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.