It’s comical that the first time someone mentioned FoMO around me, I had the urge to walk back to my desk and look it up immediately. FoMO is the Fear of Missing Out, “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.”*
The topic comes up in the context of social media, where everyone else is out having a great time all the time, while you get on with your day. It was easy for me to assume that FoMO is a relatively new phenomenon—in fact, it has been embedded in our culture for a long time, well before the silly acronym appeared. You have to simply think back on the party you didn't attend, or to which you weren't invited, the one that others did and talked about the next day while you painfully realized you'd missed out.
But FoMO doesn’t stop at personal insecurities and social currency. Decent enough copywriters exploit it in advertising, and marketing teams rely on its effect on the bottom line. Advertising dollars are spent on sales you “don’t want to miss”. Entire cable TV shopping channels have built their models around it. Soap opera cliffhangers rely on it, and TV shows bank entire seasons on it. Consider even the annual fundraiser party that you "can't miss" and the movie that’s “coming soon.”
The japanese even have their own term for it, “Kiasu” which, translated loosely, means “afraid to lose.”
More glaringly, missing out is increasingly difficult to avoid as our lives move online. Social media platforms work incredibly hard to keep users engaged and participating—more often, more deeply and in ever more ethically dubious ways. This is aided and abetted by the fact that so much of what we leave online is a “Greatest Hits” version of events—anniversaries, engagements, post-workout selfies, and gorgeously lit desserts. We maintain a nicely pruned “lifestyle.”
And we all know this, we all buy into this mode sooner or later, at some level. And once you've bought in to the notion that you have to be there, you are no longer missing just one event, even if it is a newsworthy party. With hundreds and thousands of “friends” online, and your imagination—and the feedback loop with your social media platform of choice—you might be missing out on whole sets of experiences in multiple places, with exponential effect.
As people transfer their own personal-life reportage to social media, the task of keeping up with their own changes in diet, workout routines, hobbies, relationship status, job, politics, and memes is stretched beyond standard-issue human capacity. What was once just a self-reported activity has now evolved into an overwhelming, anxiety-provoking, mentally expensive workout routine as you try to manage your life and career online. Eventually, you realize that as a species, maybe we were just not built for this kind of scale.
There will always be some status anxiety from being left out, of losing out on an opportunity. But social media is a particularly deceptive space—not unlike what Hindu mythology refers to as Maya, a “supernatural magic show wielded by the gods to produce a divine illusion.” You believe that you can be here, and in multiple other places simultaneously. But isn't it a mirage to have so many so-called friends? And to believe that thousands of them are within immediate reach for your announcements?
When I am still, it occurs to me that FoMO is not the fear of holding lesser information, or being less informed—even when that is the most obvious concern. It is not so much the anxiety of missing out on an experience—even though that is what the loss seems to be about. No, the phenomenon is more than being unable to attend.
At the heart of it, isn’t the Fear of Missing Out really the fear that you will be forgotten by so many—whole congregations of people, friends and acquaintances? Isn’t it the fear that if you don’t throw the pebble—“interact”—there will be no ricochet, no ripples on the water that reach another bank and are picked up by someone else? That with the godlike power of The Algorithm you will quietly be hushed from ever reaching a shore of recognition, or that what is left of you—if unattended for too long—will inevitably drown you in the torrential flood of memes, selfies and status updates?
I think that is the silent fear—of becoming irrelevant in a matter of seconds—as if by some unconscious act of nature, people will just get on with their lives, without you. It could make you wonder how relevant you were in the first place.
But it is possible to stop that kind of thinking. It's feasible to rewind from that imagined trajectory and take a breath. You can define yourself and your relationship with the world, without a digital connection. You can consider the relationships and social connections that matter, and prioritize them—in real life, away from social media. You can reach out to someone you think about, in pen and paper: stare out of a window, and let the pen sit idle long enough for you to slowly form the thoughts you want to mention, on flat “media” that does not depend electicity to exist.
When you make the switch, you will notice that there is an unlayered clarity in everything. It is crisp and grounded. You’re here in an uncluttered vessel of skin and senses, you are finite and human. And on a good night, you will be outside in the evening looking at the stars for the first time in a long time. You can savor the moment for yourself or tell someone next to you. About the pure flashes of light above that pulse upon your retina and kiss your nervous system directly.
* Przybylski, A. K.; Murayama, K.; DeHaan, C. R. & Gladwell, V. (2013), "Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out.", Computers in Human Behavior, 29 (4): 1841–1848, doi:10.1016/j.chb.2013.02.014
PHOTO: Respite in Tompkins Square Park.