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Doom-surfing as a Parasocial Exercise for the New Surfers' Body

Curator Sarp Özer ventures into the dark waves of the digital deep, taking a look at how the dynamics of today's online realm affect our mental and physical beings.

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Ashley Bickerton, Albino Shark artwork from 2008 showing a suspended white shark

Ashley Bickerton, Albino Shark, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist and Gajah Gallery.

In high school, I spent more time killing time than studying. Those were the years when Nokia and Sony Ericsson were thriving and I had a phone with a colour screen. Unlike today’s touchscreen monoculture, consumer electronics provided a way to express one’s individualism through design. I had a Samsung SCH-X590, which sported a manually rotatable camera: perfect for selfies and spy shots. However, the most important feature was the Bluetooth connection to exchange files with friends, my favourite activity during a regular school day. During lunchtimes, I’d meet with classmates in an abandoned bathroom for micro-screenings organised by my best friend. He had access to the darkest corners of Russian torrent platforms, and we spent hours watching funny, awkward, or extremely graphic videos extracted from the deepest holes of the Internet through the 2.4-inch screen of his Nokia 6600 phone. 


The violence that we exposed ourselves to through these videos was at first shocking but then became just mildly disturbing. We had to play it cool because of peer pressure. Eventually, I learned to stare unfazed at videos that would normally have required the tolerance level of a trauma surgeon. These poorly-shot pixelated footages contained scenes that seemed to be more real than life as I knew it: documentation of self-inflicted wounds, celebrity sex tapes, tortures, and killings of anonymous victims shot by anonymous perpetrators. We funnelled other people’s traumas through tiny phone screens to our minds. This might be a familiar experience for the average smartphone user of today, but it was a mind-bender then. My parents used to try to prevent me from watching Giallo films[1] and the like. Little did they know about my viewing habits —  that our generation was becoming connected to the world in an unprecedented way, in a borderline “Benny’s Video”[2] kind of a situation.


I cultivated the tolerance to digest explicit content because I was either playing video games like Quake, Doom, Duke Nukem[3], or zapping all day in front of the television. My childhood coincided with the booming of yellow journalism[4] in Turkey. Channels were racing to feature scandals and violence. Primetime news almost only covered petty crimes, horrible car accidents, terrible ways to die, and doctored stories made from random CCTV footage. Thanks to television, I knew right away that the world was a mean place.


Ashley Bickerton, The Big Screwed-up Cycle of Wood, Shit, and Human Tinkering

Ashley Bickerton, The Big Screwed-up Cycle of Wood, Shit, and Human Tinkering, 1990. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.


My condition only progressed further with the arrival of digital newspapers and social media platforms as I grew up in an era of unparalleled technological development. In the light of what I have witnessed in the last twenty years, I find it difficult to disagree with the philosopher Paul Virilio’s theory that new inventions introduce accidents in our life as consequences[5]. Social networking introduced us to the possibility of getting in touch with our high school crushes while enabling big tech companies to cash out our data. Surfing the web liberated users to access the rest of the world from the comfort of their home but it brought along new addictions. I consider doom-surfing one of these accidents — or, more specifically, an accident by design. 


Doom-scrolling or Doom-surfing is the act of spending an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of negative news. Increased consumption of predominantly negative news may result in harmful psycho-physiological responses in some. Even in the early days of Facebook, I was not checking in on my friends but stalking acquaintances or strangers whose photographs portrayed a life that I did not want to be a part of. On YouTube, I let videos play while I scanned the comments for the most mediocre opinions. The same goes for Twitter; I search for flame wars or controversies, jumping from the feed of one troll account to another. I use Instagram not to stay in touch with my closest friends, but with people who share my sense of humour, sending me the illest content they find on the darkest corners of the app. Nowadays it’s TikTok, the world’s biggest voluntary cringe-fest occurring on social media. Willingly or unwillingly, every user participates in one way or another through sections on the application, like “Discover” or “Explore”, where the user is prompted with content based on one’s viewing history, but also (and even more so)  in relation to different algorithmic biases and marketing campaigns. Doom-surfing has become a trendy term for all of this. How has pausing one’s life to gaze upon others become so irresistible?


Doom-scrolling or Doom-surfing is the act of spending an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of negative news.

Could doom-surfing be considered a desperate act to allay FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and reverse its effects? Regardless of how hard the algorithmic biases are coded to keep content featuring cute pets, attractive bodies, and desirable commodities rolling, it’s disappointing that the user psychology is inclined to give into such tricks, as evidenced by my own browsing habits. The easiest and perhaps most addictive learning curve that exists on the web is to dutifully survey negative, depressive, and gloomy content. When one is having a bad day, the knowledge that someone out there is dealing with worse might stimulate a reconciling emotion. Could other people’s bad experiences make one’s present moment more bearable?


Dreaditation (n.): Continued or extended negative thoughts brought on by exposure to electronic communication devices.

Zuckerberg meme get in loser

The sensations that these digital affordances bring to our lives can’t be simplified with consolation as they promise micro-doses of excitement as well. There is a good reason that the image macro featuring Marc Zuckerberg titled “get in loser” became a meme. The aforementioned short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops come from notification alerts. There is a reason that these are coloured red on Facebook: within each platform’s engagement loop is a reward mechanism inspired by gambling[6]. They are designed so that users return not to connect but to collect false rewards. Why else would we get pseudo-notifications about “events that might interest” us out of the blue? Another case is how more niche platforms such as LinkedIn implement notifications into their monetisation strategy. Even though LinkedIn has regular notifications like other platforms, it does not keep profile views anonymous, but sells these to paying users. For the past couple of decades, User Experience/User Interface (UX/UI) design, and consequently, computer user behaviour, went through a major overhaul. Notification alerts as a user experience design pattern established an urge to welcome immediacy in any form to our lives. 


In the past, “breaking news” that interrupted prime-time shows or public commutes were easier to dismiss simply by walking away or changing the channel. One would not be beguiled so easily unless news really mattered. Knowing about something noteworthy did not necessarily interrupt one from scrolling or changing channels. A decade ago, television viewers had more freedom of choice. It was up to us to decide to watch the first five seconds of advertorials or to follow sliding texts on news tickers. On the other hand, the advanced version of these, namely the notification alerts, requires user effort. One cannot dismiss these without checking up on them. A scroll, slide, or click suffices to interrupt present thoughts and lure one into an ocean of trivial updates about things going on in other people’s lives or hot sales not to be missed. Whenever I’m troubled, I don’t take a walk to clear my head. I virtually escape through the screens of my devices.


Ashley Bickerton, The Limits of the World III

Ashley Bickerton, The Limits of the World III, 1992. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.


Without knowing Arthur C. Clarke’s quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”[7], live talk shows that were aired on Saturday nights appeared magical to me. I was often at home by myself,  able to summon TV personalities at will. The artificial presence provided by live programs was and is still a relief. “People spontaneously seek out social surrogates when real interactions are unavailable,” noted Scientific American in an article titled Imaginary Friends [8]. Two decades ago, I was forming para-social relationships with the people I saw on TV. Today, my real relationships are transforming into para-social ones. Might it be a universal communicational struggle that interacting with friends and relatives from a distance, through an electronic device, feels simpler and easier than in person? Could prolonged texting out of courtesy be considered another accident that came along with short message services?


Courtexting (n.): A conflation of the words “courtesy” and “texting”. Forcefully maintaining a correspondence based on instant messaging because social convention dictates the exchange of a minimum number of texts before concluding the interaction.

Used to consuming content on-demand, we might be treating or unintentionally forcing our interactions to function in similar terms. Unlike zapping and surfing the web, one cannot shut down people while texting or talking over the phone so easily. “Ghosting”[9] in this sense could be considered a broken link or content that once existed on a site but does not stream anymore. 


We are never short of excuses to head online, but our primary urge is to avoid staying static on one person, site, or channel. Why text a single person while you can chat with as many as you want? Why commit to a movie while you can spend the night viewing the Netflix catalogue and blissfully pass out? Our behaviour changes according to the scale of the screen we gaze upon: surfing is a solitary activity. One can only fully manifest their personality online, surfing alone — a voyage even the friendliest presence gazing over one’s screen would obstruct. Haven’t you ever cut yourself short of browsing sites that you would rather not be seen checking in public? 


Prowsing (n.): A conflation of the words “prowl” and “browsing”. Pretending to view content that one prefers to be seen looking at in public or the presence of a third-party gaze over one’s screen.

Even aside from professional settings, I assume a different personality when I have company. When social circumstances differ, I choose different genres of content for recreational purposes. Whenever I have the comfort of solitude, the devices that know me better than my friends and family prepare me to sleep, contemplate or relieve stress. Yet we ping each other tiny bits of information as if we were nodes desperately trying to connect. I suspect that online spaces enable me to connect with myself, especially via empty content which requires no cognitive effort. That’s why I seek comfort in ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos[10] or doom-surfing.


Ashley Bickerton, Orange Shark

Ashley Bickerton, Orange Shark, 2008. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.


 


Browsiness (n.): A state of impaired awareness and reluctance for social interaction caused by spending an extended amount of time online; associated with a desire or inclination to procrastinate or pass out while consuming digital content.

Doom-surfing derives from “web surfing”, coined in the early days of the Internet. Previously, the metaphors that depict the Internet as a vast ocean may not have been accurate but were certainly visionary considering the expansions that have occurred since. Surfing not only hinted at the Internet’s spatial conditions and scale, but also user freedom. In reality, the World Wide Web could be considered a limiting experience in terms of navigational capabilities. One either goes forward or backward, a linear movement as criticised by Ted Nelson, the Internet pioneer and inventor of Xanadu, whose legendary vapourware product was based on a navigational experience that would enable the user to take non-linear directions, akin to floating in the air or water[11]. Furthermore, it could be argued that the World Wide Web’s limited spatial qualities were further hindered with the rise of search engines. Today, SEO (Search-Engine Optimisation) has become a pressing concern for websites because one does not exist on the web unless they are listed on Google. The Internet might have always been a vast space, but the World Wide Web never facilitated full access to it. It resembles a shoot-the-chute kind of experience rather than surfing; where the destination and trajectory are predetermined. Albeit aware of the myriad destinations, users stick to their routes, which is no different than a single-direction underground tunnel beneath the ocean. 


In non-goal-oriented navigational experiences like spending leisure time on social media platforms, the point of arrival neither exists nor matters if one is on the move. There is never anything to specifically look up, but an abundance of things to look at. Could doom-surfers be engaging in an archeological activity? Might they be searching for a meaning or purpose in life propelled by an urge to excavate it through a deep dive in the shores of the cyber Down Under? Unlike real surfers, might we be getting ourselves wiped out on the web as buffering illusions make us believe we manage to keep our feet?


A common beginner’s mistake in surfing is attempting to float on the water. Described by experts as “a repeating and periodic disturbance that travels through medium”[12], waves set the physical and cognitive conditions for the experience, thus challenging our sense of balance — both in literal and metaphorical acts of surfing. Online, we ride the tide of digital content of which there is never a shortage to consume in order to wilfully kill time.


This content is simultaneously produced by creators and reproduced by consumers. We encounter these most commonly in the form of memes consisting of units of culture. We adopt and propagate these also as recurring patterns in life. Image macros are the most familiar forms of them but challenges, hashtags or any form or content that is popularised out of repetition could be referred to as memes. 


Ashley Bickerton, Tormented Self Portrait (Susie at Arles)

Ashley Bickerton, Tormented Self Portrait (Susie at Arles), 1987-1988. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.


Snackable digital content is akin to junk food. We encourage each other to eat unhealthy food together because the company lessens guilt. Social media users forward findings to one another through direct messages to justify wasting time or at least have company while consuming negativity. As we relentlessly recirculate content, we generate hype, or the memetic crest (a word coined out of the crest of a wave) which rarely breaks or collapses once it gains popularity. We each supply our friends breaking waves[13] to ride through direct messages.


Memetic Crest (n.): The most impactful period of digital content in terms of share per view ratio.

Once logged onto one of these platforms, the memetic energy is released at once, akin to the energy released by plunging waves which are ideal for surfing. The energy of the wave is generated by wind and passes through water. On social media platforms, the energy of the content allows data to pass through. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms are curators of disorganised media, producers of original content, and reproducers of already existing material to reach a wider public than they could by their own means. Regardless of the disparate nature of the content, these are categorised and delivered in personalised sets according to each user’s designated interests, designed to keep each individual user within the same application instead of jumping onto another. These barriers keep users locked in sandbox conditions: impermeable spaces and not open-world environments. But as any surfer will tell you, nobody can experience the vastness of the open waters without actually getting into them. 


Surfing outcomes are predetermined by physical conditions regardless of the surfer’s skill. While on the web, surfing is a different experience as there is an infinite number of breaking waves in terms of content. The spatial design’s primary aim is to keep the user surfing to generate more traffic, often in the form of prolonged scrolling sessions. As an interaction design element, infinite scrolling became a standard after smartphones, tablets, and social media platforms’ booming popularity in the 2010s. The pagination principle which loads a limited number of content on each page was abandoned because it gave users the option to decide whether they wanted to proceed to the next page. Our desire for novelty entrapped us into browsing a single page in a paralytic state.


Infinite Scroll (n.): A web design technique that loads more content as the user scrolls towards the end of the loaded content. This prevents the browser scroll bar from scrolling to the bottom of the page, causing the page to grow with additional content instead, until there are no more results to be displayed.[14]

Remembering thoughts generated by content at the top of the page when you’ve already dived to the bottom is a difficult task; neither streams nor unconsumed content leave permanent marks behind. Regardless of being a dated design pattern, pagination enabled users to navigate more freely because it limited the amount of content displayed on a single web page. This enables users to finish a page as if it were on a piece of paper. It was up to the users to leave or stay, depending on whether the page has what they are after. The infinity scroll, on the other hand, conflicts with user control — hence the introduction of the “load more” button. Users need place-marks or memory anchors to prevent a loss in the sense of orientation from barrels of information.


A traditional design solution to help the users retrace themselves or to find their way around with more ease would be to integrate navigational aid in user interfaces and web pages: providing bread crumb trails. But to provide such locational awareness (in an online page) to the user would be to discourage them from taking an endless dive to the bottom. The pagination of Google Search lets users keep mental maps where one would be able to remember which pages were the most relevant to their search inquiry. Besides, listings change colour upon click as well as page numbers, which make it easier to spot. Pagination has its respective negative aspects too, but the point here is not to find out which pattern is superior, but to emphasise that the role of design should be to provide means to the user to take control, not to take control of the user within a fixed location by exploiting the navigation design of web browsers.


Setting its limited navigational capabilities aside, the current and outdated version of the Internet (also known as web 2.0 or social web) is not a secure, just, and viable living or working environment. The world is a mean place but the Internet is incomparably meaner. Mis-information, manipulation, various forms of defamation, doxxing, gender policing, data tracking, and other forms of online oppression are common practices. Moreover, version 2.0 empowered companies rather than people, providing them affordances to engineer opinion to capitalise on user attention and time.


Ashley Bickerton, Seascape: Floating Costume to Drift for Eternity I (Armani Suit)

Ashley Bickerton, Seascape: Floating Costume to Drift for Eternity I (Armani Suit), 1991. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.


These updates undeniably rendered the web easier to use, more interoperable, and participatory, encouraging regular users to act and create — changing our viewing habits, relationship with electronic devices and the visual culture irreversibly. Although, such capabilities came with accidents of their own like doom-surfing. Zoomers[15] are turning into doomers[16] as they lose their motivation towards participating in society. There is no way to “fix” the internet under current circumstances without fixing our government technology or in other words the centralised democracy. 


By ticking compliance boxes on illegible EULAs without reading, we have not only traded our privacy or the right to choose but our subjectivities to be more in the now and stay connected to the world. Might migration be a solution to regain these? It should be taken into account that many of us are addicted to the small doses of dopamine induced in our brains regularly by social web. The promise of a decentralised, democratically governed cyberspace should not only be better administered, but also be entertaining and socio-economically rewarding to settle or leave the commodities provided by the social web behind. That’s why even the company which was once heralded Web2.0 has already given up on Facebook and is now called Meta. All of the big companies that thrived during the rise of mobile Internet invest in metaversal projects to retain or consolidate their user bases before such an exodus occurs.[17] 


Even though there’s no consensus over the definition of the term yet, Meta describes the metaverse as “a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.”[18] The promoted mission of the Metaverse is “not necessarily about spending more time online — it’s about making the time you do spend online more meaningful.” But where would users see the ads if not on their screens or headsets?


Ashley Bickerton, Shark

Ashley Bickerton, Shark, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and Gajah Gallery


The potential impact of immersive electronic devices and metaverses was accurately foreseen in Junji Ito’s “Enigma of Amigara Fault”[19],  famous for the quote, “This is my hole”. The story takes place in Japan after a huge earthquake occurs in Amigara Mountain. As news spreads through television, people rush to the disaster area to discover human-sized holes. Each person has a hole moulded to their exact shape, and whoever enters their hole cannot leave. However, entering further would cause their bodies to change shape and become irreversibly deformed. One of the main characters in the story, Owaki, has a nightmare where he finds himself trapped in a hole. 


The similarities between the smartphone screen, the infamous black mirror, and the way Owaki describes the hole are notable: “I was completely trapped in pitch blackness, hundreds of meters into the hole”. He sees another nightmare where his body is changed upon staying too long inside the hole. His neck stretches until it should have been torn off. To his horror, the corresponding part to his neck only gets longer and longer — a portrayal of Dowager’s Hump, an outward curvature on the neck that occurs upon slouching for prolonged amounts of time also known as iHunch. 


iHunch (n.): Coined by a physiotherapist from New Zealand named Steve August, in reference  to Apple’s branding, the iHunch is the result of regularly using electronic devices with a screen for prolonged amounts of time on the same physical stance, often by craning the neck which also negatively effects the upper back.

According to a company specialising in products to treat the iHunch, a craning neck’s effective weight on the spine goes up to 27.5 kgs in the maximum leaning position[20]. This finding is surprising because one would consider a person that spends most of its time in front of electronic devices physically inactive. On the contrary, an average doom-surfer’s upper back carries more load than a wave surfer’s, with longboards only generally weighing roughly seven kilograms[21]. With such “strengthened” upper backs muscles, carrying the VR headsets during long sessions will not be an issue for any user. 


In the near future, it is safe to predict that headsets will be developed in ways that are just as addictive as smartphones. They will come with native apps that will function as evacuation points from reality set by the self. These gateways will come with interfaces that require bodily gestures rather than clicks and scroll. When this occurs, infinity scrolling might be abandoned and traditional devices will lose significant screen time. But doom-surfing will potentially remain as a habit in other forms. When the day arrives, might we flaunt the Dowager’s Hump as the new surfer’s body?


Editor's Note on the artworks by Ashley Bickerton:


During early conversations with Sarp Özer on this essay, Christina our Chief Editor pointed me towards the work of Ashley Bickerton, a Barbados-born artist residing in Bali since 1993, who also happens to be a surfer. It’s easy to imagine how the ocean and its infinite repertoire of imagery may inspire the work of artists, but what about the specific physicalities of surfing – as Özer describes – an activity that takes a level of practice and adaptation only the most committed have to identify as a “surfer”?  While Özer offers a guide to surfing the immaterial Net, I hope Bickerton’s artworks brings the occasion to think about the intricacies, effects, similarities and differences between surfing online and on tides.


  • 1.

    Meaning yellow in Italian, Giallo as a film genre refers to low production horror and thriller films that were popular in Italy especially during 1970’s.

  • 2.

    Lang Film, Wega Film. (1992). Benny's Video. Austria, Switzerland.

  • 3.

    Released in the 90s, all of these three video game titles fall into the genre of first person shooter. Kids of my generation were particularly interested because of their explicitly graphic content.

  • 4.

    An American term for a style of reporting that relies on sensationalism, giving less credence to facts and research. It is noted for a heyday in the late 19th century, where it was one of the factors that pushed the United States and Spain into war with Cuba and the Philippines.

  • 5.

    "When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution...Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress." Virilio, P., Petit, P., & Lotringer, S. (1999). Politics of the very Worst: An interview by Philippe Petit. Semiotext(e).

  • 6.

    Kruger, D. (2018, May 8). Social media copies gambling methods 'to create psychological cravings'. Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation. https://ihpi.umich.edu/news/social-media-copies-gambling-methods-create-psychological-cravings. (last accessed: August 5, 2021)

  • 7.

    Clarke, A. C. (1973). Profiles of the future; an inquiry into the limits of the possible, by Arthur C. Clarke. 2D (rev. And Re-Set) printing. Pan Books.

  • 8.

    Butler, F. (2009, July 28). Imaginary friends. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/imaginary-friends/. (last accessed: August 5, 2021).

  • 9.

    Ghosting (n.) the practice of ending a personal relationship with somebody by suddenly stopping all communication without explanation, https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/ghosting?q=ghosting

  • 10.

    These videos are supposed to provide a relaxing sensation for the viewer.

  • 11.

    See Open Xanadu (published in 2014) to have a glimpse of what the Internet might have become under different circumstances. https://xanadu.com/xanademos/MoeJusteOrigins.html. (last accessed: August 5, 2021).

  • 12.

    Wave concepts and terminology for students and teachers. SECOORA. (2017, April 26). https://secoora.org/education-outreach/waves/glossary/. (last accessed: August 5, 2021).

  • 13.

    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/infinite_scroll

  • 14.

    A nickname which refers to Generation Z.

  • 15.

    Derives from a meme, "30 Year-Old Boomer." this term refers to someone who is apathetic or has a negative prospect towards the world. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/doomer

  • 16.

    Newton, Casey. “Mark Zuckerberg Is Betting Facebook’s Future on the Metaverse.” The Verge, 22 July 2021, theverge.com/22588022/mark-zuckerberg-facebook-ceo-metaverse-interview.

  • 17.

    Ibid.

  • 18.

    Ito, J. (2015). The Enigma of Amigara Fault. In Gyo: Vol. 1 and 2. manga, Viz Media.

  • 19.

    https://www.bodystance.co.nz/en/ihunch/

  • 20.

    https://surfersfootprint.com/average-surfboard-weight-with-25-examples/

Artists and Contributors

Sarp Özer portrait image

Sarp Özer

Sarp Özer is a curator working in the field of contemporary art. He is the director of programs at AVTO, a cultural organization located in Istanbul. His research focuses on the uses of digital means in engineering public opinion. Özer has been a contributor to publications of L’Internazionale, SALT, Arter, and Institute of Network Cultures. He also co-produces the Ahali Conversations, a podcast series inquiring on the future of cultural production hosted by artist Can Altay.