We all know the feeling. It’s 11:49 p.m. and you need to go to bed. Just one more video. 12:21 a.m. One more tweet. 12:49 a.m. One more article. 1:10 a.m. Eyes strained, mind swirling, the blue light illuminating your face finally goes out. Tomorrow morning, you won’t remember a single thing you just read. A feeling of emptiness and anxiety starts to wash over you. You’re coming down from a doomscroll.
What Is Doomscrolling?
Why Can’t I Quit Looking at My Social Media Feeds?
Social media didn’t used to be this way. But a decade ago, big platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter redesigned their feeds and recommendation engines to focus on engagement rather than content from your social graph, meaning posts from people you know. This change amplified misinformation, spawned a global mental health crisis, and established digital echo chambers that have poisoned civil discourse and undermined U.S. democracy. It also made them a boatload of money. More engagement means more ad displays and better targeting data.
In this quest, the big platforms are letting the social graph die a slow, quiet death. Posts and updates from your friends and people you trust have turned into digital flotsam and jetsam, washed out in the wake of massive discovery engines churning through an ever-expanding ocean of content. This sea change might be a necessary casualty in pursuit of growth. The upshot is that it will become increasingly difficult for smaller, self-selecting communities of people to have meaningful conversations about quality content online.
How Can We Stop Doomscrolling?
Can platforms built with this goal in mind succeed? Or are we destined to doomscroll forever? The path forward requires nothing less than a reimagined social media landscape, one that returns to the social graph and is structured around smaller platforms that tailor tools to help creators build and support their own communities.
When I look at my own industry (books and publishing), for instance, I see an environment ripe for innovation. Like barnacles hugging cruise ships, authors and readers have formed makeshift communities on all the big platforms. For certain groups of readers, this approach has worked fantastically well. TikTok, for example, has transformed the book publishing industry and become a popular place for readers of young adult fiction and romance to share reactions and swap recommendations. But other groups are left behind. Nonfiction readers, including academics, intellectual influencers, and lifelong learners continue to hobble along on existing platforms because there’s no better alternative.
Without a platform that works for them, these folks are left out of the main marketing channels for books. The social graph is important because creators have to be able to reach an audience before they can build anything. Creators are masters at building trust with users online, which is crucial because trust is the most valuable currency when it comes to books. Indeed, personal recommendations and word-of-mouth growth — that marketing holy grail every publisher chases — relies first and foremost on trust.
It’s no wonder why publishers and retailers are in a mad dash to create more personalized book discovery tools like Tertulia and Five Books to combat Amazon’s faceless algorithms and Google’s generic top 10 lists that funnel everyone toward the same handful of front-list books and celebrity authors. These marketing tools may surface new books for readers, and lead to more sales for publishers, but they’re not designed to help creators build communities. On Threadable, the core experience is built around the social graph. Creators use Circles to develop trust-based communities of like-minded readers.
Other social media platforms are moving in similar directions. They understand that the way out of the doomscrolling mess lies in building products and tools that empower creators to directly cultivate and manage engagement. Look at BeReal, for example, the photo-sharing app that’s catered toward staying connected with your close group of family and friends. Or the rise of direct-to-reader newsletter services like Substack and Ghost. Even some of the bigger platforms are starting to take notice. Twitter is introducing its own idea of Circles. Clubhouse is creating Houses.
“The best social experiences are not open to everyone,” Clubhouse co-founder, Paul Davison, tweeted. “They are small and curated. This is what creates intimacy, trust and friendship.”
Silicon Valley Finds Its Conscience
It’s perhaps unsurprising that this trend has emerged at the same time Silicon Valley is experiencing a crisis of conscience. Over the last few years, a small but growing group of former tech executives from places like Facebook, Google, and Pinterest have started to raise awareness about the harmful effects caused by the very tools they built.
In 2009, while observing one of the first Twitter mobs, Chris Wetherell, the developer who built Twitter’s retweet button, recalled thinking, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”
Popular documentaries like The Social Dilemma (2020) and books like The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff (2019) have revealed how behavioral psychology is used in social media product design, and how corporate profit incentives push these logics to the extreme. For example, pulling down to refresh on an activity feed was inspired by the “one-armed bandit” slot machines in Vegas casinos. What we all call doomscrolling, a growth strategist calls perfect user engagement.
Perhaps no one embodies this movement more than Tristan Harris, a former product designer at Google, who left the company in 2013 after seeing how the tech he was helping create was unethical, manipulative, and, ultimately, destructive. Harris spoke out about the need to bring moral integrity to the tech industry, eventually going on to co-found the Center for Humane Technology (CHT) in 2018. One of Harris’s insights is that as big platforms continue to optimize engagement metrics, the rest of us are left with products that exploit our human vulnerabilities and erode our ability to think critically.
That all may be true, but big platforms don’t have incentives to fundamentally change their products. It’s not like Twitter Circles, for example, will replace the core “public square” experience. What would it mean to shift the core goal of these platforms away from ad revenue and toward creator subscriptions? How would our social media experience be different if the product development process revolved around the question “How will this help the creator gain and retain subs?” rather than “How can we get more relevant ads in front of more eyeballs?”
What Are We Trying to Say?
In 1854, Henry David Thoreau, America’s first techno-skeptic, wrestled with the implications wrought by a similarly radical innovation: the commercial telegraph. “Our inventions are wont to be petty toys, which distract our attention from serious things,” he wrote in Walden in 1854. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
As the big platforms kill the social graph and optimize algorithms that feed on doomscrolling, we may be liking, commenting, and sharing now more than ever, but we increasingly have nothing important to communicate.