In the video, she is in a car, earbuds in, lip-synching to the song “I Know,” by D. Savage. The mark on her cheek is blurry and soft, like a smudge of dirt. She is bobbing her head underneath a caption about how it feels when someone accidentally likes a social-media post that’s more than a year old. The lyrics offer the answer: “You say you hate me but you stalk my page, you fucking hypocrite,” Bonelli mouths.
The comments section is filled with thousands of people pretty much admitting to doing just that. For nearly two years, hordes of sleuths have fixated on Bonelli’s face, united in a mission that has sent them scrolling through years of the teenager’s TikTok videos and back to this video in particular, where her mark is visible for the first time. They want to know the truth: Is the pretty, blond 18-year-old’s facial scar real, or did she fake it for online attention?
The mark on Bonelli’s face has exhibited atypical scar behavior, such as changing in color and shape. It fades, only to come back a dark brown; the angle of its curve seems to shift between posts. Bonelli maintains that the scar is real, attributing its changing look to a chemical burn she got while trying to fade the original scar. But that hasn’t satisfied vigilantes, who have scoured her TikTok and Instagram pages for clues, creating compilation videos showing the scar evolution and overlaying images to compare befores and afters.
Bonelli posts all kinds of standard teenage TikTok fare—lip synchs, videos with friends, commentary about relationships—but the internet has come to know her primarily for her mark, branding her as “Scar Girl.” Dermatologists and plastic surgeons and chemists and podcast hosts and amateurs alike have weighed in. Someone made a filter that allows TikTok users to add a version of Bonelli’s scar to their own face. Videos about “Scar Girl” have accrued more than half a billion views on TikTok alone. Last week, Rolling Stone sent two reporters to the teenager’s college campus to investigate in person. Bonelli has addressed the controversy several times in different ways: defending herself, criticizing those making fun of her, crying, cracking jokes. On a recent episode of Barstool Sports’ BFF podcast, a giggly Bonelli, hair perfectly curled, jokes at one point, “What scar?” (Representatives for Bonelli did not respond to my request for comment.)
Nothing about this seems good or healthy. Think too long about “Scar Girl,” and you will feel like you are losing your grip on reality. Why don’t we have an answer yet? Why has this dragged on for so long, and why are so many people involved? You will begin to question everything about the way our modern internet is set up. Whether the scar is real or fake fades in importance, and is replaced by a much more disturbing question: Why is the internet obsessing over an 18-year-old girl’s face?
Bonelli, it’s worth saying directly, is not a famous person—or rather, she is not famous for anything other than her scar. She is a freshman at High Point University in North Carolina with more than 800,000 TikTok followers (100,000 of which she has gained in the past two and a half weeks). She declines to say how she got the initial scrape, at times referring vaguely to a “traumatic injury.” Pre-scar, she wasn’t—and, by traditional definitions, she still isn’t—an influencer. “TikTok was always a thing [for me], but to actually try to be an influencer, that wasn’t really ever my path,” Bonelli told Rolling Stone. “It kind of just happened.”
Random internet fame happens all the time, but “Scar Girl” projects two different, unsettling narratives about the internet and our attention economy. In one, a teenager has drawn a line repeatedly on her face for clout, and a complacent online ecosystem has allowed her to prosper. In another, a young person dealing with a true facial difference has been bullied by strangers.
The fact that Bonelli was posting on TikTok, rather than Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat, is notable if unsurprising. Her story has clearly driven a lot of engagement on the platform, which its algorithm might have taken as a signal to boost it out to bigger and bigger audiences. The centralized nature of the app’s “For You” page means it can pluck any video from any random person and make it go viral. TikTok is a place where creators and regular people alike play to the world, not just their school or community.
But algorithms alone can’t explain this level of interest. “In general, I tend to think that the way we think about social media overstates the role of the algorithms,” Kevin Munger, a political scientist at Penn State University who has studied TikTok, told me. “Algorithms reinforce the tendency for popular things to get more popular.”
Perhaps “Scar Girl” is best understood as a mirror. She reflects back at us not only the internet and the platforms we have built on it, but more fundamental questions about who we are and what we expect from others. “What distinguishes internet celebrities from traditional celebrities is this idea that they’re authentic, that they’re more honest,” Alice E. Marwick, a communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me. When that trust seems broken, audiences may feel betrayed, and lash out in response. Playing out alongside the “Scar Girl” drama on TikTok is another scandal about whether a beloved makeup influencer used a pair of false lashes while promoting a mascara brand. The internet’s desire for authenticity could have waned “now that we realize that everyone is performing all the time,” Munger said. Instead, “the obsession with authenticity has become more real.”
So maybe it’s worth interrogating ourselves here: Why has the idea that a teen might lie for attention gotten under so many people’s skin? “It’s also bringing up a really important conversation that we all need to be having with ourselves,” Robyn Caplan, a senior researcher at the Data and Society Research Institute, told me, “which is: When does our own behavior—how we act online—slip past this area of acceptability?” Even if she is lying, at what point is a teen girl’s life simply not deserving of this level of scrutiny? Teens, after all, have wanted to be famous and lied about stupid things since time immemorial. And what if she’s not lying? At what point would this become harassment?
That a simple scar has even approached the question of internet harassment is perhaps an indication that people see the truth as a moral issue: If she’s lying, Bonelli would be exploiting the real experiences of people with facial differences for attention. “There’s a lot of evidence that moral outrage spreads internet content faster than anything else,” Marwick said. This tendency to convert outrage into viral posts is both a power and a problem with the modern web: Sometimes the way anger travels online can help correct injustices; other times, a bad actor can exploit it to spread harmful mis- or disinformation.
And there’s another, less outrage-driven explanation for all the attention on “Scar Girl”: The internet loves a shared mystery. The comments sections under Bonelli’s videos are filled with people sharing their opinions on the case and cracking jokes about being nosy. This behavior, which has played out time and time again, can turn into something a little more dangerous—a thrill that leads people to lose sight of the fact that Bonelli is just a college student. “I feel like on social media people get so comfortable, especially with influencers in general, to make comments on things because they don’t always view them as real people,” Bonelli told NBC News. “Like, I’m a real person.”
The more I looked into “Scar Girl,” the more I began to worry that I was just amplifying all of these problems. In my conversation with Munger, both of us acknowledged our roles in the “Scar Girl” news cycle: as the journalist following a digital trend, and the person who answered my call. Popularity, he explained, is built into the current structure of the web. Our biggest social-media platforms often reward likes, comments, and shares or prioritize scale above all—in this case, allowing what might have once been local gossip to reach millions of people.
But that version of the internet doesn’t necessarily have to be the future. Facebook and Instagram are faltering, and who knows what’s to become of Twitter. My colleague Ian Bogost has argued that the age of social media is ending. “It feels like we’re at a moment of rethinking the internet,” Munger said. Maybe there’s a better way forward. Maybe there’s a world in which a teenager’s face doesn’t become a national debate. That is, if we have the self-awareness to get there.
On February 6, at 4:17 a.m., death came for thousands of people in their sleep. At that moment, 11 miles beneath the south-central Turkish city of Nurdağı—close to the Syrian border—a spark was launched into a geologic powder keg.
An epochal battle between tectonic plates had reached a crescendo. Two gigantic blocks, moving side by side in opposite directions, had been warping the crust for millions of years. Then, in the dark of night, they yielded. The crust cracked. A large swath of the expansive East Anatolian Fault Zone jolted, releasing pent-up energy equivalent to roughly 8 million tons of TNT. That’s more than twice the cumulative power of every single explosive, including both atomic weapons, used during World War II.
And it will happen again—and again, and again. Earthquakes, more so than many other types of geologic or environmental disaster, defy prediction and prevention. Hurricanes can be identified many days before they arrive, giving coastal communities time to evacuate. Every year, scientists learn more about which type of cacophony or convulsion warns of impending deadly volcanic eruptions. And should a midsize asteroid capable of demolishing an entire country arrive at our doorstep, given sufficient warning time, we have the technological means to send it hurtling harmlessly into the darkness. But the science of seismology is simply far too young to stop the next major quake, or the legion of quakes after that, from killing many thousands of people.
Already, estimates of the devastation in Turkey and Syria have exceeded 7,000 deaths; 23 million people have been directly affected. The death toll will rise as corpses are extracted from ruined homes, and as those still alive but entombed beneath concrete, bricks, rain, or snow run out of heartbeats. Near the epicenter of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake, the ground shook so forcefully that it registered close to the top end of the Modified Mercalli Intensity scale, a measure of how violent a quake feels at the surface. Then, about nine hours after the first big quake, a 7.5-magnitude temblor lacerated another heavily populated part of Turkey just 60 miles away. Entire streets—mostly not built to withstand or resist such a momentous quake—were vaporized behind a veil of ash and dust.
Seismologists, watching from afar in horror, suspected this was one of the largest quakes of its kind, as recorded by scientific instruments, to directly hit a largely populated area. Although sometimes overseeing disasters like this, these researchers are normally more akin to planetary linguists. As seismic waves rush away from earthquakes, nuclear blasts, or even crowds of people meandering about, they occasionally get gulped up by a seismometer at the surface, carrying traces of the events that created them and the types of matter they passed through on the way. Seismologists listen to these geologic yawps, songs, and whispers all the time, and attempt to interpret what they may be saying about their journeys and their origins. This has led to dramatic revelations about Earth’s internal architecture—but only recently. Earth’s mucilaginous mantle, slowly flowing beneath the crust, was first detected in 1889 from the movement of seismic waves. The liquid outer core was identified in 1914, and the solid inner core was first ascertained in 1936.
These discoveries, along with decades of painstaking analyses of seismic waves recorded across the world, have led to significant advances in understanding the physics of how both fault lines and volcanoes work. Over the past century, and particularly in the past few decades, major fault lines have been forensically mapped out, along with plenty of their smaller branches. Their movements and behavior are well established. But whereas volcanologists are getting better at forecasting roughly when and how even notoriously complex and mercurial volcanoes will erupt, earthquakes always come as ambushes.
Despite their best efforts, seismologists cannot tell you with any precision when the next major quake will occur, or its location. Only the worst kind of fear-feeding, click-harvesting charlatans claim to possess such abilities. The best that hazard experts can offer, in seismically active, heavily instrumented, and extensively studied parts of the world, are very approximate probabilities. For example, within the next 30 years, there is a 46 percent chance that a 7-magnitude quake will rock the Los Angeles area, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That is as precise as these things get.
As far as scientists can tell, quakes do not send up a flare before they tear the ground apart. Until these precursory signals are found—if they even exist—seismology will be predominantly a retrospective science, using data from sometimes-devastating temblors to incrementally improve our understanding of faults and their tectonic masters. The only certainty in seismology, for now, is that big quakes will continue to kill people for as long as our species exists. This week’s tragedy will be mirrored, over and over again, in Turkey, in Syria, and all over the world.
Geologic events show us how little control we have over our lives. They can wash us aside effortlessly and repeatedly, like sand grains at the mercy of eternal waves. Before I became a science journalist, I trained to be a volcanologist. Like many Earth and space science aficionados, I am beguiled by a solar system’s most extreme forces, including eruptions and asteroid strikes. Their destructive elements are usually tempered by moments of awe (for their spectacular dynamism, and the aesthetic and scientific marvels they provide) and optimism (because the better we understand these events, the more we can dilute their occasionally lethal demonstrations of power). Earthquakes, though, almost always engender unadulterated dread.
Earth’s active and potentially dangerous fault zones will forever be home for hundreds of millions of people. But that’s not to say that humanity is helpless in the face of fierce tremors. With proper investment and attention, houses and apartments can be constructed to resist the most deleterious effects of earthquakes. Even if just a small percentage of buildings don’t collapse the next time the ground lurches, a handful of families previously destined to die will be saved—a reward worth any price.
Will there ever be a day that scientists can warn people to move out of the path of an oncoming seismic storm? Nobody knows, and you would be a fool to bet on it either way. All that the experts can do is try, and keep trying, despite the dread, despite the trepidation provided by that endlessly ticking tectonic clock. But if humanity can use seismometers to listen to the beating heart of Mars—another planet, tens of millions of miles from home—then we have earned the right to hope.
It started out as a fairly typical office friendship: You ate lunch together and joked around during breaks. Maybe you bonded over a shared affinity for escape rooms (or board games or birding or some other slightly weird hobby). Over time, you became fluent in the nuances of each other’s workplace beefs. By now, you vent to each other so regularly that the routine frustrations of professional life have spawned a carousel of inside jokes that leavens the day-to-day. You chat about your lives outside work too. But a lot of times, you don’t have to talk at all; if you need to be rescued from a conversation with an overbearing co-worker, a pointed glance will do. You aren’t Jim and Pam, because there isn’t anything romantic between you, but you can kind of see why people might suspect there is.
The term for this type of collegial relationship—work wife or work husband—has become a feature of American offices. The meaning can be a bit slippery, but in 2015, the communications researchers M. Chad McBride and Karla Mason Bergendefined a “work spouse” relationship as “a special, platonic friendship with a work colleague characterized by a close emotional bond, high levels of disclosure and support, and mutual trust, honesty, loyalty, and respect.” Other scholars have argued that the connection actually sits somewhere between friendship and romance. Although articulating exactly what makes work spouses unique can be hard, individuals who have them insist that they are singular, Marilyn Whitman, a professor at the University of Alabama’s business school who studies the phenomenon, told me. But the language people use to describe this bond is even trickier to explain than the nature of the relationship: Why would two people who aren’t married or even interested in dating call each other “husband” and “wife”?
The term made a little more sense in its original form. The phrase office wife seems to have been coined in the second half of the 19th century, when the former U.K. Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone used it to describe the oneness of mind and uncalculating commitment shared by a minister and his (male) secretary. In later decades, the expression became a means of referring to secretaries more generally—that is, to typically female assistants who handled their boss’s tedious affairs at work as his wife did at home. At times, it gestured toward the potential for romance, as in Faith Baldwin’s 1929 novel The Office Wife, in which a wife, a husband, and a secretary are entangled in a web of infidelity. But eventually, this trope fell out of favor; secretaries distanced themselves from the role of their boss’s caregiver, and the influential feminist scholar Rosabeth Moss Kanter criticized the gendered divisions of labor and power imbalances that work marriages created.
But work spouses didn’t so much disappear as evolve. By the late 1980s, in step with changing attitudes toward marriage, the dynamic had started to morph into something more egalitarian. As David Owen, a former contributing editor at The Atlantic, described in a 1987 essay, the new office marriage did not have to be a hierarchical and questionably romantic relationship between a boss and a secretary; it could be a platonic bond between a male and a female peer. The appeal, to Owen, lay as much in what the other person didn’t know about you as what they did: The two of you could share secrets about your real partners, but because your work wife didn’t know about your habit of leaving dirty dishes in the sink, she wouldn’t nag you about it. It was a cross-sex relationship that benefited from professional boundaries, offering some of the emotional intimacy of marriage without the trouble of sharing a household.
Today, your work spouse doesn’t need to be someone of the opposite gender, though McBride and Bergen found that these relationships still tend to occur with someone of the gender you are attracted to. You don’t have to have a real spouse to have a work spouse, though a lot of work spouses do. The office marriage has shed many of the stereotypes that once defined it, but the term itself has strangely persisted.
The impulse to assign some sort of name to a relationship like this makes sense. Labels such as “sister” and “colleague” give people both inside and outside a bond a framework for understanding it. Less traditional pairs, such as work spouses, “have to work even harder to justify and explain to other people who they are and who they are to each other,” Aimee Miller-Ott, a communication professor at Illinois State University, told me. Familial terms are common labels to choose—they’re universally understood and offer a “handy” set of metaphors, the anthropologist Janet Carsten explains. Usually, however, when people reach for kinship vocabulary to describe nontraditional relationships, they select blood relations, Dwight Read, an emeritus professor of anthropology at UCLA, told me. With the exception of some straight women calling their best friend “wifey,” using husband or wife is virtually unheard of—certainly within cross-sex friendships. None of the researchers I spoke with could think of another example.
This curious usage might simply be an artifact of the romance-novel “office wife” trope, Whitman suggested. But the marital language also makes some intuitive sense. Work marriages involve a type of compatibility, lastingness, and exclusivity that also tends to characterize real marriages. Of course, a lot of these traits are true of good friendships too. But when people hear the word friend, they don’t necessarily imagine this intensity—the word has been diluted in the age of Facebook, referring to any number of loose acquaintances. This is certainly true at work, where chumminess can raise eyebrows and friendliness itself is kept in check for the sake of professionalism. Against this backdrop, real friendship stands out. Add in the age-old misgivings about close ties between men and women, and the extended proximity that working together necessitates, and it’s unsurprising that people in a professional setting might assume that a tight bond is actually a disguise for the beginnings of a romance. Because of this, some avoid using the term work spouse publicly. For others, Miller-Ott suspects that combining the word work with wife or husband may be an expedient, if counterintuitive, way of addressing such suspicions: Yes, we’re very close. No, we’re not dating. Using a phrase that implies monogamy may help explain the relationship by affirming that it is atypical—that these two people have mutually decided to relax the rules of professionalism with each other but not with anyone else.
Employing the term in this way only sort of works, because although wife and husband reliably connote intimacy and singularity, they also imply sex and romance. Indeed, Carsten, the anthropologist, was somewhat amused that spousal language might be used to defuse rumors that two people are dating. One cannot borrow some implications of a word and leave the rest—and people seem to be aware of this. In Miller-Ott’s research, many of the people she spoke with called each other “husband” and “wife” only when they were alone. Others with close work friendships refused to use the label at all, Whitman and Mandeville found, fearing that their real partner might object.
But for some people, the slightly illicit connotations of the work-marriage terminology may be part of its draw. Perhaps that’s one reason so many colleagues who wouldn’t call each other “husband” or “wife” publicly continue to do so privately: Referring to someone by a title that skirts the boundaries of propriety may be a way to bond with them. But ultimately, work spouse breaks down for the very reason it works: It co-opts the exclusivity of a word intended to describe a very different relationship.
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Good morning, and welcome back to The Daily’s Sunday culture edition, in which one Atlantic writer reveals what’s keeping them entertained.
Today’s special guest is the Atlantic deputy editor Jane Yong Kim, who oversees our Culture, Family, and Books sections. She’s fond of Laura Dern’s dino-dodging fashion in Jurassic Park, the late English environmentalist Roger Deakin’s paean to swimming outdoors, and the “wildly imaginative” video art of Wong Ping.
But first, here are three Sunday reads from The Atlantic:
The last museum or gallery show that I loved: The last art shows I remember feeling really impressed by were side-by-side Wong Ping exhibits from 2021, one at the New Museum, and the other at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. A self-taught animator based in Hong Kong, Wong makes wildly imaginative videos: colorful landscapes that use surrealism to convey oddball, engrossing, sometimes disturbing stories about the loneliness and disappointments of modern life. (One video, An Emo Nose, depicts a man who discovers his nose is sensitive to “negative energy”; in an attempt to keep it happy, he dispenses with polarizing activities such as talking politics and focuses on cheerier ones such as eating ice cream and having sex.) The reward of Wong’s work is the juxtaposition of cartoonish early-internet aesthetics with intricate, gripping themes.
Best novel I’ve recently read, and the best work of nonfiction: I just finished, and loved, Lisa Hsiao Chen’s debut novel, Activities of Daily Living. It’s a striking meditation on time and the things we fill our lives with—the tug-of-war between jobs and passion projects, productivity and curiosity, minutes spent and minutes gained. A woman named Alice is preoccupied, in her off-work hours, with Tehching Hsieh, the brilliant performance artist known for his lengthy “endurance” pieces in the 1980s. Hsieh’s explorations of time were psychologically and physically demanding: In one, he tied himself to another artist for a year with a piece of rope; in another, he punched a time card every hour for a year; in yet another, he spent a year inside a cage. Alice’s research into Hsieh begins seeping into aspects of her daily existence—interactions with her family, her movements through the city. The novel is a beautiful, subtle read; it tenderly builds an argument for seeing our lives more clearly.
On the nonfiction front, I’ve been making my way through Waterlog, a stunning book by the environmentalist Roger Deakin that takes readers on a swimming journey through the lakes, rivers, and tarns of Britain. Deakin, who died in 2006, was a tremendous writer, able to render his adventures with immediacy, clarity, and wit. Following along with him as he goes in search of little-known waterways and old open-air swimming pools is a real delight. [Related: Swimming in the wild will change you.]
My favorite blockbuster and favorite art movie: I’ll answer this one with movie theaters in mind.
Jurassic Park is one of the first true blockbusters I remember seeing in a theater, and that place of honor colors my relationship with it. The blend of high tension and pure camp—the rampant hubris, the captive goat, the raptors on the hunt (those tapping claws!), Laura Dern’s knotted shirt and khaki shorts—is pitch perfect. And the experience of watching it in a row filled with other terrified kids is an indelible memory.
The art-house version of this memory, for me, is watching Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Decalogue. It’s actually a series of one-hour films originally made for Polish television. Each film takes loose inspiration from one of the Ten Commandments, following characters who all live in the same neighborhood in 1980s Warsaw as they deal with the moral messiness of their lives. I first saw The Decalogue in high school, at an indie theater close to home that happened to be playing it, and was transfixed by its moody, understated profundity. Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy is arguably his better-known series, but this earlier group of films about human frailty has always been my favorite. [Related: I just wanted to watch people get eaten by dinosaurs.]
Something I recently rewatched, reread, or otherwise revisited: I recently reread No Longer Human,a cult novel by the Japanese writer Osamu Dazai. It’s just as arresting as I remember it being when I first read it more than 15 years ago. Dazai, who died by suicide in 1948, at 38, wrote discerningly, sometimes scathingly, about disenchantment. His young male protagonist is alienated from society, spending much of his time noticing all of the ways in which the world around him seems fake or strange or stressful. Dazai’s prose style is spare, and his observations about life in 1930s Japan are startlingly acidic. [Related: Of Women: A story]
A painting, sculpture, or other piece of visual art that I cherish: The Visitors, by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, charmed me when I first saw it and has stuck with me since. The concept is deceptively simple: Across nine screens, viewers see footage of the artist and a bunch of his musician friends performing together from different rooms in a big, run-down house in upstate New York. Kjartansson himself plays the guitar from inside a bathtub filled with soapy water; other people, perched on beds or by windows, sing and play cellos, accordions, the piano.
Kjartansson’s 2012 work, which is currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, hit a nerve during the pandemic, for obvious reasons. The solitude of the performers is noticeable; the videos draw attention to the visual stillness in each scene. In turn, the collective sound the performers produce—separately but in unison—is a powerful reminder of music’s communal potential and the new ways we’re always learning to be together. It’s an artwork to spend time with in person, one that rewards slowing down and lingering.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance,the third and final installment of the director Steven Soderbergh’s male-stripper series starring Channing Tatum (in theaters Friday)
The Band That Best Captures the Sound of the ’70s
By Kevin Dettmar
No decade is dominated by a single genre of popular music, but the 1970s was arguably more motley than most. What is the sound of the ’70s? Is it … folk rock? (Neil Young’s Harvest turned 50 last year.) Progressive rock? (Prog’s nadir, Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans, was released in 1973 and promptly crashed under its own weight.) How about disco? Punk? Post-punk? New wave? Reggae? Rap? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. And what do we do with Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, one of the 10 best-selling albums of the decade? Is bombast a genre?
But if you were to drill down through the decade and pull up a core sample of ’70s pop, it would come up Blondie—and would look, in fact, very much like the band’s eight-disc box set, Against the Odds: 1974–1982, which is nominated for the Best Historical Album Award at this weekend’s Grammys. As the academic and artist Kembrew McLeod has written, Blondie was a mediator between the experimental music and art scene of downtown New York City and the larger pop audience. But more fundamentally, I’d argue, the group was also a conduit and popularizer of a wide variety of new rock and pop sounds.