"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“The true path is along a rope, not a rope suspended way up in the air, but rather only just over the ground. It seems more like a tripwire than a tightrope.” – Franz Kafka
When the history of the pandemic is written, and attempts are made to find a simple term to sum up the experience of the calamity, it is quite likely that “doom scrolling” will be one of the candidates. Certainly, there will be other words as well: the names of noteworthy individuals, a recitation of significant dates, plenty of medical terminology—and yet there is something to be said for that bleakly humorous term that captures the feeling of staring helplessly at a screen as wave after wave of disastrous news came crashing down. Though by no means a truly universal (or national) experience, “doom-scrolling” brings together the emotions of mournful anxiety with the observation that, for many people, this was a tragedy that was largely mediated by screens.
Throughout the pandemic, chances were good that if you were online, you were finding yourself doing a fair amount of doom-scrolling as news of COVID-19 steadily became nearly inescapable. Nevertheless, it is impossible to pin down a specific date on which doom-scrolling exploded, largely because this date will vary from person to person. Only the individual knows, or has some foggy approximate memory, of the precise day (or the particular week) when suddenly their social media timeline became clogged up with COVID-19 content, when updates on the virus became a regular feature of media coverage, and when the virus that was supposedly only “over there” abruptly turned out to be everywhere.
It is difficult to know exactly when the doom-scrolling started, which makes it equally difficult to pinpoint exactly when it was when the doom-scrolling stopped. But by March of 2021, it truly seems that many people now find themselves post doom-scrolling.
To be absolutely clear, the pandemic is not over. Regardless of the good news: thousands of people are still dying each week, more virulent strains of the virus are spreading, many places are relaxing restrictions too rapidly, and though the numbers have fallen from their winter peaks they have currently plateaued at a still dangerous level. Yes, there is some genuinely good news on the vaccination front, but (to say it again) the pandemic is not over.
And yet the general tone surrounding the pandemic has shifted considerably. Media coverage has started to focus heavily on the vaccine rollouts, with the numbers one sees most often now having to do with numbers of vaccinations as opposed to the number of deaths. The stories of ongoing woe and frightful warnings are being supplanted by predictions that the economy is going to come roaring back to life. Those trying to be responsible are still staying in, but battening down for a long ordeal is coming to be replaced by eagerly anticipating that things are going to open up soon. Where one of the questions that we doom-scrolled past for months was “when will there be a vaccine?” the question has now become “how soon can I get my vaccine?” And where once social media timelines were filled with declarations of loneliness and despair, it is now increasingly common to see optimistic messages interspersed with proud proof of vaccination. The fantasy of “what I’ll do when this is over” is now moving from the realm of dreams into people making actual plans. Of course, the pandemic is not over, but compared to the dominant position it once commanded in public discourse a few months ago, one could be forgiven for believing that the pandemic is almost over.
Doom-scrolling is done. But things have not yet returned to “normal.” So, what are we doing now?
Before going further it is worth noting a couple of things that have become clearer about the phenomenon of “doom-scrolling” as that period has come to a close…
Though the phenomenon of doom-scrolling was broadly experienced, each person’s experience of doom-scrolling was highly specific. All of which is to say, there are certainly some people who will still feel like they are doom-scrolling. However, it is likely that many of those who feel that they are still doom-scrolling are the same people who felt that they had been doom-scrolling pre-pandemic. Those who closely follow climate change, or the pervasive power of high-technology, or the growth of neo-fascist movements, or [insert other bleak topic here]—were accustomed to wading through the mire of disturbing news before the pandemic hit. Yet, once the pandemic hit, a lot of the other impending doom was displaced (or refracted through the lens) of the pandemic. What made doom-scrolling such a useful term is that it captured an experience that was no longer limited to the handful of people who were always studying grim stuff—once the pandemic hit you didn’t have to be studying the end of the world to find yourself doom-scrolling. But for many of the people who do follow such ominous topics, those topics are once again becoming more visible as the pandemic coverage fades. The old doom is back, and doom-scrolling is once more becoming an activity for those who were doom-scrolling before there was a catchy term to describe it.
On March 7, 2021 the Atlantic’s COVID-19 Tracking Project posted the information from its final day of data collection. While this project was not the only source of information, throughout the pandemic it was one of the sources that was seen frequently: it was one of the authoritative sources of “just how bad it is.” To be clear, in coming to a close the project was not claiming that the pandemic has ended; however, whether they meant to or not, by coming to a close at this point the project is sending a message that things are winding down. Furthermore, it means that one of the regular sources of doom-scrolling content is no longer creating such informational material. One of the sources that was reliably announcing the daily death toll, has stopped doing so. Of course, that information is still out there, but it now takes more effort to find. Or to put it another way: one of the reasons why doom-scrolling is coming to a close, is because there is simply less doom-laden content being put out there. Yes, there are still plenty of doom-sayers and doom-mongers out there, but those people were there before, and they are a lot easier to dismiss of as fringe weridos than things like the Atlantic’s COVID-19 Tracking Project.
The general assumption in most of the discourse around doom-scrolling has focused on the pandemic as the main font of doom. Yet, at the moment, it seems like a case could be made that the real driving force was the pandemic plus Trump. Certainly, the Trump administration deserves a lot of the blame for the pandemic being as bad as it is, and we will be dealing with the fallout from the Trump administration’s catastrophic mismanagement of the pandemic for decades. And beyond the pandemic, Trump did plenty of things that fed into a more general sense of impending doom. There was the pandemic, but there was also the election (during which Trump held super-spreader events, and after which he tried to delegitimize his loss), and the flippancy with which Trump treated the pandemic consistently made things seem even more dire. Thus it hardly seems to be a coincidence that Trump’s departure from the White House (and his silencing on social media) has been followed by doom-scrolling winding down. After Trump’s pandemic leadership it has created a situation where taking an obvious step such as “buy enough vaccine for everyone, and get that vaccine sooner rather than later” appears as a sign of brilliant leadership. There was more too doom-scrolling than Trump, there is more to doom-scrolling ending than Biden—but when we think about doom-scrolling it’s worth recognizing the ways in which Trump (and his administration) were major driving forces behind it. Or, to flip this around, it may be that our understanding of doom-scrolling needs to be more firmly rooted in the political orientation of the individual scroller—many progressives may feel like they are no longer doom-scrolling even as conservatives now feel like they are the ones doom-scrolling.
[Now back to the present situation]
1. Doom-scrolling does not stop when the danger is over, but when we think it will be over soon.
For the eighteenth time: the pandemic is not over. People are still getting sick. People are still dying. And many of those who get sick and survive will be dealing with the long-term health impacts of this virus for years to come. There are some cities and states where politicians are eager for everything to “return to normal,” and yet even as those officials strike down various restrictions there remains a certain ambient awareness that it’s still necessary to take precautions. The pandemic has always been politicized (disasters are generally politicized), but the debate isn’t over “will this be over relatively soon” but exactly how to define “soon.” Thus, on a basic level, doom-scrolling winds down because there is a general perception that the problem is ending. Again, not that the risk is no more, but that the general consensus is that the risk is not as great as it once was. One of the functions of doom-scrolling was that the constant barrage of bad news served to justify the decision to be extremely cautious, and for quite some time people needed that steady flux of information to remind them that they needed to patiently endure. In terms of temporality, doom-scrolling functioned by throwing a thick fog over the future, making it unclear just how far we were from the destination. But as the destination comes into view, it is only fitting that the gloomy haze should dissipate.
Though, let’s say it yet again, that the end point is in sight does not mean we are there yet.
2. Doom-scrolling ends when the danger no longer feels fresh
For a time COVID-19 was referred to in some outlets as “the novel coronavirus.” But at this point, the virus doesn’t feel particularly “novel.” We’re used to being told to wash our hands. We’re used to being told to avoid crowded indoor spaces. We’re used to the grocery store limiting the number of people who can come in at once. We’re used to working from home. We’re used to classes being online. We’re used to wearing masks (heck, we’re even used to wearing two masks). We’re used to [insert something else to which you’ve become accustomed]. While one of the elements of doom-scrolling was generally growing numb to the screeching of the fire alarm, we’re now at the point where we don’t even notice the alarm anymore (in fairness, it has been somewhat muffled).
The pandemic simply isn’t shocking anymore, and thus discussion of the pandemic can fade into the background. There are still certainly instances when the pandemic briefly breaks through with horrifying news (such as when the US passed 500,000 COVID-19 deaths), but even in these tragic cases there isn’t much of a shock anymore. It is a damning indictment of our society (and a testament to how this could happen), but at a certain point 500,000 deaths stopped being something to desperately prevent and just became something that we knew was going to happen. In March 2020 you would be castigated as a pessimistic alarmist for saying that 100,000 would die, but at this point it seems fairly noncontroversial to suggest that around 600,000 will have died (just in the US) by the end of this. Yet this is no longer fodder for doom-scrolling, because it has lost its ability to shock us. Frankly it has also lost the ability to make many of us feel anxious and depressed. At this point these are just the milestones we seem to have accepted that we will walk past en route to our destination.
This is the moment of cleaning up.
The pandemic has created a mess, and doom-scrolling was what we called the experience of staring uncomfortably as that mess got worse. But doom-scrolling gets pushed to the side as the mess starts to get swept up. New policies, new leadership, new vaccines, new season—spring cleaning indeed. And these are the stories that have started to outnumber the previous tales of woe. Though it is certain the term will secure absolutely no uptake, “broom-scrolling” is a way to describe the experience of seeing the wave of bad news get replaced by a wave of information that describes all of the work being done to ensure that there will be good news coming soon. Every article/news cast/social media post about the efficacy of vaccines is an example of this shift. If doom-scrolling was about the mess getting worse and worse, broom-scrolling is the assurance that the worst of the mess has ended, meaning that it is now possible to come in and (equipped with the right equipment) begin tidying up the place. As anyone who has ever cleaned a home knows, this is a gradual process, and one room being straightened does not mean that everything has been set in order, but it is a process that has to start somewhere. A case could certainly be made that one of the things that gets “swept under the rug” here is also much of the death and suffering that is still occurring at the moment; however, there really do now seem to be more groups working to clean up this crisis. The sound of the vacuum is starting to drown out the shriek of the siren.
If doom-scrolling is about watching grave diggers, broom-scrolling is about watching the maintenance workers come in.
Normal has not returned. And what emerges as the new normal, post-pandemic, will not be identical with what was once seen as normal prior to the pandemic. But doom-scrolling is coming to be replaced by a sense that things are starting to return (gradually!) to the way that they were before. It is premature to strike down too many restrictions and mask mandates (though some places are doing it anyways), but with the vaccines comes the slow promise that certain activities can resume. While the CDC’s statement that vaccinated people can begin gathering (in small groups) with other vaccinated people, should not be taken as carte blanche for all people…it is still a step back in the direction of normalcy. Students/parents/educators are still slogging through a confusing and unsettled spring, but at this point most people believe that normal (read: in-person) classes will start up again in the fall. We have not permanently left our isolation behind, but we’re feeling more confident about peeking our masked faces out of doors.
Importantly “resume-scrolling” does not mean that things have actually resumed. Here it is once more vital to remember the “scrolling” part of the term. And what the “scrolling” element represents is that we are still watching this play out on our screens, but what we are watching are the first tentative steps towards a resumption of the activities that we knew before. Thus, especially if you are in the mood for some seasonal descriptions, “resume-scrolling” could just as well be called “bloom-scrolling” insofar as it represents the early buds appearing on the trees. The flowers have not yet fully blossomed, but we now find ourselves watching as they begin to do so. As was noted previously, doom-scrolling has an odd temporal effect of making it feel as though time has frozen, with every day bleeding horribly into the next so that it is not exactly clear for how long we have been sitting there in woebegone exhaustion. The shift to “resume-scrolling” or “bloom-scrolling” occurs when the signs of things getting worse are replaced by the signs steady of improvement.
If doom-scrolling was about staring at the frozen deathscape, resume-scrolling/bloom-scrolling is about noticing that the snow has melted and that green things are beginning to grow amidst the wreckage.
There are certainly those who are eager for things to go back to normal, but there are also those who are eager for things to be much better than normal. Such hopes generally take two forms: those who hope that we shall learn from this experience and build a more just and prescient future, and those who think that the post-pandemic period is going to be a time of thrilling excess. Boom-scrolling/vroom-scrolling refers to the anticipation that the period after the pandemic is going to be filled with exuberant thrills. The economy will be booming! Everybody will be eager to do things at top speeds after enduring the sluggish pace of the pandemic! People will want to go out and drink/spend/dance/spend/eat/spend/travel/spend and they will also want to go out and spend! Those who have endured the way that dating has been stunted due to the pandemic will be swiping away on dating apps while condom sales skyrocket! Every band will be on tour! Every theater will be selling out nightly! Every bar will be densely packed! Fantasized vacations will be booked! The shopping districts will be filled with people eager to buy new outfits that they can then wear on the aforementioned activities! We will punctuate all of our activities with exclamation marks!
Scrolling through social media has long been defined by the “fear of missing out,” aspiration, and the fantasy of living an “Instagram worthy life”—boom-scrolling does not represent the full resumption of those things, but it speaks to the anticipation of such things returning. The idea that post-pandemic we shall find ourselves in a new “roaring-twenties” exerts a sort of planning pressure wherein scrolling through the gloom comes to be replaced by really thinking about the thrilling things one will do this summer. This is not the dream of the return of simple pleasures, but the longing for grandiose enjoyment to make up for everything that was lost and missed. It may still be in somewhat bad taste to be too open in projecting the bacchanal that awaits after the pandemic, but that has not stopped some of those projections from being made. While social media in normal times is filled with people living a more enjoyable life than you, this moment is pushing people to think through how it is that they will ensure that they are one of the ones to be envied. Where once grumbling about staying in was a way of signaling that you were doing the responsible thing, now announcing that you have purchased a new bathing suit is a way of signaling that you believe things are about to improve.
If doom-scrolling was what one did when there was nowhere to go and nothing to do, boom-scrolling/vroom-scrolling is what happens when you already start to plan out your outfits and what drink you’ll order when you are once more able to go out (which you are sure will be soon).
Despite the previously mentioned (and somewhat humorously named) attempts to explain what comes after doom-scrolling, what unites and undergirds all of these variations is the belief that the time for doom-scrolling has ended.
To be clear, this really might be the case (and let us all hope that it really is the case). Nevertheless, the diminishing amount of doom-scrolling is at core based on the idea that the pandemic is waning. Or, to put it slightly differently, it is based on the hopeful prediction that this is pretty much over. We “broom-scroll” because we think things are being cleaned up, we “resume-scroll” because we think things are getting back to normal, we “boom-scroll” because we think that wild times are just ahead—and all of these are variants of “assume-scrolling” wherein we assume that the pandemic is over and that it is now safe to stop doom-scrolling. There is a non-zero chance that repealing restrictions coupled with more virulent strains (even as the vaccine rollout goes well) might lead to another spike at some point in the spring, but we assume this won’t happen. There is a non-zero chance that relaxing restrictions too soon will result in a situation where the restrictions have to return in force, but we assume this won’t happen. There is a non-zero chance that the heavily politicized environment surrounding the pandemic (and the vaccines) will mean that the necessary level of herd immunity is not reached, but we assume that ultimately people will get vaccinated. We stop doom-scrolling because we assume that it is now safe to do so, and because we see enough of the people around us shifting from doom to broom/assume/boom-scrolling.
Currently we find ourselves in a sort of liminal space—we have trudged through a hellish ordeal, there are numerous voices (including many trustworthy ones) arguing that things are about to improve, and yet we remain aware that we still have a ways to go. There is a genuine and not-insignificant possibility that things can get worse again. The progress we have made is real, but that does not mean we cannot slide backwards. Furthermore, many more people will suffer and die before this concludes and there is a real possibility that we might find ourselves (or our loved ones) amongst that unlucky number. And yet even as we try to remain aware that the danger remains, the time of doom-scrolling has come to an end. If we are not careful it might return, but we assume that it will not.
If doom-scrolling was sustained by the belief that things were still getting worse, assume-scrolling is what takes over when we feel confident enough to make the assumption that the worst is behind us.
Doom-scrolling is not followed by a return to normal, but by a variety of strange half-steps as we traverse the stages betwixt and between the doom and the new normal. And yet in all of these stages we still find ourselves “scrolling.” We are still largely consigned to the position of a fairly passive watcher, viewing these things playing out, and waiting for the point at which we are no longer hunched over our screens. Thus, we may not be doom-scrolling anymore, but we are still scrolling. Hopefully this will be a short-lived interregnum, and that we shall soon find ourselves being able to put down our phones and embrace each other in crowded bars again.
Nevertheless, if we want to prevent ourselves from having to go back to doom-scrolling, we need to remember why it was that we were doom-scrolling in the first place.