With roughly one third of the world’s population currently living under lockdown, 2020 has already brought a greater simultaneous disruption to people’s lives than most of us can remember. Stuck inside our homes for the best part of the day, those of us who are not “essential workers” have had the rhythms of our lives completely altered. Furloughed, unemployed, home schooling; in isolation or working remotely, we find ourselves thrown back on our own resources for distraction. When those are not enough, we turn compulsively to our screens and handheld devices for updates on the COVID-19 situation. Cataloguing her daily activities under COVID isolation, Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen describes a new daily reality that many of us can relate to: “Cooking, Cleaning, Taking deep breaths while walking dogs, Doomscrolling.”
Doomscrolling, defined by Los Angeles Times journalist Mark Z. Barabak as “slang for an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of dystopian news,” and its close cousin, “doomsurfing,” have already entered our international lexicon. Their prevalence is one indication of how our reading habits are changing as we try to manage our anxiety and come to terms with our new world. This morning, like most mornings recently, I reached for my iPhone as soon as I awoke. Turning it on, I went to The Guardian homepage. Scrolling down the screen with my thumb, I could see instantly that most stories on the site were backgrounded with the sombre and serious navy colour signifying “coronavirus news.” A small cottage industry of articles is now being produced, apparently aimed at readers like me, telling us how to rid ourselves of this new “doomscrolling” impulse.
Ten years ago, in what seems in many ways like a different era, technologist danah boyd described the exciting possibilities of the online information “stream”:
The stream metaphor is about being in flow. It’s also about restructuring the ways in which information flows in modern society. Those who are most enamoured with social media services like Twitter talk passionately about feeling as though they are living and breathing with the world around them, peripherally aware and in tune, adding content to the stream and grabbing content when appropriate.
Doomscrolling represents the flipside to that optimistic picture (in fairness, also hinted at by boyd): feeling caught up in and overwhelmed by a current of information that seems to run out of control; anxious and fearful as we contemplate a daily reality where the idea of “living and breathing with the world” around us has a new and sinister undercurrent. The stream has become a deluge and we have been swept away.
As unprecedented as our current moment feels, we are not the first readers to find ourselves turning compulsively to news sources in a time of crisis. As recent research has shown, after the declaration of war in August 1914, British newspaper sales experienced a noticeable jump as readers displayed an immediate thirst for the latest war news. Writing in the Saturday Review on 5 June 1915, the Welsh author Walter Shaw Sparrow described what he saw as the negative
part played by newspapers during the first two months of this war, when a cruel eagerness for news tortured everybody, when even the poor spent their pence recklessly, as if pennies and ha’pence were coined in every household for the benefit of “extra specials” and “midnight war finals.”
Giving a lecture in Exeter on 19 November 1914, the minister G. M. Newcombe related an anecdote about a friend of his who spent half his day reading war news in The Times, finishing only when the Exeter evening paper arrived in the house. “Naturally,” he said, everyone was “interested in the great crisis, but excessive newspaper reading had a tendency to throw some people off their balance.”
Like the “doomscrollers” of today, these First World War newspaper readers are represented as negatively affected by their appetites for reading material—“cruelly tortured” or “thrown off balance” in their “excessive” desire to keep up to date with current events. These accounts are part of the long tradition of “pathological reading” in literary culture, defined by James Kennaway and Anita O’Connell as the idea that “reading can in itself be a cause of disease.” Nevertheless, perhaps we should not be too quick to define these desires for anhedonic information consumption as wholly negative. There is a fine line between wellbeing and its opposite. We can all relate to the idea of being harmed by activities we pursue in the mistaken belief that they will bring us benefits. It is possible to imagine being paralyzed by coronavirus news, in the same way as leafing through the daily casualty lists in First World War newspapers must have seemed overwhelming. Nevertheless, immersing ourselves in unpleasant or disturbing reading material during a time of crisis can be a way of seeking not paralysis and trauma but agency and sense-making. Holding what the Brooklyn band Bodega call our “endless scrolls” of news in the palms of our hands, we daily seek to find out where we stand in a world where our fundamental lifeways and possible futures seem to shimmer and fluctuate with each news cycle.
Edmund G. C. King, The Open University