Doom scrolling and Zillow Surfing

If you want bad news you know where to find it. And thanks to algorithms, it will find you.

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

The presidential election, COVID and social media have all converged to create the 2020 version of what could be called the perfect storm of angst, dread, isolation, escapism and dystopian fantasy.

Doom scrolling has been a guilty pleasure for many of us for a few years now. Doom scrolling, in case you didn’t know, is a term for what too many of us do first thing in the morning to the time we go to bed. It is even what some of us have been known to do in the middle of the night.

It just means scrolling through our social media format of choice, usually on our phones, perhaps not seeking, but almost always finding, distressing and horrifying news, rumors and conspiracies on every conceivable topic from the environment to the economy to the election to food to celebrities to, well you get the idea.

If you want bad news you know where to find it. And thanks to algorithms, it will find you.

There’s an old saying in the news business; if it bleeds, it leads.

If there is blood, violence and menace, readers and viewers, the assumption goes, will love it.

You won’t see much blood on social media – but you will see betrayal, deception and paranoid speculations about aliens, traitors, lizard-people and terrorists walking among us.

And, of course, schemes to control/dominate or destroy the world via viruses, microchips and flying robots cleverly disguised as birds.

And just about anything else that shakes, slithers and thumps through the night and threatens America, your kids and a good night’s sleep.

The cure could be picking up something that doesn’t flicker and need batteries. You could pick up a book and read words that don’t move.

But this being the era of the screen, we know that very few of us would be willing to step away from the flickering page and spend time with dead tree membrane and black inked words from a distant time.

So we go Zillow Surfing.

I have to admit that my wife and I have been doing this for years now.

Zillow Surfing, (not limited to Zillow, of course, you could venture into Redfin, Trulia and many others) is where, with device in hand, you scroll through real estate listings with no particular intent, except distraction and fantasy and look at properties for sale just about anywhere in the country – or even the entire world.

<strong>Photo by Jonathan Borba via</strong>

Photo by Jonathan Borba via

When my wife and I look through real estate listings, we might be looking for a fantasy life – a bucolic farm or a cottage in the British Isles or condo in Hawaii or, just about anything that suits or inspires a life far different, possibly more interesting or possibly safer and out of reach of the apocalypse, COVID, urban unrest, murder hornets or whatever else is haunting our dreams lately.

Unlike previous eras of plague or unrest, technology allows us to venture far from home, virtually of course, and offers the opportunity to obsess about, or escape, our current and immediate situation.

And in typical 21st Century American fashion we do both.

Neither of these tech rabbit-trails lead to much action or even consolation.

Doom scrolling generally convinces us that everyone, especially those that disagree with our politics, is deranged and dangerous.

Zillow surfing shows us the life we could have if only….

My problem, and probably the problem of every Zillow surfer, is that we can’t decide which catastrophe we most want to evade; would that be tsunamis, revolution, societal collapse, economic implosion, nuclear war or the zombie apocalypse?

And we can’t decide which chateau, tiny home, stone cottage, organic farm, log house, converted church, custom-built, tricked-out Airstream or urban homestead best matches our mood, budget, intentions and family.

So we keep doing what it seems everyone else is doing; convincing ourselves that the world is collapsing around us and escaping, at least in our fantasies.

I’m not sure what any of it means or if any of it matters, but in 2020 it makes sense.

Years from now, when people ask how we survived the great malaise we call 2020, few of us will have stories of dramatic escape from enemy invasions, or migrations like the Okies of the Great Depression or even relying on our wits as we survived dire and dangerous situations – and a mythical beast or unknown force. Or two.

Nope, scrolling was our escape, and maybe even our mental health survival strategy.

I’m not particularly proud of it, and I’m not sure how the future will look back on any of us, but with my trusty screen and Instacart, I made it through 2020.