Growing up in Serbia in the 1990s, I was fortunate to have a satellite dish with BBC, CNN and SkyNews. There was no Internet yet, and I spent my evenings glued to the warmth of the square screen, watching the international newsrooms, which never failed to fill me with a sense of omnipresence. I could be there, at the center of everything, everywhere at the same time, certain of the topic's germaneness and most importantly, sure that I wasn't missing out on anything. I might have been experiencing "FOMO" -- defined as the fear of missing out on something or someone more interesting or exciting than whatever one might be doing at the moment.
Urban Dictionary says that FOMO stands for "the fear that if you miss a party or an event you will miss out on something great." As in: "I can't decide if I should go out tonight, but I know that if I don't, I'll get a chronic FOMO."
However, FOMO is typically associated with "new media." Perhaps it happened to you before that you've just decided to treat yourself to a quiet, cozy evening at home, over a film you've been meaning to watch for a long time but never had the time to. Happy and firm about your decision to stay in, you'd already declined several invitations from friends for dinners, drinks or social minglings. But then your iPhone lights up and three different newsfeeds from three different social networks pop up, all reporting on how wonderful of a time your friends are having. That spells an end to your peace and quiet as you now begin to wonder -- what am I missing out on?
It can get worse. Perhaps it's Valentine's Day and you are at peace to be single at the age of, say 33. That is, until your feed is flooded with all the blissful photos of your friends' newborns, which sets your mind thinking about the ticking of your biological clock. Your first inclination might be to share an exciting photo from your own weekend, or tweet about the delicious, pricey dinner that your 16-working-hours-a-day lifestyle can afford you. It's not hard to imagine a possible lineup of further anxieties set in motion by such reactive shares.
These are some of the experiences that Dr. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and the author of Predictably Irrational, and Dr. Sherry Turkle at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology describe in their work.
In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle discusses the fear of missing out on a potential social connection as the reason behind our urge to text while driving, interrupt one call to take another one even when we don't know who's calling and check Twitter and Facebook updates while on dates.
Turkle tells us of children and adults who get anxious when they do not receive instant replies to their texts and emails. One girl says she needs her cell phone all the time in case of an "emergency." Emergencies, she says, include "having a feeling without being able to share it." Or teens who feel obliged to be available to their friends 24/7 because someone might break up or fall into a dispute with their parents and need instant solace. They can't wait for consolation from a particular person -- because they do not need to. There will always be someone online to provide it.
What's the Psychology Behind FOMO?
Personally, I could always relate to FOMO, and I do not associate it with new media only. When I serendipitously ran into a New York Times article about FOMO last year for my birthday, I could finally name this feeling that's been with me since my childhood. In fact, I would say that FOMO must have been one of the propellers behind my choice to study media.
Researchers seem to agree that social media is a trigger for heightened FOMO. As a researcher analyzing media influence on human behavior and its role in education, I am more interested in the underlying causes behind FOMO: If new media is merely a trigger to a condition, what causes the condition in the first place? Also, could there be a positive side to FOMO? For example, could it fuel someone's interest in international politics, and lead people to follow updates from Syria or other crisis areas, as I would think my FOMO did for me in my earlier days?
Turkle criticizes Google CEO Eric Schmidt's famous quote that "If you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Putting everything "out there" results in censorship of our thoughts and trivializes their content. Schmidt's quote reminds me of another notorious one, this time from the age before the internet. Warren Beatty famously said of Madonna, in a documentary Truth or Dare about her 1991 world tour: "She doesn't want to live off-camera, much less talk. There's nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it's off-camera? What point is there existing?" So there's certainly a psychological connection between FOMO and media as a form of public spectacle even before the internet age.
Turkle explains that people try out several profiles on Facebook, just to explore different aspects of their personalities. In turn, online feedback from complete strangers can influence self-perception and future actions. How many of our short, casual tweets are not casual at all -- but carefully crafted minutes, hours or even days in advance? On the other hand, how sincere and well thought through are expressions of compassion and solidarity fitted into status-updates? Along these lines, Turkle says we've come to value the "performance of emotion as emotion enough." Using the robot metaphor she wonders: "Who cares if the robot can't feel if it behaves as though it does." And so as long as the appearance of happiness is what really matters, there will be fun photos of weekends to quench the existing and spur further FOMOs, I guess.
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