Fear of missing life

A lot’s been written about how, as the Facebook Generation, our notion of real human interaction is slowly being withered away. We’ve diluted the term ‘friend’ into an abyss of meaninglessness. Dating has given way to the indeterminate state of ‘hooking up’. And personal identity is no longer defined by the self.

But this is not about the Facebook effect we all know and love. Instead, I’d like to explore something more subtle: the way our public lives online and our ease of communication has led to endemic non-commitment.

Something about all these online services and slick communication interfaces appeals to our deepest insecurities. We want to be included, relevant, important, and in-the-know. So if things are happening when we’re not present, we get an uneasy feeling.

That feeling is what draws you to your Facebook wall, Twitter feed, e-mail inbox, text messages, news aggregator, and Groupon notifications. We call this effect “fear of missing out,” or FOMO for short.

In the realm of our daily activities, FOMO results in distraction and procrastination. App designers use this thirst as an intentional strategy, and it makes us all a little addicted. The Times wrote a great piece on the FOMO effect in April. By appealing to our insecure desires to be important, apps and services win our valuable attention — generally while we’re alone and bored.

But when you take FOMO into the domain of real life, away from a screen and in front of other people, we see an even more insidious effect. We’re all pathetically noncommittal about the people right in front of us.

We’ve all been there. You’re at a party and suddenly your friends are texting, checking Facebook, and waiting for updates.  Sherry Turkle calls this being alone together.

Everyone’s utterly paralyzed by the thought of taking a position, and deciding to be with a certain group of people or at a certain place. Which makes sense, because at any second, our phones could make us aware of something MUCH better that we need to leave for. And we want to be the first ones to know about it.

I once asked Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, about the effect of Facebook and texting on our choices. He told me that by putting our lives on display, and constantly comparing our own happenings with others, it makes even small choices (where to eat tonight, who to spend time with, what party to go to) seem dramatically consequential. Which leads us to waste our time not making any choice at all.

Barry couldn’t be more right, and it’s getting worse. Last week, Nokia released a ‘heat map‘ that enables us to see exactly where everyone else is hanging out right now, so you can always make sure you’re going to the hottest scene. Real-time, location-based technology means we’re getting better and better at finding what’s up at any moment.

Unfortunately, if we all wait to see what everyone else is doing, no one does anything. It’s a prisoner’s dilemma, and the strictly-dominant strategy is to delay making a decision until others commit first. Then you’ll never miss out on the coolest thing, right?

Remember the last time someone sent out a Facebook invite? And everyone waited to see who would say Yes first, only to realize that Yes and No were meaningless and most people flake or don’t show up. You’re witnessing FOMO in action. That party was everyone’s backup, until the crowd decided on what was better.

We’ve been slowly coaxed into a backward, quantitative mentality about socializing. If friends, followers, and attendees are all quantified, put on display, and photographed, then the only value we get out of being present with each other is critical mass. The makings of an epic time, to be sure. But in reality, we have the power to choose where we have fun, and to be alive in those moments. We just have to use it without fear.

Personally, my solution has been selectively disconnecting. Fighting FOMO at the source, by making myself less aware of the ever-present updates. My phone’s been on silent for over a year now. It’s useful for many things, but I have to remind myself that it’s only a tool, and ultimately I have to take responsibility for committing to the people and experiences that will make up my memories. Photos, statuses, and comments are salient and visible, but no substitute.

Let’s convert fear of missing out into fear of missing life.

6 thoughts on “Fear of missing life

  1. Alice Lee says:

    Great thoughts, Jesse. Another solution I’d like to propose is to simply leave your phone at home whenever you’re out doing activities that don’t really require use of a phone in the first place – studying in Huntsman, coding during a late night in Moore, and going to class. Sure there are a lot of scenarios that might play out better if one has phone during these activities (ie. you can text a friend to get food if you’re hungry in the middle of studying) but if you put your all to that ONE activity (ie. studying, reading, painting in the fine arts building, etc.) and at the end, really need to get in contact with someone, you can always contact people via the internet (even google voice). Having done that for the better part of last semester I found my productivity increased dramatically.

    Having my phone with me (and feeling like I was “handcuffed” to it in the sense that I’d feel compelled to immediately answer whenever someone texted, called, etc.) was just a huge distraction.

  2. beyroutey says:

    Great idea, Alice! I want to experiment with that kind of full disconnection more. The few times I’ve been without my phone completely I’ve felt very free. And Jose called me out for being an overactive texter, so I’m going to set some goals for cutting that down slowly over time. I’ve by no means perfected this yet and am just as guilty of FOMO as everyone else, in spite of my best attempts.

    Also, might try completely taking down Facebook sometime to see how that goes. Funny spoof here: “The Man Without a Facebook” (via eugenia).

  3. I’m trying to do a similar thing to what Alice does. If I’m at the pool with friends, or I have people over at my apartment, I try to leave my phone in my bedroom or somewhere inconvenient (once everyone who’s supposed to be there shows up) so that I’m not checking the thing every three minutes. Definitely helps, not pulling my phone out all the time while trying to have a conversation with somebody

  4. xxx says:

    I agree for the most part, but I’d like to present a few qualifying statements.

    You present three ideas here. First, you talk about our need to feel included. Second, you suggest that our need to stay “connected” is driven by the fear of missing out on a “better” alternative. Third, you point out that we tend to gravitate towards “hot spots.” I’d like to group these three ideas into one – namely, that “we want to be where the action is.”

    Your overarching thesis is that our need to be where the action is causes us to lose sight of the people in front of us, and that this is bad. The underlying assumption is that the people in front of us are more deserving of our attention. That assumption needs to be qualified.

    Consider two scenarios:

    1) I may not like the people I’m stuck with and so I spend my time with other people.

    2) The people in front of me are better friends, but I choose to spend my time with other people anyway (I imagine this is the scenario you had in mind when you wrote this so I’ll focus on this one).

    In the second scenario, I choose to neglect my friends by spending my time “where the action is.” In doing so, I am making a utility-maximizing choice. For whatever reason, I perceive the benefit of doing so outweighs the costs of losing my “friends”.

    From your perspective on friendship, the second scenario would seem unthinkable. But that reflects your own perspective on friendship. From a different perspective, it may not be so bad.

    My point is this. We all make decisions that maximize our own utility, but what maximizes our utility differs from person to person. The assumption you base your argument on reflects your own views on friendship (a perception that I share). But unfortunately, not everyone is like us and so the defensibility of your assumption (and therefore your argument) is limited.

    • beyroutey says:

      I can see your point that my assumptions might limit how broadly applicable those conclusions are. But as far as I can tell, the only reason why someone might want to spend time with people who they don’t care about is exactly the type of quantitative friendship reasoning I was describing earlier. It means that individual is focusing on spending time around people instead of spending time with people. I’d always advocate for getting away from that kind of reasoning, and spending fewer times out with more meaningful friends.

  5. […] internet and social media rule their lives and build up an addiction, I keep my phone on silent and prioritize being in the moment. When I’m thinking of someone, I give them a call and avoid empty online interactions. And […]

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