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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Doom’s Creator Goes After ‘Doomscroll’

Dustin Mitchell was scanning the local news one day when inspiration struck in an unlikely article. The report was on a woman who, in a fit of QAnon mania, had destroyed a display of face masks at a Scottsdale, Arizona, Target store. The woman later explained what brought her to that point: “All I did was doomscroll,” she said, referring to her voracious consumption of disastrous news on social media. Something in Mitchell clicked.

“That’s a killer name for a band,” thought Mitchell, a metal guitarist in Dallas, Texas. “I got to do that.”

Mitchell, 38, whose day job involves operations at Amazon, says he doesn’t personally doomscroll. Mitchell is not very online; he’ll check local news every now and then, maybe NPR, but doesn’t use Twitter or Reddit outside of researching new gear for his music. To Mitchell, Doomscroll was the impetus he needed to start his new “progressive thrash metal band.” To set it in stone, last February, Mitchell filed his first trademark request with the US Patent and Trademark Office for the word “doomscroll.” And a few months later, he received an email from the USPTO acknowledging that the trademark would go through in 30 days, and then officially publish. At that point, Doomscroll would become Mitchell’s alone to protect and exploit as a band name and entertainment property. Doomscroll would, one day, rock. Mitchell registered www.facebook.com/doomscroll in anticipation.

In October, Mitchell was noodling around on his guitar before bed when he decided to check his email one last time. A message from a lawyer appeared in his inbox. “Dear Mr. Mitchell,” it read. “My law firm represents Id Software LLC which owns the video game DOOM and related registered trademarks.” That day, October 13, it continued, was the deadline for Id Software LLC, or anyone else, to oppose his trademark application to register “doomscroll.” The lawyer asked Mitchell to agree to extend the deadline. That way, Mitchell and the Doom developer could find time to reach a resolution before any legal action went down.

Mitchell immediately felt funny; even a little sour. He was 10 in 1993, when Doom took the gaming world by storm, empowering edgelord gamers to head-pop demons with a bevy of firearms against the background of fiery hell. He had played Doom and Doom 2 back in the day, both of which he describes as “awesome,” and had listened to the metal-inspired soundtrack for 2020’s Doom Eternal, which he describes as “not bad.” Now Mitchell found himself in an unexpected standoff with its developer. He loved those games as a kid, he says, but “they're trying to take something away from me that is completely unrelated to them.”

The first use of doomscroll is often credited to a 2018 tweet: “Taking a break from doomscrolling and being inundated with things and stuff,” wrote artist Calla Mounkes. “I’ll be back Tuesday or something.” Mounkes says she had been using the term since 2017 but isn’t sure she came up with it. “I think it was something that was coming up in our public conscience,” she told WIRED over email. “When we are all attached to a smartphone, just as I am writing this from one, it is inevitable that we will come up with language to describe our forever fascination with social media.”

In 2020, when the crashing waves of headlines on coronavirus, police violence, and the election merged into an endless hurricane of morbidity, the term doomscrolling hit the mainstream. Searches for the term skyrocketed on Google, reflecting a collective compulsion to endlessly scroll feeds of ominous news on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other social media. It was a recognition of our masochistic tendency to obsess over the negative, a shared sickness of the perennially online. Everyone from boomer parents to Stephen Colbert was saying it, doing it, trying not to do it. “In a situation like that, we engage in these more narrow, immediate survival-oriented behaviors. We’re in fight-or-flight mode,” University of Michigan School of Information professor Nicole Elisson told WIRED last year. Psychologists say doomscrolling erodes mental health, often eliciting anxiety and depression.

A fun quirk of trademarks is that nobody can trademark “doomscrolling” as defined as an online outlet for mass hysteria. You can’t trademark a generic term used to describe or define a generic phenomenon or object. Apple, for example, can’t be registered as a trademark for apples, but it can be registered as a trademark for computers, because the word “apple” doesn’t describe computers. As a name for a progressive thrash metal band, “doomscroll, in the musical context, is not generic or descriptive of music, musical performances, or musical services. So in theory, yes, you can apply to register and successfully register that mark,” says Anna Chang, a lawyer for Sideman Bancroft who specializes in trademark law. “Assuming there’s no opposition which, in this case, there is.”

If there’s anyone most associated with the word, it’s Karen Ho, senior reporter at Business Insider. In April 2020, Ho noticed herself, frenzied and anxious, scrolling Twitter late into the night, which cut into her sleep. And it wasn’t just her; it was all of the journalists she knew. She began tweeting out reminders to drink a glass of water, stretch, log off, go to bed. Soon, Ho became known on Twitter as “Doomscroll Reminder Lady.” Several times, she says, people have asked her to trademark the term to write a book or sell merchandise.

“I would just like one job, please,” she tells WIRED. Plus, she says, she didn’t invent the term; she just popularized it (through, she estimates, about 55 interviews with journalists and scholars). Eventually Ho outsourced her reminders to @Doomscroll_Bot, a Twitter bot that has amassed 16,000 followers since its creation in May 2021. In June 2020, Merriam-Webster added doomscroll to its “Words We’re Watching” category, which tickled Mounkes, who is a self-described bookworm. She says she always “wanted to be a coiner of words specifically, so I kind of feel like I've made it.”

Chang says it’s pretty typical for a company like Id Software to scoot into a trademark filing like this to prevent other people from using the term in a way that would cause confusion around its product—in this case, the video game Doom. In 2017, sci-fi fans threw a fit when video game publisher CD Projekt Red trademarked the word “cyberpunk” in the EU for its noir open-world game Cyberpunk 2077. Cyberpunk is a time-honored genre; how could a Polish game company trademark it? In an explanatory tweet, CD Projekt Red claimed it was a “self-defense measure only,” adding that if someone else registered the trademark in the future, they could prevent the game publisher from making, say, Cyberpunk 7702. And anyway, CD Projekt Red had held the trademark “cyberpunk” in the US since 2011.

Id Software is scooting in on “doom” in the same way. The company owns several trademarks around the word “doom” and video games; in the last month, the company has also filed oppositions to trademarks for “ODoom” and “Doomlings.” Prior to that, Id Software filed oppositions to entertainment properties the Maryland Doom Fest, Garden of Doom, and Doomsday Happy Hour. JB, the guy behind the Maryland Doom Fest, says he didn’t pursue the trademark after Id’s initial opposition. It would have been too expensive, he guesses. Jeff, who tried to trademark Garden of Doom, his podcast, says he came to an agreement with the lawyers representing Id Software; he says he just can’t make a movie or video game called Garden of Doom.

Right now, the fate of Doomscroll is in the hands of Id Software and the Patent Office. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board is processing the Doom developer's opposition. A hefty trial schedule was sent out mid-October, which stretches deep into 2023. It may not be that Id Software even wants the Doomscroll trademark; it might just not want Mitchell to form a progressive thrash metal band that, maybe, someone will confuse with the storied game series.

Doomscroll may never rock. That could be a good thing; it could be too soon for a band that reminds us of our concentrated anxieties, the addictiveness of social media negativity. Mounkes thinks it’s good for other reasons. “I hope no one makes money off of ‘doomscroll,’” she says. “It's a kind of a lame band name.”

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