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The Subreddit /r/Collapse Has Become the Doomscrolling Capital of the Internet. Can Its Users Break Free?

15 minute read

Every morning, Johnny Sayles wakes up and scrolls through news about the collapse of human civilization.

Formerly a medical assistant at a surgical department in Washington state, Sayles was laid off at the beginning of April, when the pandemic hit. Confined to his home by stay-at-home orders, he began spending more time on the social network Reddit, and came across /r/collapse, a part of the site where users discuss what many see as the inevitable collapse of globalized society.

Sayles says /r/collapse has become part of his morning routine. “I just go to that subreddit and I compare what the world was like last week with this week,” he says. “And every week there is something worse. It’s depressing, but collapse is inevitable. It might be tomorrow, it might be in 10 years. But our ecosystem is shot and there’s only so much time left.”

In one week in early October, the top posts on /r/collapse told you that ice cover in the Siberian Arctic was at its lowest extent in recorded history, that the pandemic had killed more than 1 million people worldwide, and that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was making more money in one second than the average person makes in a month. Further down, someone suggested that the U.S. is heading toward a post-election civil war. “To be honest, it’s just a matter of time,” says the top comment. “Every empire falls. It may be fast, or it may be slow.”

That sums up the worldview of the subreddit, which has more than tripled in size in the last two years, and now has more than 239,000 subscribers. (Like Reddit as a whole, which has roughly twice as many male users as female ones, the majority of them appear to be male.) Its content—a mixture of news headlines, memes and rants—is clearly addictive, at least for some people. It’s laced with hints of existential truths: that progress is a myth, that capitalism is already in decline, and that environmental catastrophe may come much sooner than most people expect. Naturally, this content has the capacity to be highly depressing. A suicide hotline is displayed in a prominent position on the front page, alongside a disclaimer. “Overindulging in this sub[reddit] may be detrimental to your mental health,” it says. “Anxiety and depression are common reactions when studying collapse.”

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Before he lost his job, Sayles was a supporter of President Trump who bought into the President’s “Make America Great Again” message. But spending time on /r/collapse, combined with watching the Trump Administration’s handling of the pandemic, has led him to change his allegiance. When wildfires ravaged the West Coast of the U.S. over the summer, the smoke was so thick he had to stay indoors for a week and a half. Homeless people the same age as him—late twenties—are now sleeping in the park near his house. The price of bacon at his local store has doubled. He has already voted by mail, and not for Trump.

For Sayles, the subreddit’s disclaimer about depression rings true. “I agree it is bad for people’s mental health,” he says. “But I also think people need to wake up to the world around them. These dangers are real. It’s impossible to deny these things any more.”

If Sayles’ story sounds familiar, that’s because for many of us, it is. As the pandemic confined billions of people to their homes in 2020, the word “doomscrolling” entered the lexicon, referring to the temptation to compulsively scroll through social media platforms filled with apocalyptic news—and the difficulty stopping despite feelings of dread and anxiety. There’s no shortage of reasons for heightened anxieties this year, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the U.S. Presidential election to the racial injustice protests. But social media platforms also play a crucial role, given that they are designed to keep you scrolling and engaged for as long as possible. “As a species we are inherently hardwired to respond first to threatening information,” says Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a psychologist who treats patients for climate-related anxieties. Those evolutionary traits mean that the most anxiety-inducing content is often the most profitable for social platforms like Reddit, Facebook and Twitter. “Behind the screen are impassive algorithms designed to ensure that the most outrageous information gets to our attention first,” writes the academic Julia Bell in her new book Radical Attention. “Because when we are enraged, we are engaged, and the longer we are engaged the more money the platform can make from us.”

Over the last decade, social networks have upended the way we live our lives. In bypassing traditional gatekeepers, these platforms have given ordinary people new opportunities to raise their voices, from the Arab Spring uprisings in the early 2010s to the climate activism of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg at the end of the decade.

But psychologists who study the emerging field of social media addiction also point to a darker side. When you’re constantly presented with evidence of systemic threats, it can foster a negativity bias that can leave you feeling anxious or depressed—and reduce your sense of individual agency. “There’s something inherently disenfranchising about someone’s ability to act on something if they’re exposed to it via social media, because it’s inherently global,” says Kennedy-Williams. “There are not necessarily ways that they can interact with the issue.” This sense of paralysis is at the core of doomscrolling. And it raises an important question: what’s the use of raising awareness, if the medium you’re using to do so inspires lethargy instead of action?

Shady Fire Santa Rosa California
Burnt out homes and structures in Santa Rosa, CA, after a wildfire, photographed on Sept. 28, 2020.Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Both users and moderators of /r/collapse have spent a lot of time thinking about that question. Some already practice the solution that Kennedy-Williams often suggests to his clients: log off and engage with efforts to fix the problem at a local level. But for many, it’s not that simple. “The subreddit has definitely ratcheted up my anxiety at times,” says Waleed_Compound, a regular user of the subreddit who lives in Santa Rosa, California, who, like many users TIME spoke with, asked to be referred to only by his username. He says he finds it easy to walk away from his screen, and has found solace in spending more time with his family and helping the homeless.

But the growing frequency of bad wildfires where he lives makes coming to terms with climate collapse unavoidable. In 2018, the Camp Fire killed at least 85 people in and around the town of Paradise in Northern California and gave off so much smoke that Waleed_Compound, who lives 100 miles away, had to stay indoors for two weeks. Days before he spoke to TIME, embers from a wildfire northeast of Santa Rosa set a business near his home partially ablaze. “All this collapse stuff, and thinking about what could happen in the future, doesn’t really get me too down, except for some anxiety here and there,” he says. “It’s the real-world stuff that really gets to me. Doomscrolling is a thing, for sure. But it’s nothing compared to what I’ve actually seen.”

Over the last two years, as the subreddit has tripled in size, moderators have noticed its content changing, too. With a bigger audience comes a greater opportunity to spread the word. But where the subreddit used to be mainly used as a forum for discussion of data and hard news, the most popular threads today are memes, alarmist headlines and polemics. Those are more appealing for a large audience–who accordingly “upvote” the posts to the top of the subreddit.

But the risk is that this content becomes so appealing as to provoke the paralysis of doomscrolling. “Any online forum that reaches a certain scale encounters barriers of quality and difficulty of moderation, because the nature of online discussion is such that the lowest effort content wants to float to the top,” says Mike Rezl, one of the subreddit’s moderators, whose username is LetsTalkUFOs. This doesn’t necessarily mean content that takes low effort to produce, he says. A funny meme can take a long time to craft, but take just seconds to consume. In other words, as the subreddit has got bigger, it has become easier to doomscroll, potentially making the subreddit more depressing while reducing its most active users’ capacity to act.

“I think to a certain extent, the subreddit has almost lost the battle already,” says one of the longest-serving moderators of /r/collapse, who goes by the username Babbles. “Reddit, and the way people engage with it, is not really conducive to productive conversation. And this is true for social media in general.”

Babbles says that a few years ago, when the subreddit was smaller, there was a running joke about how new users tend to go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s not a linear process, or an enjoyable one. Babbles jokes that many users, including himself, still seem to be cycling through the final three stages.

But as the subreddit grows, the regulars of /r/collapse are being forced to grapple with a heavy question: what does it mean to introduce such emotionally impactful ideas to a large number of people in an environment as impersonal as Reddit? “It’s helpful to have this information available to those who seek it out,” says James, a regular user from Australia who asked to be referred to by his middle name to protect his online identity. “But is Reddit the best platform for that? Absolutely not. You can read something that completely shatters your worldview and there’s nothing to bring you back.”

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Meanwhile, the moderators feel an acute sense of responsibility. In 2017, some users set up a dedicated sister subreddit for helping people deal with collapse-related anxieties, to which moderators often direct commenters who seem suicidal or self-destructive. Still, the issue weighs on them. “We have to assume that there are countless people who still fall through the cracks, who we don’t see, who slip into deep depression, who do not return, because they were not able to overcome the weight of this information,” says Rezl.

Just as coming to terms with the loss of a loved one is a painful but eventually necessary experience, so—many of the longest-tenured users of /r/collapse believe—it is necessary for large numbers of people to come to terms with the idea that they may experience civilizational collapse in their lifetimes. But in some ways, doomscrolling is a barrier to achieving this goal: users might find it easier to come to terms with these ideas if they were not paralyzed by algorithms constantly serving up more doom. And the more people who find the subreddit, the worse the risk of doomscrolling becomes. “The subreddit is going to continue growing as systemic disruptions occur,” says Rezl, the moderator. “So we have to figure out a way, at any scale, to address that. But there’s no ultimate solution. You can’t have a million people in a room all talking at once.”

The collapse subculture uses a term for what comes after grief: resiliency. This is the idea that even if collapse is inevitable, there are ways–both on an individual and a societal level–to build preparedness, both mentally and physically, for what is to come.

“We attach ourselves to this material, study it, then we freak out about it and try to tell all our friends about it, and our friends don’t want to hear about it because it’s depressing,” says Babbles. “But then you kind of move on from that, and things open up for you. A lot of people look at making substantial changes in their life: how they live, how they measure their own resiliency in the face of what might be coming, and to a certain extent, even how they expect to cope spiritually and existentially with this newfound knowledge.”

For many of the subreddit’s most active users, this has meant spending time on Discord, a chatroom service similar to Slack, where it’s easier to forge interpersonal connections and where alarmist content doesn’t dominate the conversation as often. The official collapse Discord server has around 880 users, many of whom are also active members of the subreddit. “I’ve gravitated toward the Discord side of things because it’s a lot more reasonable,” says James, the user from Australia. “The issue that I have with Reddit is the fact it’s based on a point system, and the fact you can see your score. It’s a big driver to generate content that will get upvotes, and that doesn’t necessarily lead to content that’s actually of any real use.”

It has also led many users to make changes to their lives. James, who began reading the subreddit regularly after devastating bushfires ripped across Australia in 2019, recently moved out of Melbourne and began experimenting with self-sufficiency. He says that rather than making him more depressed, engaging with a community of like minded individuals via Discord has been a validating experience. Waleed_Compound, the user from Santa Rosa, says the same about helping homeless people in his community.

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But at the same time as finding ways of safeguarding their mental health, many users have also resorted to preparing to save themselves and their loved ones from the worst. Waleed_Compound has stockpiled supplies of beans and rice, as well as guns and ammunition. Sayles, the former Trump supporter, has been increasing his supplies of food as the election approaches.

This behavior is known as prepping—short for “preparing.” Posts about prepping are discouraged on /r/collapse, and moderators redirect users with practical questions to the /r/preppers subreddit, which has 203,000 subscribers. But there is a significant overlap between the two groups, who share similar approaches to dealing with what they see as inevitable disaster in their own lifetimes. Bradley Garrett, an ethnographer studying the subculture, visited dozens of communities of preppers when he was researching his new book Bunker: Building for the End Times. While these communities tend to have a reputation as crazy people in the media, Garrett says he ended up convinced by many of their arguments. “If you accept the inevitability of the climate crisis, there are only two responses,” he says. “You either succumb to the despair, or you work to face it somehow. And if you don’t believe that you have the ability or the capacity to change our trajectory, then the only option you have is to build up your resiliency, and be able to adapt to those changes as they take place.”

From spending time with preppers, Garrett came away with a similar attitude to doomscrolling as many of the most regular users of /r/collapse. “I do think that there’s some merit in unplugging, even if it just gives you more time to forge local connections and build up local resiliency, because there will inevitably come a time when we’re going to have to depend on each other,” he says. “That’s so much more important than knowing that there’s a disaster on the other side of the world taking place.”

But for Bell, the author of Radical Attention, unplugging from social media only to focus on your own survival is an extension of the core problem of how platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit are designed: that doomscrolling isolates us, making the kind of collective action that is necessary to prevent climate catastrophe even less likely to happen. “It takes a certain amount of courage to say no, I’m going to do something about this,” she says. “We’ve forgotten what that means, because we’re being encouraged to just passively consume all this stuff.”

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Write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com