Stumbling upon an engaging article penned by Jenna Wortham in The New York Times recently coincided with my exploration of Sherry Turkle’s new book, Alone Together, specifically the section focused on those tormented by the fear of potentially missing something significant.
This fear of missing out, or FOMO as it is widely known, is an increasingly prevalent phenomenon in today’s world. It’s a fear that drives people, both young and old, to text while driving, risking their own lives and those of others, all for the sake of potential social engagement. They even put calls on hold to take incoming ones, a practice that predates caller ID, without knowing the identity of the new caller. They constantly refresh their Twitter feed during dates, tantalized by the prospect of possibly more compelling or entertaining events occurring elsewhere.
They justify these actions as a form of connectivity, not disruption. However, it isn’t exactly connectivity either; rather, it’s the prospect of an alternate connection, the value of which is unknown until explored.
Our lives are intertwined with others through countless threads of digital interaction, ranging from Twitter feeds and Instagram posts to Foursquare check-ins, Facebook updates, and LinkedIn notifications. We seem to have lost the ability to appreciate solitude, driven by an overwhelming FOMO – the fear that a more exciting, spontaneous social event might be occurring elsewhere. Even when we decide to disconnect, we often reconnect just once more, to be sure.
Much like the notorious Crackberry addicts of old, we are ensnared in the web of FOMO addiction – the perpetual anxiety of missing out on something or someone more interesting or exciting than our current engagements.
Connected to FOMO is the fabrication of alternate personas that we project on platforms like Facebook. I refer to them as “alternate” because we typically present an idealized version of our lives on social media. Who, after all, would want to befriend someone who constantly shares dismal updates and seems to lead an uneventful life?
These personas are alternate in the sense that they lack authenticity, with many of us consciously curating our social media presence. People often portray idealized versions of themselves, occasionally interspersed with minor setbacks to maintain the illusion of authenticity.
A friend in the advertising industry shared with me how her life seemed satisfactory until she logged into Facebook. She stated, “I am 28, with three roommates, and oh, it looks like you have a precious baby and a mortgage. And then I feel desolate.”
She admitted that her immediate response was to counteract this feeling by sharing an account of an exciting experience or posting an entertaining photograph from her weekend. Although this uplifted her spirits, it potentially incited FOMO in another unsuspecting user.
Sherry Turkle observed that a common complaint is, “Sometimes you don’t have time for your friends except if they’re online.” The relentless flurry of texts and demands for immediate responses leaves little room for contemplation.
Turkle’s accounts of teenagers who feel the constant need to be available to their friends are unsettling. These teenagers demand immediate attention and comfort, unable to delay gratification due to the immediacy of technology. Not because they’re incapable of waiting, but because they see no reason to do so.
In essence, if there were no consequences to consuming all the ice cream sundaes in the world, such as weight gain or illness, wouldn’t you do it? Similarly, many of us consume social media and technology without restraint, simply because we believe we can.
However, this is a fallacy. Humans aren’t designed for such constant digital saturation.
Striking a Balance with FOMO
Turkle succinctly encapsulates the dilemma in the following comment: “In a way, there’s an immaturity to our relationship with technology. It’s still evolving.”
This statement aptly describes our nascent relationship with technology, one that we’re still grappling to comprehend and navigate. Reflect on the frequency with which you check your emails or phone for messages, alerts, and updates. Is it 10 times a day? Or is it closer to 100 or even 1,000 times? You might be taken aback by the results.
A technology that truly aligns with us and fosters social balance wouldn’t demand such compulsive monitoring. It would understand and complement innate human social behavior, differentiating between important and trivial matters (recall the concept of “smart agents” from yesteryears).
Teenagers often believe that they’ve mastered technology as an extension of their social lives. However, they’re mistaken, as they still mold their lives around technology and the tantalizing social opportunities it promises, rather than the other way around. They stay awake all night anticipating the next status update, interrupting in-person conversations to ensure they’re not missing out on something better. Can this truly foster enduring, robust social connections? I harbor my reservations.
Social platforms like Facebook seem to encourage FOMO. I suspect, to their detriment, that the architects of these platforms have a rudimentary understanding — devoid of nuanced or scientific insights — of how their creations alter human behavior. It boils down to an issue of impulse control — our inability to resist the urge to periodically verify that something “more important” isn’t demanding our attention.
The more frequently users check Facebook, the better it is for the platform. Users’ susceptibility to FOMO drives them to use Facebook more often, exposing them to more advertisements and generating more revenue. Quite clever, isn’t it?
In reality, few things are so critical that they can’t wait. While it might be acceptable for the President to check texts during dinner due to the demands of the role, for the rest of us, it’s generally an indulgence in FOMO.
Online therapy, also known as teletherapy or e-therapy, has emerged as a lifeline in the digital age, offering an accessible and convenient option for mental health support. This mode of therapy allows individuals to receive counseling or treatment via digital platforms, such as video conferencing, phone calls, or text messaging. Not only does it eliminate geographic limitations, it also provides a level of comfort and privacy that traditional face-to-face therapy might not afford. For individuals grappling with FOMO or similar psychological stressors exacerbated by digital culture, online therapy can provide an effective coping mechanism. By promoting healthier digital habits and strategies to manage anxiety, it has the potential to restore a sense of balance and contentment in our digitally-driven lives.
The fear of missing out, or FOMO, is increasingly seeping into our social interactions. The question that emerges is whether we can ever be content with our present experiences, or will we continually be haunted by the fear of potentially missing something superior? Platforms like Facebook and Twitter only exacerbate this challenge.