There ought to be a word for “a familiar phenomenon you didn’t know had a name.” I’d been thinking about the concept for a few weeks, ever since two friends, on separate occasions, expressed puzzlement over the word paywall. Sure, they’d encountered subscriber-only websites or articles. But they hadn’t known there was a special word to describe the “pay or leave” block. (For the record, paywall has been documented in print since at least 2004, according to the OED. It was coined in imitation of firewall.)
I had my own “There’s a word for that?” moment last week when my copyeditor pal Andy Behr asked me whether I’d heard of scrollytelling, a word that had come up in a staff meeting she’d attended (virtually, of course). “I think it has something to do with those fancy online stories where nifty bells and whistles unfold as you scroll down,” Andy said.
A facsimile of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (408 BCE - 318 CE). Image via Facsimile Editions
I’d seen those fancy online stories, but I’d never heard them called scrollytelling. Nor could I find the word in any online dictionary, including Urban Dictionary and three computer glossaries. Nevertheless, it’s been very much in circulation since at least 2014, the date of an AllTheContent blog post that heralded scrollytelling as “a new way to show a story”:
A long time ago, people used to think that as internet goes fast, everything had to be fast, so articles had to be short and simple, almost like a dictionary, or a few sentences with a title and subtitles. But Scrollytelling came here to show that was wrong.
Scrollytelling articles are long, full of details, and in most cases, combined with sound, videos and movement in the images, so as you’re scrolling down, you see some movement and you know you have to scroll so the things happen, it’s, in a certain way, interactive, like a game. You can’t change the story, but you make it happen, you’re an important part of it.
A year later, NewsNext, a multinational journalism site, defined scrollytelling as a blend of “scrolling” and “storytelling,” and called it “a hot trend in online journalism! … Photos, data visualizations and video effects are combined to produce engaging and impactful stories.” The New York Times pioneered the method with a 2012 feature about an avalanche called “Snow Fall”; but commentary at the time—like this Atlantic story—called it simply “multimedia” and “experience based.”
In a 2019 explainer for Nightingale, the journal of the Data Visualization Society, Lorenzo Amabili took a sophisticated and detailed approach:
That sounds very professional, but to be honest I find scrolly playful and whimsical: The -y suffix gives the word the informal feeling of a diminutive or endearment. Think of doggy, aunty, Timmy, and all those Australianisms: barbie, selfie, mozzie, prezzie.
We’ve had the noun scroll (a roll of parchment or paper) in English since about 1400; it’s derived from the older scrowe and altered because of the object’s association with roll. The verb, meaning “to write down in a scroll,” came along around 1600, as did the noun signifying a type of ornament in furniture or architecture. The computer sense (“to show a few lines at a time”) first appeared in print in 1981.
Scroll pediment. Image via Canterbury Historical & Archaeological Society
Lately I’ve been seeing another scroll neologism: doomscrolling, which appears to have been coined in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The earliest citation I found is a March 24, 2020, Urban Dictionary entry, which gives this definition: “Obsessively reading social media posts about how utterly fucked we are.” (Update! The new and excellent Because Language podcast has antedated doomscrolling to an October 7, 2018, tweet from @callamitys: “Taking a break from doomscrolling and being inundated with things and stuff.” Listen to Because Language and you’ll learn valuable stuff, too!)
An undated Merriam-Webster “Words We’re Watching” entry (published after April 14, the date of the newest citation) discusses doomsurfing and doomscrolling (“doomsurfing on your phone”) as “new terms referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.” Doom goes all the way back to Old English, when it had the neutral meaning of “judgment”: a modern cognate is deem. “Doomsday” is literally “judgment day.”