During times of crisis and uncertainty, some of us pay more attention to the news, looking for answers. And this might not surprise you, but we have to say it: a lot of the news is bad. And yet we keep scrolling, keep reading article after article, unable to turn away from information that depresses us.
There is a term for that feeling when you can’t stop scrolling down Twitter, or reading news that you know will make you sad, anxious, or angry:
I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of doomsurfing recently — falling into deep, morbid rabbit holes filled with coronavirus content, agitating myself to the point of physical discomfort, erasing any hope of a good night’s sleep. Maybe you have, too.
— Kevin Roose, The New York Times, 20 Mar. 2020
Are you spending too much time looking for news about COVID-19? (Doomsurfing is a term that is coming up—it's essentially relentlessly searching the internet for coronavirus-related content during the COVID-19 pandemic.) If you are doomsurfing, it may be time to take a step back and ask yourself what you really need to know.
— Kathy Katella, Yale Medicine, 13 Apr. 2020
Origins of Doomsurfing
Doom connotes darkness and evil; hence its use in (usually antagonist) character names like Judge Doom (from Who Framed Roger Rabbit), Doctor Doom (The Fantastic Four), and in titles like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But the word originally referred to a law or ordinance (especially in Anglo-Saxon England) and later a kind of judgment. (Yes, Judge Doom’s name literally means “Judge Judgment.”) Eventually doom came to refer to one’s fate—particularly the kind for which we’re all headed in some way:
But still the door continued slowly to open, and only the Count's body stood in the gap. Suddenly it struck me that this might be the moment and means of my doom. I was to be given to the wolves, and at my own instigation.
— Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897
Before it meant “a time of catastrophic destruction and death,” doomsday referred to a day of final judgment.
Romeo. What less than doomsday is the Prince's doom?
Friar. A gentler judgment vanish'd from his lips-
Not body's death, but body's banishment.
— William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
The Domesday Book sounds like a tome of horrific spells, but it was really a record of English landholdings made by order of William the Conqueror in the late 11th century.
Surf was the preferred verb used for browsing the internet back when the internet was a new thing; it extended naturally from such phrases as channel surfing, suggesting the habit of not staying on one site or channel for any length of time.
Doomscrolling: Doomsurfing on Your Phone
Perhaps due to the fact that many of us are more likely to read such news on our phones or through our social media feeds, another term has arisen to compete with doomsurfing: doomscrolling.
"Doomscrolling" has been gaining momentum this week since the Los Angeles Times included it in a recent article about how coronavirus has introduced a new lexicon of words into our daily lives. The Times' Mark Barabak described doomscrolling as "an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of dystopian news."
However, the Times can't be credited with inventing the word. Quartz reporter Karen Ho has been posting regular reminders on Twitter — often, between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. — to stop doomscrolling and go to bed. But, as Ho pointed out, she spotted the term's use on Twitter in a post from October 2018 — and the word could easily have online origins even earlier than that.
— Paige Leskin, Business Insider, 14 Apr. 2020
Whether you prefer to surf or scroll for your doom, don’t feel you need to take it in all at once. After all, tomorrow is another day.
Update: This word was added in September 2023.
Words We're Watching talks about words we are increasingly seeing in use but that have not yet met our criteria for entry.