New Feelings Phatic Checking

A Google Alert on my name has helped me wring the compulsion to “stay informed”

NEW FEELINGS is a column devoted to the desires, moods, pathologies, and identifications that rarely had names before digital media. Read the other installments here

After some hacking attempts on my accounts in 2017, I set a Google Alert for my name. I didn’t expect the strobe of grim and banal headlines that would follow. The first type: An unfortunate Greg dies in or causes a Nissan crash. The second: An entrepreneurial Greg opens a Nissan dealership, or spearheads the new spring sales event. Every week I was met with breaking non-news: “Man killed in road smash in Scottish Borders after Nissan collides with Audi on A701”; “Nissan for Sale near Gregory, Michigan”; “Teen siblings among five arrested for jewelry heist, car chase” (after looting Gregory Jewelers of Morganton, North Carolina).

No matter how boring the item, I felt a little rush: Why is my name in bolded letters?

At first, the Google Alert was just enough notification to give me a quick dopamine hit. I’ve always been bad at managing distractions; I catch myself checking email over beers with friends I’ve been dying to see, or between the seats at a movie I was loving. It’s not only good news that gives me that mild burst of satisfaction. Smartphones may compel us like slot machines, but on mine I’m not just checking for straight sevens — that I had some writing accepted, a relative has recovered from surgery, good news from the midterm elections — I’m checking for tragedies, too. While I’m never happy about the bad news, having learned about it still scratches the itch for information, like picking a scab.

With no morning paper on my doorstep or six o’clock broadcast, my information fills the shape of its container: the device I pick up every 10 minutes

These compulsions, masquerading as “paying attention,” stem in part from a deep anxiety about all the agency I have in structuring my time. With no regular time of day at which to digest news, no morning paper on my doorstep or six o’clock broadcast, my information fills the shape of its container: the device I pick up every 10 minutes. Even a lack of new information gives me the same satisfaction as a piece of news, as if I’d checked in to confirm that I wouldn’t have to check in any further.

Allowing myself to be inundated by a constant stream of facts — regardless of what I do with the information — starts to feel necessary: bread and butter of the informed citizen. But the “read later” function on my phone has become a kind of graveyard for good intentions, a way to keep seeking and postponing information at the same time. I never look through that folder. Sorting what I know is already there doesn’t deliver the same kick.

Every time I saw one of these predictable Google Alerts I felt that rush of new information I associated with a righteous checking-in. But the alerts — about a defective sunroof suit in California, or a former cop who stole a truck from a Nissan dealership in New Hampshire — flaunted their irrelevance, revealing the contours of my news habit. If this non-news still gave me half the spark as the New York Times home page, my checking compulsion had become more theatrical than informative. To stave off the worry that I’m missing information if I’m not looking for it, my checking had turned phatic, like small talk; it’s enough to know I’m connected to the channel of information, like tapping the keys in my pocket every few minutes to remind myself I can still get into my apartment. Turns out the isolated act of “paying attention” is a bad criterion for political engagement. When paying attention becomes compulsive, better to indulge the tic with a decoy. 

After Trump’s inauguration, Amy Siskind, a former Wall Street executive, started a regular newsletter, now a book and a podcast, to aggregate “eroding norms” under Trump. As with many of the newsletters cropping up at the time, subscribers welcomed steady, one-click updates at regular intervals, the idea being that Suskind would remain vigilant on their behalf. “I’m always looking at my phone and I haven’t stopped since November 2016,” she told USA Today. “I haven’t taken a day away from my phone because I can’t.”

Siskind traffics in the notion that Trump represents a break from America’s history, and that carefully documenting his every move as president is the only way to prevent America from slipping into totalitarianism so slowly that somehow no one notices. In this case, “paying attention” often precludes meaningful attention to historical context — after Charlottesville, for instance, Siskind faced criticism for tweeting that “we didn’t have neo-Nazi rallies until Trump took office.”

It’s enough to know I’m connected to the channel of information, like tapping the keys in my pocket every few minutes to remind myself I can still get into my apartment

Services like Siskind’s feed the compulsion to hoard information, while eroding the context surrounding these factoids. I understand the urge to be constantly updated: It feels like preparation for doing something, while in the meantime an unsorted tide of information makes doing anything feel impossible. I, too, have checked to feel connected to this public channel of information, rather than to engage with any specific message.

The Google Alerts, in their sheer absurdity, act as a funhouse mirror image of what I’m looking for when I check my apps. Their simple binary — crash or opening — seemed to mock the inputs for my checking behavior, laying bare how superficial my connection to the news has become while delivering the same quick hit. Bad news? An Armada exploded on impact. Good news? A Tuesday merger for two car dealerships in Minnesota.

The alerts have become a little hamster wheel on which to drain the compulsions of  “staying informed.” A glitch at the center of my habits, they mock me in the midst of getting my fix, rather than after I’ve set my phone aside. The next time I’m hoarding headlines, opening tab after tab I will never return to, I’ll remember that even the Pathfinder savings at Fenton Nissan of Legends felt like news of a birth after 10 refreshes with no new emails. What had seemed like a public connection was just a private compulsion: a finger connected to the button it’s pressing.

Greg Nissan is a writer and translator living in Berlin.