A mere three weeks ago I triumphantly published a post on my home-baked productivity system describing how I’d successfully taken control of distractions in my life to get shit done. I was invincible. On top of the world.

Roughly around the same time I started paying serious attention to updates about the virus. As the situation has escalated, so too has my obsession with following and thinking about it. A couple things:

  • I don’t understand much about virology or epidemiology, and the little I do know comes from reading arguments between smart people on the internet

  • I wrote this while in New York City, surrounded by a whole lot of people, an unknown number of whom are very sick

  • I’m not part of the high-risk population but am doing what I can to avoid transmitting it those who are

  • I spend a lot of time on the internet. Like, way too much

  • I’ve been working remotely since late last year and apart from self-induced social distancing and isolation, I have not been seriously impacted yet or personally know anyone who has yet

Back to our timeline. I began getting really worried on March 1st. As in, worried enough to go out and buy a bunch of extra quinoa and peanut butter. Over the following days the number of active cases grew, along with my discontentment. Some thoughts & observations from this period:

  • It’s been hard to focus on much else — I’ve been finding it hard to go deep on a task without my mind wandering to the whole situation, checking for new information, or just worrying about it all. My productivity has taken a big hit.

  • I’m addicted to the feeds, again. I’m spending far more time on /r/nyc, Hacker News, and Twitter than I usually do - even though there is much less important or up-to-date information than one would expect. Average hours per day spent on my phone:

    • Week of Mar 1 - 2h 52m

    • Week of Mar 9 - 4h 3m

    • Week of Mar 16 - 4h 24m

    • The worst part of this is any and all interesting conversation on Twitter has dried up.

  • I’m probably demanding too much from myself, as usual. As much as I’d love to be able to sit here in social isolation and write my magnum opus, I’m lucky if I care enough to follow along with the plot of the show I’m watching.

  • Most interactions don’t provide any new information. It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation without mentioning something about the virus. At the same time, almost nothing I check, read, or watch actually has useful/new information I didn’t know prior.

  • New, compulsive behavior has emerged. I’m sanitizing my phone every time I come back into the house. Part of it is probably the desire to have some control over something, but phones do get really dirty and they’re designed to touch my face.

  • My sleep, exercise, and diet have all taken a hit. The sleep is a combination of pushing my bedtime back, waking up more tired, drinking more coffee — you know the drill. I’ve been avoiding the gym for two weeks, and running outside isn’t perfect.

  • It’s pervasive. Regardless of where I am, what I’m doing, or who I’m with it feels like it’s slipped into every dimension of my life and is, in most ways, making it worse. It’s like an obsession has been handed to me, and I have to do everything I can to avoid getting sucked in completely.

Why is this having such a massive influence on my mental well-being? I think a large portion of it boils down to fear:

  • of losing people I care about - particularly high-risk folks who may be faced with a massively overburdened healthcare system in the coming weeks

  • of losing my financial stability. I’m fortunate enough to still have a job that’s covering my expenses but the next few months/years are going to be a really difficult time for many people

  • of getting sick and experiencing permanent damage. I’ll probably be fine, but a permanent hit to my respiratory system would be devastating

  • of serious shocks to our economy. By all appearances, things are going to get worse before they get better

I’ve spent some time being angry:

  • at people in all levels of government refusing to communicate honestly and transparently

  • at much of the general public not taking the warnings and advice seriously

And of course, I’ve managed to mix in some guilt:

  • at the fact that I get to safely work from home, taking on less risk but not actually being able to contribute anything useful to the larger situation

  • about not being productive… which makes me less productive … leading to more guilt

A fitting illustration from Tim Urban’s Religion for the Nonreligious.

I also realized I was regressing to my much more anxious past self. The symptoms listed above aren’t specific to monitoring a developing pandemic but really just describe being an anxious human in the complex internet-connected network of networks we call modern society with people and situations to worry about.

Looking back, it’s shocking to remember that I’ve spent weeks at a time in that haze without realizing what was wrong, or even that something was wrong. I can’t say things are perfect today, but they have been gradually improving with writing more and paying better attention to my body. Therapy is incredible as well.

Much of this recent surge of anxiety is being caused by spending so much time on the internet trying to stay up-to-date with the situation as it unfolds across the planet. The apps I’m using today are built for continuous engagement, designed to keep me coming back for that intermittent reward. But instead of dog memes or breaking tech news the reward being offered to me right now is information concerning my health and the well-being of people I care about. So yes - I’m gonna go back and check. And check again. First thing in the morning and last thing before bed. And share whatever new information I find, spreading it faster than sneezes spread viral particles. So are most people I know. And the fact we’re all cooped up doesn’t help anything.

And it’s not just a deleterious effect on mental health. Misleading information is putting people in danger. Countries are using this to sow even more panic and distrust. And people with massive viewerships are promoting utterly insane behavior.

Yet I still believe the presence of social media will continue making a massive positive impact on how we handle this, and similar situations in the future.

I say that because at the end of the day most of what I know about the virus has come from people I’d never heard of prior posting information to Twitter and Reddit with direct links to sources. I’ve since been able to pass on important information to friends and family to understand what’s happening in my city and country. Fifty years ago this critical information would’ve likely been disseminated through radio or television, delivered by someone whose trust score comes solely from the rank they held in the government. It’d be nearly impossible to fact-check them myself, much less convince others of what I found true.

So how do we use these platforms more effectively for a saner, more informed, and healthy public? Where do we draw the line between speed and reputation? This isn’t going to be the last time we use them to help us grok complex, developing issues across continents with real life and death consequences. Doing so will require significant changes to well, everything. But as an individual user I want tools which allow me to:

  • monitor the entire internet for information about a topic or event, regardless of where or how it’s published

  • filter and weigh it by urgency, credibility, significance, and locality. Urgency here could be assigned manually by people I trust (not trusting the algorithms with everything)

  • allow for notifications about information which matches certain criteria

  • collect this information in a bucket and keep it there to alleviate FOMO. Make it easy to search, sort, filter, interrogate, and share

  • strengthen the path which brought me this information to improve the odds of future information about this topic reaching me without drowning out other sources

  • allow optional microtransactions to reward the entire chain with something like query incentive networks

  • support passive sharing: increase the odds of an article showing up in my friends’ feeds (upon positive engagement) even if I didn’t explicitly share it with them in a privacy-respecting way

  • navigate, filter and respond to discussions on this piece of information wherever it was originally published (privately or publicly)

  • handle quote attribution, external paper references, annotations, graphs & charts, and series & timeline data in sane ways. Maybe even transclusion if we’re really lucky

  • make it easier to view and verify someone’s credentials, qualifications, or endorsements directly through this system

  • accessible to all with automatic translation, optical character recognition, and audio transcription

  • use it as easily as I use Instagram

Until then, I’m going to be refreshing Twitter, Reddit, and Hacker News like a maniac. In all seriousness, even taking a few hours away from these platforms right now makes a massive difference. Take a walk (just be sure to avoid other people). Draw something. Make some phone calls to people near or far.

And most importantly remember that you’re just one person in a really, really scary situation and it’s ok to feel overwhelmed.

If you want to chat, just reach out! Thanks to CJ Pais and Dmitrii Gerasimov for great feedback.