Never heard of Fomo? You’re so missing out
By Hephzibah Anderson, Sunday 17 April 2011
It begins with a pang of envy. Next comes the anxiety, the self-doubt, the gnawing sense of inadequacy. Finally, those feelings fizzle, leaving you full of bilious irritation.
Whether it’s triggered by Laura’s tweet from backstage at that gig or Joe’s photos from his tropical retreat, most habitual users of social media will recognise the syndrome, which now has an equally irksome acronym: Fomo.
For the uninitiated, that’s “fear of missing out”. Though if you do happen to be among that fortunate cadre, it’s possible you’ve been experiencing Fomo-related Fomo, as now officially defined by the New York Times.
It’s nothing new, of course, but what was formerly known as “keeping up with the Joneses” has been magnified by new technology. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare – they all broaden our scope for comparison.
They also make it harder to feel good about your life’s choices. Choice is an inherently stressful luxury, especially in a culture that suggests it’s possible to have it all. Every time we make a choice, we’re turning down myriad other options and outcomes. But with Twitter, say, we can decide to stay home while remaining connected, thereby taunting ourselves with glimpses of the wild evening that might have been.
It’s the same with more profound choices, too. The now-married exes, for instance – you no longer keep in touch with them in the real world, yet they remain part of your Facebook circle, offering vivid – and literal – snapshots of paths not taken.
“Hide their updates!” I hear you yell. And let’s face it: these people are not your friends (and you certainly aren’t theirs) if their achievements inspire envious angst. Then again, there’s a clear difference between sharing a sense of triumph and bragging. The thing is, social media positively encourages the latter – it’s just one of the ways in which it’s profoundly anti-social.
It’s a key theme of Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together, which also notes the immaturity of our relationship with technology. Maybe that’s why Fomo seems so high-schoolish. Maybe it’s all an elaborate revenge plot concocted by the nerdy computer whizzes behind these websites and apps. Thanks to their inventions, even the most popular kid in class can now feel left out.
But Fomo impacts on those causing it as well as the stay-at-homes feeling it. Yes, technology is wondrous, but unchecked, it can distract us from our own lives. Life happens while you’re waiting, some variation of the saying goes, only we never really experience waiting any longer. There’s always the smartphone in your pocket, ready to whisk you away and into someone else’s “reality”. We forget how to be in the moment, and neglect the secret thrill of an experience that is ours alone, not broadcast on the internet. We’re too busy tweeting about the scent of those roses actually to breathe it in.
On a deeper level, we know this. It’s why a catchy, silly acronym like Fomo has struck such a chord. Social media lets us see exactly what we’re missing by skipping this party or that. What we fear is missing out on our own lives by keeping our eyes glued to a tiny screen.
So, scoff at Fomo, but take a moment to do as campaigns such as the Sabbath Manifesto have been encouraging – find the off switch on that iPhone and remind it who’s boss, rather than letting it enslave you by exploiting your deeply human anxieties.