Anxiety is the new normal. The progressive narrative that buoyed American culture since its founding has been undermined by recession, a dying planet, and human nightmares running government. According to the Washington Post, psychologists started reporting clients' "Trump anxiety" months before he was even elected. After he took office, the director of a counseling center told the Daily Dot that they were seeing patients report "headaches, migraines, stomach aches, fatigue, sleep disturbances, weight gain, or weight loss" from the stress of 2017. And when Stephen Hawking begins to sound like an "End of Days" preacher, it's safe to say shit is fucked.
But how do we galley rowers on a sinking ship cope? Do we meditate, or stress eat? Quit social media? Or do we lean in? Some take up residence at the mouth of the yawning abyss and just yell into it like Zach Braff in Garden State. That's definitely the path of choice on Twitter.
Nihilst Arby's falls into a grouping I think of as Existential Dread Twitter. Existential Dread Twitter, like Black Twitter or Nerd Twitter or Porn Twitter, is its own little world. Accounts like Medieval Death Bot and Kim Kierkegaardashian exist in a dark realm beyond doggos and self-care. Nora Reed, the creator of bots such as Endless Screaming and Thinkpiece Bot, believes these accounts have a cathartic effect on followers. "So many folks are living in a world with a dominant narrative that denies their experiences, or even identities," they say. "Part of living under fascism is dealing with something like gaslighting done on a national scale, and having a bot 'see through' that can be a relief." Reed increased Endless Screaming's output to post every 10 minutes on Election Day and hasn't turned it down since. "[Endless Screaming] comes up in my feed constantly, after news stories about the world's total, unabashed embrace of white supremacy or before personal stories from people I care about talking about their experiences with transphobia and ableism," they tell Broadly.
Soren Häxan created Medieval Death Bot, an account that tweets "real deaths" from medieval coroners' rolls, which accounted for every death in a village or city for a given year, to bring a slice of 14th-century life to the masses. "Compared to ours, the medieval world is harsh and unforgiving and it exists in a time when religion was how you understood yourself and the entire world," he says. "To live in those circumstances and survive the way they did is encouraging to me." In other words, if Britney can make it through 2007, and John Bradequoer can make it through 1300, you can make it through today. "I'm a mentally ill queer trans person who grew up in a really strict religious household," says Häxan. "Living through that, on top of all the difficulty I have just existing in the world now, as weird as it may sound… I can see reflected in the Middle Ages."
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Scrolling through the Medieval Death Bot feed is a crash course in the banality of death. "Coroners' rolls give us such a full range of death," Häxan says. "The stupid, the sad, the hilariously sad, the unjust, the deaths that are direct results of societal problems. And even though it's hundreds of years later, all these types of deaths are still just as plausible for us. Our stupid deaths might not be drowning while bathing, but who's to say self-driving cars aren't going to kill us all, you know? And if they do, we really should've seen that coming." One of the most common deaths in the Middle Ages appears to be murder by clerk. On his tumblr, Häxan explained that "clerk" on a coroner's roll basically signifies anybody whose job involved reading and writing, but the term could also refer to a scholar. "The bulk of these clerk murders come from the Records of Medieval Oxford which makes these groups of drunken, armed clerks wandering the streets, trying to cause trouble, students at Oxford," he writes. Today's Affluenza Teen is yesterday's John de Bellgrave, who stabbed his buddy to death in 1302 after curfew and "the feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin."
Other accounts, like Nihilist Arby's and Kim Kierkegaardashian, take their humor from juxtaposing their void-gazing with the material obsessions of late capitalism. That juxtaposition dates all the way back to Kierkegaard, according to Christian scholar Jacob Stubbs, who writes: "Søren Kierkegaard, the Morosely Melancholic Dane, often wrote to show the vapidity of the Late Modern culture in which he lived. In doing this, he often employed parody and irony to argue against his opponents. The method that Kierkegaard perfected—e concessis argumentation—required that he argue from his opponent's premises." In the same way that Kierkegaard exposed "A the Aesthete" in Either/Or I, Kierkegaardashian explores the underlying emptiness that comes from capitalism, celebrity, and a hellish focus on the body.
Some Twitter accounts tackle anxiety with a softer edge: They still acknowledge the state of the world as a terror-inducing place, but focus more on surviving it. For a while. Anxiety Gator Bot was created by Emily Kardamis in reference to a goof in a podcast. In episode 328: The Anxiety-Free Cruise, the hosts of My Brother, My Brother and Me joked about an alligator that eats all your anxiety. "I ended up drawing a little fan art based on it, and it got a lot of unexpected traction," says Kardamis. "The week that episode came out was the week of the 2016 election, and one of the only ways I was able to quell my anxiety spirals was by turning to things that made me laugh." So she made a bot that reminds people to breathe, quotes soothing passages of Jimmy Buffett, and chomps away at the reader's anxiety. "I think sometimes it just helps to imagine anxiety as, like, a physical thing that can be taken care of in that way," she says. "As outlandish and goofy as it is, it's comforting to imagine anxiety as something I can just kinda ball up and throw away and let something—in this case, a island-faring gator—eat up."
The jury is still out on what social media really does to people's mental health. For every argument that internet friends are as good as IRL friends, there is a study claiming Instagram exacerbates our body-image issues. But perhaps the question of whether social media is good for you is the wrong one to ask. Maybe everyone is trash and nothing matters in the grand scheme of things. That conviction can be oddly freeing. As comedian (and Existential Dread Twitter resident) Jake Weisman tweeted, "Now that it's clear nothing matters and the world is falling apart, may I suggest following your dreams, because why the fuck not." Put your own personal well-being in perspective and remember that centuries ago, a toddler was bitten to death by a sow and the sow was arrested. Even Trump can't compete with that absurdity.