TECH
07/10/2014 10:34 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2014

The Most Anxiety-Provoking Instagram Photo Is No Photo At All

Bianca Bosker

One of my closest friends posted something highly suspect on Instagram last month: Nothing. He and a handful of friends were on a four-day getaway, and none shared a photo the entire time they were gone.

On Instagram -- the de-facto distribution hub for the fanciest, most impressive things we do -- silence isn’t golden. It’s a big flashing sign that says it’s time to freak out.

And I did.

What were they doing? Who else was there? What was I missing? Were they having the best time ever? As I combed through my friends' Instagram accounts in search of clues, I realized that there is a new kind of anxiety that seizes us when people on exciting adventures opt to stay dark on social media. It's caused by MOMO -- the mystery of missing out.

Back in the early days of real-time picture-sharing, seeing pretty photos of pretty friends doing pretty things infected us with FOMO, the fear of missing out on the parties we saw on our smartphones. But that was then. Now, we’re so used to getting “live from Miami” dispatches that when Instagram goes mute, the MOMO descends.

FOMO strikes when you see the fun things people are doing, you’re able to compare their bottle service with the rerun you have on, and you can decide that you’d rather just stay put, even though you could go out. But with MOMO, you have no idea what your friends are up to. Which almost certainly means it’s exclusive, amazing and you’re not even cool enough to know it exists.

“We’ve come to expect this pervasive window into everyone’s lives and when they go dark, it’s like they’ve pulled down the curtains and are hiding something,” said Rob Fishman, a former Huffington Post colleague who co-founded Niche, a marketing platform that connects creators on social media with brands. “The FOMO can be all the worse when you don’t know what’s going on than when you’re privy to every selfie at every second.”

In summer, the season for sun-dappled, my-life-is-better-than-yours selfies, a silent Instagram feed calls even more attention than a noisy one. In an odd way, the ultimate Instabrag is not sharing at all. If an adventure isn’t posted on social media, it must be ultra special.

“It’s like anything exclusive. If you’re on the outside and you don’t know what’s happening, it sounds way cooler than what I’m sure it is,” said Elena Sheppard, an editor and friend who keeps an active Instagram account. “You don’t feel as bad when you know what’s happening. When you don’t know, it’s like, ‘Oh shit, they don’t want me to know.”

Professor Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, said discomfort with social media silence has roots in our text messaging habits. From the '90s onward, cellphones got us accustomed to frequent, lightweight communication that allowed for constant contact with people we know. When that's disrupted, we're disturbed.

"What you're describing with Instagram is part of this social norm that has been emerging for some time now in tandem with the rise of mobile communication, where there is the expectation of connectivity and sharing," Ito wrote in an email. "If that norm is violated, it signals something unusual or amiss. It's similar to any sort of expectation of social connection, whether it is saying hello to co-workers in the hallway or sending a happy birthday message to a friend. If it doesn't happen, we interpret it as a social breakdown of some kind."

Given how frustrating it can be to guess what’s going on behind the silent feed, I’ve assembled a handy taxonomy of mute Instagram accounts to help you make sense of what you’re not seeing.

Explanation #1: Silence means people are having too much fun.

As I scrutinized my friends’ Instagram feeds during their MOMO-inducing vacation, I decided one of two disaster scenarios had played out: Either the whole trip was a bust and there was nothing to post, or they were having a blast. Tons of fun. More fun than they'd ever have on another trip, i.e. one that included me.

An Instagram feed that stays mum suggests the would-be sharers were too caught up in the moment to involve the rest of us, or doing something so outrageously fantastic as to surpass the need to boast about it. The silence can awake social anxieties that have been dormant since high school.

"I remember in high school, the coolest girls were never at the parties, and so you were like,' Oh my god, they're off doing something amazing that they don’t even have time to be at our parties!'" Sheppard said. "It's kind of the same thing if someone isn't posting on Instagram. It's like they're doing something amazing and they don't have time to share it."

Explanation #2: Silence means people are having no fun.

Instagram isn't the place to broadcast the evening you spent watching Netflix while eating Thai delivery, or huddling from the rain when your bachelor party turns out to be a bust. When a feed stays quiet, it can mean nothing fun, nothing fancy or nothing of note happened. If you're a host, throwing a dinner party that gets no ‘grams can feel like making a movie with zero stars: there’s nothing worth seeing, nothing to talk about.

“The signal I get when someone goes dark on Instagram is either, ‘I’m having so much fun that I don’t have time to pick up my phone,’ or ‘I’m living such a miserable existence that I have nothing to brag about,’” said Fishman. “Instagram darkness connotes either the best of times or the worst of times.”

Figuring out which scenario is true usually comes down to asking -- a tip off to your stalkerish ways.

Explanation #3: Silence means there’s a ‘gram ban.

A few months ago, I received a pitch for a “social media wedding concierge” who, for a $3,000 fee, would post Instagram photos from your nuptials and get a hashtag going online. But that already feels passé. The new “in” wedding trend? Social media bans. The same goes for dinner parties, get-togethers and vacations. The stricter the no-Instagram rules, the greater the cachet of the event.

When there are no photos dispatched from a special occasion that people know is taking place, “the ban induces more interest than there would be otherwise,” said Fishman. It's anxiety-producing for those watching and anyone attending: “People, especially at weddings and private events, have certainly started to impose bans on Instagrams, which I think makes guests pretty disappointed because they’re like, ‘Why they even bother to RSVP yes?’”

Explanation #4: Silence means your friends are trying to be nice.

When I complained about Instagram mutes to an entrepreneur friend visiting from California, he protested that he wasn’t posting during his New York stopover because it would be rude. He didn't have time to see friends, so why broadcast his cross-country trip? Hefe-hued photos of the Empire State building would only have made people feel hurt, offended or left out that he hadn't bothered to call. It's a rosier filter through which to see the MOMO: your closest friends may be staying silent to spare your feelings.

For those of us scouring Instagram for non-existent photos, it’s hard to know which scenario is playing out behind the lens. So anyone Instabragging, take note: If you really want to show off, or make people think you’re fabulous, don’t post at all. Not boasting is even more attention-grabbing, and better still, keeps you focused on what you're enjoying.

Plus, when you finally break your silence, you’ll get lots of love, according to Fishman. Wait a few weeks, he said, and “the pump is primed, my friend, for big-time likes. We’re talking hundreds."

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