In 2020, television feels slow and one-sided. It talks to you but never listens. At 3 pm Eastern on Tuesday, CNN still had a countdown clock promising that “Election Night in America” would be starting in one hour. Starting? Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and TikToks from sea to shining sea had been giving updates since sunrise. Folks on TikTok requesting a calendar invite for the next civil war. People on Twitter photographing empty grocery store freezers as proof of an anxiety-fueled Ben & Jerry’s shortage. None of those missives contained actual election results, mind you, but they were part of America’s 2020 presidential selection process all the same. This latest election isn’t one night in America; it’s been playing out trepidatiously, nervously, across the country and across our connected devices, for what feels like one long, interminable slog.
Not all of this is new. Sure, no one was live-tweeting the results when Ronald Reagan was elected, but as more Americans came online in the past two decades, our national milestones have, too. Even if Donald Trump winning the presidency in 2016 was a surprise to some, the events surrounding it came from a playbook. People gathered with family and friends to watch the results. Some tuned in at home or went to a bar. In between news segments they posted the occasional tweet, sent out a picture on Instagram of their “I Voted” sticker.
This year, of course, the presidential election found itself square in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Far fewer people are watching in groups or at bars; in many cities, establishments were boarded up over fears of unrest. Online, it seemed, was the best place people could gather to watch the night unfold.
There is a strange danger in that. Watching election results get tallied, regardless of one’s political affiliation, puts a person’s brain into a sort of survival mode, each person staring at their country’s future. When I talked to Nicole Ellison at the University of Michigan’s School of Information about this back in the summer she noted that social media was good at spreading small bits of information but bad at providing any overarching narrative, which can lead to stress and anxiety. “Combine that with the fact that, socially, many of us are not going into work and standing around the coffee maker engaging in collective sense-making,” she added, “and the result is we don’t have a lot of those social resources available to us in the same way.”
At the time, Ellison was talking about Americans doomscrolling for details about the coronavirus or the Black Lives Matter protests, but the same principle applies to the election. Everyone is looking for answers to how the story ends, some sort of signal amid the noise. Last night, they had to make do with vote-count percentages, as the race between Joe Biden and President Trump stayed tight in key states. Of course, experts had been warning for weeks that the chances of knowing who won the presidency in one night were slim. That didn't stop the president from prematurely claiming, in a press conference around 2 am, “We will win this, and as far as I’m concerned, we already have won it”—another move that had been predicted and telegraphed for days. More noise on top of noise. Throughout it all, I and so many others felt the impulse to keep scrolling. Panic, refresh, retweet.
For weeks, journalist Karen Ho, Twitter’s Doomscrolling Reminder Lady, has been reminding people to put down their phones. On a night like last night, that was nearly impossible for anyone wanting to know what their fellow humans were doing. Perhaps that’s why more than a few people saw the need to share counterprogramming. Ho started posting “calming” dog pictures around midafternoon. As the night went on, for every three tweets claiming to be able to read early exit polls like they’re the Matrix code, I saw someone proffering up serene nature photographs or Twitch streams or home-brewed fanfic. Even The New York Times, a publication many folks would look to for election results, set up an Election Distractor. There was also a Twitter feed featuring videos of bunnies and something called a “digital stress ball.” I squeezed once, then scrolled for another 35 minutes.
Since the election of 2016, one much-discussed American anxiety—what WIRED identified as the new FOMO—has been the fear of missing out on news, of not finding the diamond on the internet's beach of junk. There's always the promise of more information, some missing piece that, once discovered, can be spun into some larger meaning. In 2020, that impulse has only gotten worse; the stakes feel even higher and more personal. During the pandemic, social media became a lifeline for people who might otherwise have been home, alone and disconnected. But even at its most unifying, it's still insufficient for building a real community, let alone a democracy. It hurries the conclusions that should be given the most time. It speeds us up, when sometimes what we need is to slow down.