The Great Tech Panic: Breaking News Addiction
Read the full article at Wired.com.
Where were you when covfefe happened? I was deep in middle-seat torpor on a red-eye to New York City. By the time I had touched down and wended my way through the outer boroughs to a desk in downtown Manhattan, the internet was awash in post–Trump-tweet meme-ania.
After the catch-up came the letdown—a mixture of regret (I missed it), shame (Why do I care that I missed it?), and anxiety (Wait, what else did I miss?)—and it all felt way too familiar. Since the election, every iota of news has somehow come to seem more urgent, with each newsbreak, tweet, press conference, and cable news countdown clock hurtling toward … impeachment? War? The end of net neutrality? Climate chaos? And while information overload is nothing new, the stakes of all this new information feel exponentially higher—feel being the operative word here—and processing it has therefore become that much more burdensome.
I explained my predicament to Ethan Kross, a psychologist who studies emotion and self-control at the University of Michigan, and he said what I was describing sounded similar to standard-issue FOMO, that now-common anxiety induced by an Instagram feed full of yacht parties and spiritualized sunsets. Countless studies have shown that social-driven FOMO stems from a person’s primitive desire to belong to a group, with each snap, tweet, or post a reminder of what separates you from them.
This other type of FOMO, the all-news, all-the-time kind, is new enough that nobody has really studied it much, yet of the half-dozen experts in sociology, anthropology, economics, and neurology I spoke to, all quickly recognized what I was describing, and some even admitted to feeling it themselves. “We scroll through our Twitter feeds, not seeking anything specific, just monitoring them so we don’t miss out on anything important,” says Shyam Sundar, a communications researcher at Pennsylvania State University. This impulse could stem from the chemical hits our brains receive with each news hit, but it could also derive from a primitive behavioral instinct—surveillance gratification-seeking, or the urge that drove our cave-dwelling ancestors to poke their heads out and check for predators. In times of perceived crisis, our brains cry out for information to help us survive. Maybe this alarm stems from steady hits of @realDonaldTrump. Maybe it’s triggered by left-wing Resistance types. Or could it be #FakeNews, ISIS, guns, police violence, or street crime, all propagated through our social media bubbles with headlines that are written specifically to grab our attention?