Biella Coleman recently asked whether the phrase “doom scrolling” existed before COVID. Certainly, doom scrolling itself has been a popular past-time since scrolling has existed, and doom page turning was around much before that. Perhaps there was even a form of doom scrolling (or more properly, unscrolling) before pages were introduced as a technology, but that’s a different question.

As to the contemporary usage of the phrase itself though, the history is interesting and seems to be mostly recent. It is difficult to constrain web searches in time these days, so I limited myself to Twitter as a first approximation. Obviously, much more and much better work remains to be done on this.

It seems the terms doom and scrolling had a tendency to occur together before the phrase gained currency, which may give us a clue as to its origin. As we will see, the critical transition from the meaning of its precursors to the 2020 sense of doom scrolling is a reversal in the relationship between the two concepts of doom and scrolling.

The earliest co-occurrence I found is from 2013 and interestingly involves a hashtag. “Since my boy’s home and I’m watching James & the Giant Peach and no work is occurring as I wait for a Call of Doom… #scrolling”. Clearly this refers to scrolling while in a state of dread, or impending doom, rather than scrolling for doom, but a very small mutation would be needed to result in the modern phrase.

Speaking of impending or immanent doom, that is exactly the context of the next two early examples. Referring to a series of photos which are apparently no longer available, a Twitter user reports that they “got a sense of impending doom scrolling through Saturday night ones…”. Another user, in a different context but also in 2013 experiences “an impending sense of doom, scrolling through that.”

The distance between doom and scrolling is increased by a comma in the second example, but the feeling is the same, and we are now very close to the modern phrase, its meaning, and its normal context. However, in the 2013 instances, the scrolling brings about a sense of doom which doesn’t initially exist. In the modern usage, the scrolling seems to be brought on by the doom, rather than the other way around. Again, a very small mutation.

In 2015, the causal relationship still seems to hold. “It’s a unique feeling of doom, scrolling through your newsfeed and only seeing screenshots of tumblr posts”. The doom here is brought on by the scrolling.

The first fully modern usage I have found is from 2017: “Graduated from using twitter for rage scrolling to ‘despondently waiting for the next sign of our doom’ scrolling”. Scrolling brought on by rage (note the direction of the relationship) is replaced by scrolling brought on by a feeling of impending doom. The scrolling here is both a coping mechanism and a search for more information about doom.

By 2018, the current meaning of doom scrolling seems to be well established and shows up in various tweets that look unrelated to each other. This is an indication that its abundance in the wild is increasing. For example, “thank u for breaking the spell of my doom-scrolling down my feed”, and again, “Taking a break from doomscrolling and being inundated with things and stuff” (note the slightly different variants, hyphenated vs single word).

The phrase appears again in its modern form in 2019: “It countered the days worth of doom scrolling!” and this association with politics in a pre-COVID context: “Right Twitter. I need some joyful book recommendations please. Heart-warming page-turners to get me through the nighttime feeding hours and distract from endless social media/political doom scrolling.”

The explosion in frequency though, and the firm association with COVID, seem to have occurred in the second half of March 2020. Searching between January 1  and March 15th 2020, there is only one result for doom scrolling.  There are four by the next day, fourteen by the 20th, and by March 25th, there are several pages worth.

Was it the atavistic western dread of the Ides of March? Is it that the news on that day reached a critical mass of doom? In any case, the fore-runners of doom scrolling were there by then, and their evolution into its modern structure had been completed at least three years earlier. The elements were available and combined in the right way. They were only waiting for users and the right environment to spread rapidly.

I won’t get into related forms such as doom surfing, whose origin is complicated by its not-entirely-unrelated meaning in the context of the Dino Run computer game, but there is much work to be done in that area as well.

One thought on “On the origin of doom scrolling

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