On Reading and Being Read in the Pandemic: Software, Interface, and The Endless Doomscroller

Abstract (in English): 

A primary interface pattern of contemporary software platforms is the infinite scroll. Often used to deliver algorithmically-selected personalized content, infinitely scrolling feeds are one of many design decisions seen as responsible for compulsive use of social media platforms and other information-rich sites and apps. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a time marked by a substantive increase in time spent online, the infinitely scrolling feed has been implicated in a new negative pattern: “doomscrolling.” Doomscrolling refers to the ways in which people find themselves regularly--and in some cases, almost involuntarily--scrolling bad news headlines on their phone, often for hours each night in bed when they had meant to be sleeping. While the realities of the pandemic have necessitated a level of vigilance for the purposes of personal safety, doomscrolling isn’t just a natural reaction to the news of the day—it’s the result of a perfect yet evil marriage between a populace stuck online, social media interfaces designed to game and hold our attention, and the realities of an existential global crisis. It may be hard to look away from bad news in any format, but it’s nearly impossible to avert our eyes when that news is endlessly presented via designed-to-be-addictive social media interfaces that know just what to show us next in order to keep us “engaged.” As an alternative interface, the author’s artwork, titled The Endless Doomscroller, acts as a lens on our software-enabled collective descent into despair. By distilling the news and social media sites down to their barest most generalized phrases and interface conventions, The Endless Doomscroller shows us the mechanism that’s behind our scroll-induced anxiety: interfaces—and corporations—that always want more. More doom (bad news headlines) compels more engagement (via continued liking/sharing/posting) which produces more personal data, thus making possible ever more profit. Using concepts from Christian Ulrik Andersen’s and Søren Pold’s Metainterface, Wendy Chun's analyses of habitual new media, Geert Lovink’s theories of how sadness gets coded into platforms, and Matthew Fuller’s software studies guidance to perform deep analyses of small computational things, this paper will examine how the infinite scroll has intersected with pandemic-era platforms to create a world full of unhappy and unrelenting doomscrollers. Why don’t users look away from the scroll? Who most benefits when they can’t stop? And how might text-focused digital artworks intervene? Can an artwork that asks users to read *more* bad news headlines create an opportunity for mindfulness or enable a sort of exposure or substitution therapy, a way to escape or replace what platform interfaces want from and do to us? What if, in this age of pandemic platforms, the only way out of too much doomscrolling is endless doomscrolling?

(Source: Author's own abstract)


ELO 2021: Ethics of Digital Environments, 27 May 2021

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Lene Tøftestuen