Heart Breaking News

Also: a map to the memeification of the future

We live in times of breaking news that breaks the heart, when that which breaks is not just world events, but us, living and navigating a painful world.

As we near the year’s anniversary of the declaration of a global pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about what, exactly, has changed in the past year, including in the world of journalism. One thing I started noticing last year when listening to the NPR is the number of times the radio station openly references anxiety and calm in their broadcasts and tries to help soothe listeners as much as inform them.

Last year, for instance, NPR Music released Isle Of Calm: Stream 6 Hours Of Soothing Music. “These are anxious times,” they wrote, “and many of the comforts, routines and distractions that make daily life easier — sports, church services, musical theater, late-night social gatherings, you name it — are being scaled back or canceled due to fears about the spread of coronavirus.” By October, there were guided meditations.

NPR was not, alone, of course. In April of last year, The Atlantic started a column on happiness and finding a sense of purpose, quoting novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne’s observation that “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” In June, shortly after shelter-in-place orders were lifted in California, the Los Angeles Times kicked off a newsletter for exploring the outdoors. As Assistant Travel Editor Mary Forgione noted, “Right now, I think readers are looking to us for things they can do close to home or maybe a little farther afield. And that’s what The Wild is all about: Bringing you closer to nature and the outdoors.”

As Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton noted, “Who would buy a product that reliably makes them sad, or anxious, or worried, or overwhelmed?” And yet that’s what so much of the news is about, citing a paper by Matthew Feinberg, Brett Q. Ford, Sabrina Thai, Arasteh Gatchpazian, and Bethany Lassetter, who argue that politics is a chronic stressor, and “daily political events consistently evoked negative emotions, which corresponded to worse psychological and physical well-being.”

The upside, they point out, is that politics can spur people to action. But at what psychological cost? And what tools do we have to help navigate the difficult times we live in? According to The Independent, downloads of mindfulness meditation apps — already a trend —, jumped 25% last year. TechCrunch observed that eight of the top 10 meditation apps grew their downloads around March of last year, too.

And what of journalists, who have to report on these chronic stressors, day in, day out? Having worked for years with journalists who’ve reported on issues like gender-based violence, political repression, conflict zones and hate, I’ve long seen the effects of such stressors in journalists’ day-to-day lives, ranging from trauma to moral injury. This latter deserves mention because it’s not quite trauma but still has long term effects.

As researchers Anthony Feinstein and Hannah Storm pointed out in their 2017 report on reporting on the refugee crisis, moral injury is “the injury done to a person’s conscience or moral compass by perpetrating, witnessing, or failing to prevent acts that transgress personal moral and ethical values or codes of conduct. While moral injury is not considered a mental illness, unlike PTSD and depression, it can be the source of considerable emotional upset.”

“Journalists are currently bearing witness to individual and collective grief at high levels,” said Dr. Elana Newman, research director at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, in an article for the American Psychological Association. This hurt — from moral injury to trauma — can naturally extend to readers.

USA Today editor Anna Godlasky:

Traumatic events are inherently newsworthy and journalists can’t make newsmakers good, the world peaceful, or the public happy. But could we cover traumas, large and small, better? Can people remain informed citizens without feeling vicariously traumatized or experiencing compassion fatigue? I don’t know the “how” yet, but the answers must be yes. If people feel they must choose between consuming news and their own well-being, they will choose the latter.

Bruce Shapiro, executive director at the Dart Center, has pointed out that trauma-informed journalism requires attentiveness to the effects of trauma on readers, journalists and interviewees: “I think it's been a kind of revolutionary change not only in how we tell stories but whose stories get told … When we talk about trauma, we're talking about elevating experiences that so often have been either suppressed or censored or the subjects of shame. That's an enormous change in the news agenda.”

In early November, as the world awaited the results of the US presidential elections, I wrote about uncertainty, because I was watching how uncertainty about the results magnified the anxiety for so many around me:

I want to move past the practicalities of information communications right now and into the realm of meditation, a skill I think runs counter to the demands of an attention economy, where every second must be filled with content. But it’s a skill that’s needed if we’re to survive the contemporary information environment intact as a society.

And after the events in the US Capitol, I wrote on heartbreak and how my own practice in meditation has taught me to navigate suffering. As I wrote, quoting Rabbi Steve Leder of More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us, “these times are meant to remind us to be kind, to be decent, to forgive.”

In a time of acceleration of news and the acceleration of heartbreak and suffering, the future of journalism might exist beyond the screen and rest in the meditation cushion. We as a society must learn to navigate balancing the need to be informed with the need to be trauma-informed. I do think studying the roots of happiness and calm are essential if we’re ever to achieve that balance. Exhaustion and news avoidance, as many scholars of authoritarianism remind us, are part of the path toward breakdowns in societal equity, because it then becomes that much harder to rally for change.

The good news — and yes, it’s good news — is that suffering and trauma are not new, but newly contextualized. That means we have a lot of people to learn from (arguably, the entirety of human philosophy and theology). Part of what’s been essential for me this past year is what’s been essential to me over many years: meditation, spending time in nature, studying how deep peace and happiness can be found, and finding and supporting a community.

Future Thought 👁️‍🗨️🔮

Lots of people have been asking me about the latest news in the stock market. One thing I’ll say is this: I see the story less about finance per se and more about the memeification of daily life, from politics to the stock market. In my book, I pointed out that internet phenomena are enabled by technology, and in the case of the stock market, what we have is a confluence of enabling technology — the knowledge sharing opportunities of social media, which are well-documented, combined with the ease-of-use of brokerages for retail investors.

The internet has been having an effect on communications for decades now, but I expect that we’re still at the beginning stages of a new media and activism environment that’s more networked and therefore unexpected. In August, for example, I spoke to The Guardian’s Yasemin Craggs Mersinoglu about “green teen memes” and how TikTok activity is shaping the global conversation around climate change. By November, I came across a Bloomberg report that pointed out that “Generation Moss—also known as Gen Z— is shaping climate policy, finance and activism more than any previous generation.”

In other words, what’s less surprising to me is that meme stocks took off as a phenomenon, and what’s more surprising is that it took this long. So here’s your future thought: create a mind map of the technologies of today and tomorrow that make it easier to do something, like build a selfie stick, distribute a t-shirt or invest in the stock market. With each thing that’s easier to do, draw out the possibilities of gaming that thing — a free association will help you see the range of the absurd and unexpected.

This, my friends, is your map of the memeification of tomorrow.

On My Radar 📡

  • Remember my thread on the water-diamond paradox? The CEO of Nongfu Spring is now richer than Warren Buffet. That makes him richer than the CEO of DeBeers too.

  • Nithin Coca’s Asia Undercovered newsletter, filled with great tidbits about Asia that might be off your radar. I had the pleasure of working with Nithin when we were both supporting the Online News Association SF/Bay Area chapter, and I find his perspective on Asia refreshing and inspiring.

  • Probable Futures offers a periodic look at climate change science and how to understand the future. Their latest issue puts COVID-19 in perspective: “On our current path, 1.5°C will come this decade, with higher numbers not far behind. If we don’t act quickly, 3°C will likely come well before the end of this century. The best time to start getting to zero was 30 years ago. The next best time is now. We are perilously close to a point at which zero will no longer be possible and COVID-19 will seem like a quaint challenge.” (h/t Nat Bullard)

New from Me 💁🏻🆕

I’m a hug fan of friend and former colleague Xiaowei Wang’s Blockchain Chicken Farm, a look into technology in rural China and beyond. Here are two recent collaborations with them:

Commons Conversations Video and Transcript Now Online: Blockchain Chicken Farm

Xiaowei Wang: “For those who haven't been to China. The countryside and city are very different. We have an image of China and I talk about agrarian transition, a process that allows the cities that allows cities like Shenzhen to exist. So smaller farmers move off the land, industrial agriculture happens. You have a bigger labor force in the city. The scholar makes a point we think about urban and rural as not only separate but in terms of population density. But actually, we can think about the urban when thinking about it through technical terms, as a form of governance, a site with everything. It's forms of surveillance, is control, it's hyper capitalism. So, the book looks at this tension, when this urbanization or pursuit of modernity fails in a lot of ways. And I look at the use of artificial intelligence of hog farming, the environmental and ecological consequences of that and how that trickles into diseases like Covid.”

The Great Shopping Mall: The market nationalist logic of Chinese social media (with Xiaowei Wang)

“In the West, we’ve become accustomed to reports of censorship in China as the result of a menacing authoritarian regime that threatens the core tenets of free expression. While a convenient construction, this centers authoritarianism as the guiding force for China’s social media platforms, missing the underlying capitalist logic behind the world’s largest internet ecosystem that is starting to extend past China’s borders to shape global commerce. Centering market-oriented logic helps blur the boundaries on both sides of the so-called Firewall, helping us understand that the history of China’s internet—fostered as a tense alignment between the market and the state—has extraordinary implications globally, including for those of us in Western democracies.”


Yellow Canary Land 🐤 is a monthly look at the future of global media and technology. It’s ostensibly about some distant tomorrow, but really, it’s about how the forces of our yesterdays and todays are likely to shape the times to come. Don’t expect a lot of emails, but do expect a lot of thought put into each one.

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