LibrarianShipwreck

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Theses on Doomscrolling

‘Tis sweet, when, down the mighty main, the winds
Roll up its waste of waters, from the land
To watch another’s labouring anguish far,
Not that we joyously delight that man
Should thus be smitten, but because ’tis sweet
To mark what evils we ourselves be spared

– Lucretius

 

Few terms sum up the reaction to the contemporary experience of living through multiple intersecting crises as succinctly as “doomscrolling.” With a mixture of self-deprecating humor and genuine anxiety, doomscrolling perfectly captures the feeling of sitting in front of a screen and endlessly churning through a stream of terrible news that is intermittently interrupted by horrible news which in turn is periodically punctuated by very bad news. Doomscrolling is simultaneously an apt description of an activity that many individuals genuinely engage in, and a sardonic comment on the way that social media feeds increasingly resemble Bosch’s paintings of Hell (no matter how many cute animal accounts we follow). From COVID-19 to climate change to racial injustice to rising fascism to dangerous conspiracy theories to institutional breakdown to increasingly dystopian high-technology to economic instability to mass extinction to etc, etc, etc…there are plenty of existential threats through which to endlessly scroll.

We are not living through the end of the world, but doomscrolling certainly makes a strong case for the claim that we are living through the end of the world as we knew it. Whereas for Lucretius the occasion of watching the peril of a ship at sea, from the safety of the shore, was an opportunity to reflect on the sweetness of being spared from such dangers, the doomscroller obsessively scans through updates about the dangerous forces violently tossing the frail ship about while increasingly suspecting that they are not watching from the safety of the shore but from a damp cabin in the belly of the imperiled ship.

There’s a certain playful aura surrounding the term, as it serves to diminish the deluge of terrible occurrences by describing our inability to look away with an amusing neologism. If we’re going to find ourselves doomscrolling, it is worth seriously reflecting on the possible meanings of the activity. Thus, what follow are several theses on doomscrolling through which to doomscroll…

1. To doomscroll is to hear the scream of the fire alarm

The purpose of an alarm is to noisily assault your senses so that you are forced to pay attention to a looming threat. Complacency and contentment are disrupted and swiftly replaced by a sense of heightened awareness causing a person to sniff the air for signs of smoke, listen closely for the origins of the alarm, and look around carefully for whatever it is that has triggered the tocsin. When an alarm is noisily blaring, it is quite challenging to act as if nothing is happening—indeed, that is the way that alarms are designed to function, if they could easily be disregarded they would not be alarms.

Doomscrolling is not itself the alarm. Instead, doomscrolling is the alarmed activity that occurs in response to seeing flashing lights going off everywhere. Importantly, it is a response not to a single alarm but to a symphony of sirens that are screaming out from multiple directions. Crisis response has a tendency to focus on action steps such as evacuation, but in any disaster the essential early moment is the point at which the person (or people) in peril come to recognize that they are in danger. The alarm is a warning that something is wrong, demanding that those who witness it break from their regular activity in order to hasten to this signal that something is terribly amiss. Doomscrolling is that moment of recognition, it is the moment in which the faint whines of disparate news stories turn into an overwhelming wail. Granted, it is vital not to confuse an awareness that an alarm is going off with appropriately responding to the threats about which that siren is warning, but before one can respond one must recognize that there is something that requires a response.

At its most basic level, to doomscroll is to be aware that something has gone very wrong.

 

2. To doomscroll is to become accustomed to the scream of the fire alarm

When an alarm first goes off, it is impossible to ignore it. As a signal that there is an emergency it requires immediate action. But not every encounter with an alarm is quite so straightforward. Sometimes the alarm we hear is coming from down the street, sometimes the siren is a drill about which we had been forewarned, sometimes the incessant beeping cannot be turned off until the building manager shows up, and sometimes the sounds from outside our homes become so frequently dominated by sirens that we grow accustomed to the noise. Insofar as doomscrolling involves hearing the alarm going off, it quickly turns into an inured response to that sound. Where the initial threatening, doom-laden, content makes someone sit at attention, doomscrolling is what happens once the initial shock has worn off. If an alarm has been going off for long enough it does not truly fade into the background, by virtue of its volume it maintains the power to demand recognition; however, after a while it becomes somewhat mundane. Having weathered the initial shock, we find ourselves prepared to handle the subsequent shocks. To doomscroll is to hear the alarm going off, to understand that this means that something is very wrong, but to gradually become somewhat inured to it. While not synonymous with, or a symptom of, defeatism or cynicism, doomscrolling is a sort of anti-reaction. What starts with a recognition that something is dangerously amiss slowly morphs into a sardonic acceptance that this is just how things are. To doomscroll is not to grab the fire extinguisher, to doomscroll is not to evacuate, to doomscroll is not to stock up on canned goods and toilet paper, to doomscroll is not even to log out of social media.

To doomscroll is to know that the alarm is going off, but to not know how to respond.

 

3. One can only doomscroll from a position of, relative, safety

You cannot doomscroll while fleeing for your life. Or, to put it differently, doomscrolling is a leisurely activity. Certainly, you can doomscroll at work (or when you’re supposed to be working), you can doomscroll instead of attending to other responsibilities, you can doomscroll when you have an impending deadline that you’re ignoring, and you can doomscroll while the kettle screams at you from the other room…but in order to doomscroll you must first be safe and secure enough for you to engage in the activity. A person is able to doomscroll only in moments when the existential threats remain safely enough “out there” that they are able to consume the information about those threats from whatever “in here” they occupy. It is difficult to scroll through an endless stream of images of blazing wildfires when you are frantically packing your family into a car to flee from those wildfires, similarly it is challenging to spend hours reading the latest news about how the infection is spreading while rushing a family member (or yourself) to the hospital.

We doomscroll insofar as the impending doom remains impending, when the moment comes that it finally knocks on our own door we are unable to keep scrolling, in that moment we have to act. Doomscrolling is an activity that people lose themselves in, there would be no need to coin a term to describe the activity if it was something that people engaged in for a couple of idle seconds before going on to do something else. By the time you realize that you are doomscrolling you have almost certainly been doing it for longer than you would like—this isn’t a quick “check in” on social media, this is the quick “check in” that turned into forty-five minutes of refreshing. And if you are able to take the time to doomscroll it is almost certainly the case that you are able to do so because, at least for the moment, you are safe. Granted, this does not mean that safety will last.

 

4. As a description, the generality of doomscrolling is what makes it useful and problematic  

With the possible exception of doomscrolling the “live” section on a news site, everyone’s feed of cataclysmic content is going to look somewhat different. Like a nauseating ice cream parlor, there are thirty-one flavors of doom to sample in a variety of foul tasting combinations. Every person will have their own particular blend of doom and gloom that is likely to be a reflection of the topics that they find especially worrisome. In this moment, it is undoubtable that other matters will get mixed in with this content, but no two people (unless they are sitting next to each other staring at the same screen) are likely to have an identical experience of doomscrolling. Thus, for some people their doomscrolling content may contain more information about the environmental crisis, others may find their content dominated by commentary on rising fascism, information on the ongoing pandemic has likely permeated every feed but the particular details of what this looks like (more scientific analysis or more political focus) will vary.

As a conceptual framework, doomscrolling brings all of these disparate strands of concerning information together and unites them under a general banner of “things are very bad.” There is certainly a risk involved here, as bringing all of these things together flattens the differences between them and obscures the significant particularities of each case. The danger here is that instead of drawing attention to a particular issue, the umbrella of doomscrolling keeps the specific raindrops from ever hitting a person’s head. To say “I’m doomscrolling” is not to draw particular attention to climate change, or racial injustice, or the pandemic—it is instead to shift attention from the specific to the more general. Nevertheless, even as there is a risk here, there is also important potential. For by bringing together all of these matters under a single heading it becomes clear that these issues are linked. After all, these various crises do not exist in vacuums where they are safely bracketed off from each other. It is not that we currently have a pandemic in one hand and a climate emergency in the other hand, but that we are simultaneously holding both of those things at the same time. That being said, a particular danger of this flattening can be seen in the electoral context wherein the Presidency of Donald Trump is seen as the main thing driving all of this doomscrolling. Thus, one frequently encounters sentiment’s such as “let’s get rid of Trump so we can go back to doing something other than doomscrolling” – and this is the risk of this flattening effect that the term doomscrolling can have. When Donald Trump becomes synonymous with all that is wrong it makes it seem that all that is needed is to remove him from office. But climate change, the pandemic, and the longing for fascism (which Trump has enflamed and exploited) will not magically be solved the moment he is no longer President. There will still be much doom to scroll through should Joe Biden be inaugurated in January. Therefore, while it can be useful that doomscrolling brings together multiple crises, the risk is that it may lead some people to mistake one symptom of the intersecting crises for all of the crises.

Ideally, flattening some of the distinctions between crises can lead to a recognition that it is not sufficient to solve one crisis alone—we must, somehow, address them all. Thus, in seeking to ameliorate these crises we should focus on solutions that will address multiple problems at the same time. Certainly, there are important differences between crises, but when we see them all together as we doomscroll it may help us see the ways in which many of these dangers are driven (and exacerbated) by similar features. Or, we may lose the perspective necessary to differentiate between the dangers we face as they are all combined into an undefined sense of doom.       

 

5. Doomscrolling makes pessimism socially acceptable  

Without the assistance of scientific measurement tools, it is extremely difficult to introduce into a glass a quantity of liquid that will genuinely leave the glass simultaneously half full and half empty. Doomscrolling, however, is what occurs when it is indisputable that all that is left in the glass is a single sip of liquid (and we all know that final sip is mostly backwash). Of course, pessimism (and pessimists) remains generally unwelcome in societies that stake their faith in a stolid belief in progress and the view that tomorrow will be better than today. This is a faith that has been thoroughly shaken in the last several years, and yet these quakes have only served to make many commit more fully to the belief that things will improve. Indeed, given how terrible things are at the moment it is tempting to believe that things can only get better…even as the last several years attest to the fact that things can, alas, always get worse. And this is one of the ways in which doomscrolling is most important. For doomscrolling allows an individual to acknowledge their pessimistic feelings from behind a shield that protects them from charges of being a pessimist. Doomscrolling is not necessarily seen as an indictment of optimism or faith in progress, rather doomscrolling can easily be rationalized as the unpleasant experience of recognizing how progress is not without occasional setbacks. To doomscroll in this moment is an acknowledgement that things are bad now, but not a cry of despair that expresses the belief that these dark times will persist indefinitely. One need not don sackcloth in order to doomscroll, it’s just as easy to do it while still wearing your pajamas.

You can be an optimist and admit that you have been doomscrolling, because doomscrolling is an activity not a belief system.

 

6. Despite foregrounding “doom,” doomscrolling is not an expression of apocalyptic romanticism (or: doomscrolling does not make you a “doomer”)

When times are good, those who dare suggest that these halcyon days will not last forever are mocked as “prophets of doom” and driven into exile. When times are bad, those who dare suggest that they had tried to warn people of these frightening possibilities are scorned for having been right and banished again. Generally speaking, optimistic cultures do not look particularly kindly upon those who question that prevailing optimism. And there is a widespread sentiment that those who dare give voice to ill tidings are thereby making those terrible possibilities more likely—at the very least, it is commonly thought that scaring people will only result in apathy. In recent years, prior to the pandemic, discourse around climate change has been animated by arguments about the personage of the “doomer”—and the question of whether envisioning the worst can play any real role in trying to prevent the worst from happening. It is a challenging matter to discuss, particularly seeing as the definition of “doomer” has always been rather fluid (it often seems that a “doomer” is anyone 5% more pessimistic than the person hurling “doomer” as an epithet). And yet the “doomer” discourse has died down as doomscrolling has become a widespread pastime. This does not mean that the “doomers” have been victorious, but—in the midst of raging wildfires, a flux of dangerous storms, and a pandemic—it is difficult to mock people as “chicken littles” when there is significant evidence that the sky truly is falling. Insofar as the pandemic has presented a test for societies to demonstrate that they have the wherewithal and social cohesion necessary to manage an existential threat, it is a test that many societies have horrendously failed.

And yet to doomscroll is not to be a “prophet of doom” or a “doomer.” Indeed, one can even contribute one’s own gloomy content and commentary into the trough (which will become grist for someone else’s doomscrolling) and still avoid being derided as a “doomer.” Some of this relates to the accusation (though rarely expressed in these terms) of apocalyptic romanticism, wherein the real problem with “doomers” is often thought to be not that they warn of doom but that they seem to be wanting for it to happen. The accusation cast most seriously against “doomers” is not that they warn of ruins, but that they are eager to see the ruins (whether this is to say “I told you so” or in order to build a new world atop those ruins). The doomscroller sees plenty of evidence of ruination piling up, the writing on the wall has become the writing on their Twitter feed, and they soak it all in. Not unlike Benjamin’s angel of history, the doomscroller sees a single catastrophe that piles wreckage at their feet even as they are propelled helplessly into the future. But the doomscroller does not cheer the crises, the doomscroller does not feel vindicated that these horrid things are occurring, rather the doomscroller bears witness. The doomscroller is not one who longs for ruins, not one who romanticizes collapse, not one who has unhappily prophesied doom, but the one who has learned that refusing to think about the impending catastrophe will not be enough to prevent it.

Doomscrolling does not mean that the “prophets of doom” have been proven correct, but it does mean that their woebegone warnings can no longer simply be ignored.

 

7. Within a context of information overload, doomscrolling is apocalyptic information overload 

It takes a great deal of effort to completely insulate yourself from bad news. It is likely impossible. Even the most carefully curated social media feed will periodically be interrupted by a bleak headline, a desperate call for support, or an expression of mourning. Where one of the early calls of techno-utopians was that “information is power,” the realities of the Internet have often demonstrated that too much information can leave one feeling powerless. Especially given the need to sort the trustworthy information from the misinformation. Social media companies have boasted of how their goals include productively managing the experience of information overload by offering to effectively organize that information (and make it useful) for their users. Thus, these companies seek to make all of that information a little bit less intimidating. Certainly, a user will still feel rather overwhelmed (how can they not?) by the constant stream of posts and status updates, but by bringing it together, and giving it some semblance of order, social media platforms make the overload manageable. To doomscroll is to be overloaded with worrisome information, it occurs at the moment when information overload ceases being an expression of a general “too much information” and become specifically a moment of “too much terrible information.” Though it is impossible (at least at this moment) to specify the exact tipping point at which anxiety inducing information overwhelms, and pushes aside, less lamentable content—it is at that moment of imbalance that doomscrolling begins to be a possibility.

As long as a feed is a mixture of fun factoids, cute animals, silly memes, wry comments, and headlines—a user is simply scrolling. But when the fun factoids and cute animals get drowned out by gloomy memes, anxious comments, and terrible headlines—that is when a user beings doomscrolling.

 

8. Doomscrolling is a high-tech response to problems that do not have high-tech solutions

In considering doomscrolling it is sensible to place the majority of focus on the “doom” element, with the result that the “scrolling” part receives rather less attention. If anything the “scrolling” aspect seem almost unimportant and banal—at the very least it feels less dramatic. Yet, without the “scrolling,” “doomscrolling” could not be. And it is the “scrolling” aspect that fully locates doomscrolling in the present moment. For doomscrolling is not just a response to an overwhelming quantity of grim news, rather doomscrolling is a response to an overwhelming quantity of grim news that is presented to the doomscroller online. Or, to put it slightly differently, you cannot doomscroll a physical copy of a newspaper, but you can doomscroll the “live updates” section of that newspaper’s website. Certainly, doomscrolling is primarily associated with social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc…); however the activity can be carried out on any site that offers a steady flow of “by the minute” updates. The Twitter timeline and Facebook new feed may be the main places in which doomscrolling takes place, but any newspaper offering a “Live” section on their website provides the technological affordances necessary for this activity. Doomscrolling is a sort of choose your own high-tech Book of Revelation, where every hit of the refresh button provides fresh chapters and verses. Part of the horrible irony of doomscrolling is that it gives the lie to the techno-utopian hope that access to information technology would solve all of the world’s problems. The doomscroller sits before powerful high-tech tools, soaking in massive amounts of information; however, the result is not a feeling of empowerment but a feeling of alienation and anxiety—if the opposite were true they would not be doomscrolling. Though it is not the clearest lesson it imparts, doomscrolling is a reminder that many of the forces that imperil us cannot be solved simply by clicking buttons online.

 

9. The platforms on which doomscrolling occurs are complicit in giving rise to the world situation in which doomscrolling occurs

How did we get here? This is a question that is seldom asked during a doomscrolling session, and yet it is the question that lurks in the background the entire time. Of course, to truly and fully answer that question with the necessary level of depth and nuance would require a lengthy explanation that would fill several books. Nevertheless, any consideration of “how did we get here?” must acknowledge the role that the platforms on which doomscrolling occurs have played in getting us to this moment. The extent to which platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram (and so forth) have become fonts of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and hateful content is fairly well known at this point. And to the extent that many of these companies are attempting now to clamp down on some of that content (Facebook banning groups associated with certain conspiratorial beliefs, Twitter flagging misinformation) they reveal themselves to be desperately trying to put out the fires they have helped spread. While it would be unfair to place all of the blame for the present crises on these tech companies (they may profit from racism but they did not invent racism), it would equally be a mistake to hold these companies as blameless. Particularly as many of these companies have repeatedly demonstrated that they are loathe to accept responsibility for the negative social impacts of their platforms. Alas, a cruel twist in the matter is that doomscrolling serves many of these platforms quite well insofar as the doomscroller is fixated on their screen periodically hitting the “like” button (and undoubtedly encountering a handful of advertisements). Furthermore, these companies can themselves become fodder for doomscrolling content such as in moments when the newest story about Facebook’s malfeasance nestles easily in between the latest comments on climate breakdown and coronavirus.

In the context of doomscrolling, the social media platforms are simultaneously poison and painkiller.

 

10. To confess you are doomscrolling is to say “I am here too”

For many people, the activity that has come to be called doomscrolling is nothing new. Indeed, many individuals are quite accustomed to looking at a social media feed and seeing nothing but a steady flow of terrible news. And yet, even if the activity itself is not new, the fact that it has been specifically named and that this name has been widely taken up tells us something about our present moment. Doomscrolling captures the experience of sitting in the isolation of coronavirus quarantine wherein in-person contact with other people has been significantly disrupted. In this atmosphere many people have wound up turning to the Internet as a way of staying in touch with others—whether through the ubiquitous Zoom sessions, or social media. It is a moment in which many people have found themselves struggling with a profound sense of isolation (even if they live with other people). One of the horrible impacts of the pandemic is that in this moment when we have most achingly needed the love and support of our friends and family, many of us find ourselves unable share a drink with a close friend, hug an aging parent, or engage in some much needed griping in the lunchroom with colleagues. These feelings of isolation are made worse by the fact that they are taking place at a moment when the news is filled with so many dreadful things. At a moment when we strongly feel the need to come together, the responsible thing is to keep our distance; at a moment when we need to see a smile, we all walk about wearing masks; at a moment when we are feeling frightened, there is no reassuring hand on our shoulder.

Though we are not physically together, when someone states that they are doomscrolling it is a way of signaling a sort of togetherness. Yes, you are currently scrolling through an avalanche of bleak information, but any time you see a comment (within that avalanche) where an acquaintance acknowledges that they too are doomscrolling you know that you are not alone. Announcing that you are doomscrolling can be a playful way of noting that you aren’t doing the work you’re supposed to be doing, but it is a message that will be seen by many other people who are in the exact same situation. Acknowledgments of doomscrolling help bolster the resolve of everyone else who is sitting there doomscrolling, if only because it brings them into a widespread community of doomscrollers. There is something particularly horrible about sitting in isolation, watching helplessly as things get worse, and what makes this especially disheartening is the worry that no one else feels the way that you do.

Knowing that you are not alone in your doomscrolling is to know that you are not alone.

And though that is not much comfort, in this moment, it may just suffice us.

 

Coda

It is a desperate deed
to upbraid despair
for despair makes our life what it is
It thinks our
what we flee from
It looks in the face
of what we shut our eyes to

No one who could be less shallow than it
No one who has better arguments than it
No one who in view of all
it knows and we know
would have more right than it
to be as it is

Early in the morning it still feels almost happy
It only comes to slowly
After the first words
it exchanges with anyone it begins to know:
it is not happy
it is still itself

Despair is not free of moods and weaknesses
Whether its wit is a strength or a weakness
it does not itself know
It can be angry
it can be biting and unjust
it can be too taken up with its own dignity

But without despair’s courage there would perhaps
be still less dignity to be found
still less honesty
still less pride of powerlessness against power
It is unfair to damn despair
Without despair we would all have to despair.

Erich Fried, “Praise of Despair”

 

Related Content

On the concept of the end of the world

In Defense of Jonah

Be Afraid! But Not That Afraid? – On Climate Doom

Towards a Productive Pessimism

The Apocalyptic Turn

About Z.M.L

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

One comment on “Theses on Doomscrolling

  1. Michael Dowd
    October 16, 2020

    Excellent post!
    If you’re not already familiar with them, I think you’ll like my post-doom conversations: https://postdoom.com/
    I especially recommend these resources: https://postdoom.com/resources/
    I’ll be adding the third and final video to my “Collapse and Adaptation Primer” this weekend.
    Keep up the great writing!

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