Jake Pitre is a PhD student at Concordia University. His writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, VICE, Pitchfork and elsewhere.
Crises tend to come with their own vocabularies. Along with “social distancing” and “self-isolating,” the COVID-19 pandemic has given us the concept of “doomscrolling”: the online act of endlessly reading news and social media about our dystopian present, or as the Urban Dictionary puts it, “Obsessively reading social media posts about how utterly [screwed] we are.”
As many of us sit inside our homes in a constant state of anxiety, our phones and laptops are continuous conduits to morsels of information, commentary, memes and end-is-nigh prognosticating. We feel like it is our responsibility to stay up to date, and with nowhere to go, it’s the best way to stay connected to the outside world – even if it’s depressing. Hence, doomscrolling.
Now, amid protests against police brutality in support of Black Lives Matter that are taking place across the United States, Canada and cities across the globe, this phenomenon is even more intensely pronounced. By turns horrifying and uplifting, it is more crucial than ever to pay attention to this endless barrage, particularly as the stream of on-the-ground participants offer more authentic reportage than most media outlets. It is our responsibility to not look away.
What might be most significant about doomscrolling, though, is how it usefully captures online experience going back much further than the pandemic and protests. We have long been accustomed to the feelings of alienation, depression, anxiety, confusion and doom engendered by social-media platforms designed to keep us scrolling for as long as possible. We are like rats in an experiment, pulling a lever with unpredictable results, yearning for something rewarding; as Jia Tolentino writes in her book Trick Mirror, “it is essential that social media is mostly unsatisfying. That is what keeps us scrolling, scrolling, pressing our lever over and over in the hopes of getting some fleeting sensation – some momentary rush of recognition, flattery, or rage.”
If anything, then, this is what social platforms have always provided for us. This moment in time gives us an excuse to take stock of their particular insidious structures, and we should use this as an opportunity to demand greater care for users from these companies. In other words, doomscrolling existed long before COVID-19, but it doesn’t have to exist after.
Our first task is to determine what we should demand from social-media platforms. Most recommendations for dealing with doomscrolling simply suggest logging off, or suggest users should just be more conscious about what they consume. While it’s always a good idea to be conscious of what information you’re taking in and where it comes from (there’s an excellent 2019 study that proves this to be helpful for our mental health), these are too-easy solutions that have no staying power and, more importantly, blame users rather than the platforms themselves, as if the internet itself is unchangeable and people must simply adapt to it. But it doesn’t have to be.
Data accumulation and distribution is the key purpose behind social media’s insatiable need to keep you scrolling for as long as possible. The more you consume, the more data they have to sell or exploit.
Social-media companies should be more transparent about what data they gather about us and how they use such data – is it going to advertisers, to think tanks, to governments, to the police? Once users have that knowledge, do they have any control over it? Can they decide what data they want to be collected and how it is used? Right now, doomscrolling seems fine to these companies, because it just means we’re spending more time on their platforms.
These companies should also bolster moderation efforts and introduce tools that address failures in communication and discussion, so if we are constantly scrolling, we’re seeing less harmful content. Twitter, for example, recently added a feature to address long-standing criticism about their inaction on U.S. President Donald Trump’s lie-strewn tweets. Now, a link is inserted below a misleading tweet to more accurate information. Fine. But this is far too little, far too late. Twitter and other platforms should invest much more into sophisticated moderation (both human-led and, possibly, algorithmic) to de-incentivize sensationalism or pithy falsehoods and conspiracies. The debunked short movie Plandemic, which falsely purported to reveal the truth about COVID-19’s creation and spread, likewise took too long to be deleted and deplatformed by Twitter, Facebook and the rest – it had to go viral and be seen by millions for them to take any serious action. That action should come far sooner.
Our feeds are designed to hit us with endless endorphin-rich screeds and proclamations, but could be organized more thoughtfully to reflect the things that people actually like about being on social media – the opportunity to come together, learn, build community and solidarity. The technocratic whims of growth and capital have helped to create circumstances in which our experience online is mostly unsatisfying. Perhaps by emphasizing the original promise (rarely achieved) this technology held out, of community-building and intimate participation with others, users can turn this on its head. Knowledge and advocacy about data-gathering, greater moderation, ending harmful partnerships and granting more power to users to determine the shape of their online experience are just the first steps we can take to a better social landscape. The pandemic and protests have laid bare the depressing and anxiety-ridden realities of countless aspects of modern society, and we should not let things go back to “normal” afterward. Growth for its own sake cannot be the sole operating principle for the social web. We should demand better.
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