August 27, 2012

The Fear Of Missing Out


When was the last time you voluntarily turned off your phone? And by voluntary I don’t mean when a flight attendant announced all electronic devices must be powered down and then there was no wi-fi on the plane. I mean really voluntarily turned off your phone because you didn’t need to be connected or contacted. It’s been quite awhile for me. Even when I went to Italy I purposefully purchased a mifi so I could stay connected.

We know people who sleep with their phone under their pillow. We take the kids to their after-school classes and the first thing we do is open up the tablet. When we can’t sleep we turn to our computer and check out Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest, knowing that someone else is out there doing something. And we’ve read stories about people being on the phone at weddings, funerals, and while “having fun the with family”. Never before has there been a time when being a voyeur has become more widely acceptable across the globe.

But why?  Why do we have this need to be constantly connected? Whether on our laptop, tablet or phone, we’re one click away from “catching up with friends” on any number of social networks. We can see where our friends and family are and what they’re doing, seeing, buying, experiencing. We find out they’re engaged, got a promotion, found the perfect house, eating the most delicious food, seeing a screening of the next big hit movie, or whatever fantastical thing all these people are doing, all while we’re doing something that should merit our undivided attention.

Instead, we’re looking at our computer screen, tablet or phone – or, sometimes, all three – judging ourselves and wondering why we’re not doing those super amazing things, why we weren’t invited, how come they got something. We’re constantly checking, even when we’re with other people or doing something that is already very enjoyable. We fear we’re missing out. And I blame it on that first “You’ve Got Mail” notification from the 1990s that turned us in to the tech user equivalent of Pavolov’s dog. It’s the evolution of the phenomenon of just 10 years ago of watching our lives through the camcorder viewfinder instead of being physically in the moment.

The Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) is a growing phenomenon among technology users, especially those using social networks like Facebook and Twitter. It’s growing among bloggers and online professionals, executives, investors, moms, dads and young people. The constant need to see what other people are doing, if we could be doing something more interesting or wonder why we weren’t invited somewhere drives this fear. Twenty-four-seven we have access to a world that feeds our fear. Every moment there is an opportunity to go online and believe that we should be somewhere else instead of being present and intentional in what we’re doing at that moment.

And even more, this fear is driven by social measurements of our awesomeness like Klout, Kred, Empire Avenue, how many friends or followers we have, if we get a plus-one. These often-subjective determinations of our worthiness are forcing us to abandon our physical life for a virtual one. Our fear that someone else will get something we deserve forces us to that “end of the tunnel” glow at all hours of the day and night.

I was about 10 when my family got call waiting. You’d have though a magical power was conferred upon the masses. The idea of talking to someone on the phone but not missing out if someone else wanted to talk to us was novel. Prior to call waiting, if you called someone and they were on the phone you had to keep calling back until you could get through. There was no voice mail for the second call to go to. You just missed out! Crazy! If you were calling to invite your friend to a movie and couldn’t get through, well, they missed out … and so did you. That’s just how life was. But once call waiting was available, if someone (like my grandparents) didn’t have it getting a busy signal became a major inconvenience.

Today, if someone doesn’t answer their phone, then we text, DM, private chat, instant message or, if your phone has it, two-way call. Because they can’t be doing anything so important that they can’t answer instantaneously. And that notification of a missed call or text or whatever sends our anxiety through the roof, for fear we missed out on something. So much so that people will answer their phone while in the bathroom and have admitted to checking messages while being intimate with their partner.

Even when we’re with other people we’re often checking to see what others are doing. People we’re not with. Maybe even people we’ve never met. Possibly people we no longer have a real relationship with but we’re still connected to them on some online social network. It’s not uncommon to see couples out on a date checking their phones instead of talking and connecting face to face. It’s pretty normal to feel the need to comment on someone’s status update that we wish we could be with them having the fun they’re having. Or even wonder “aloud” why we weren’t invited or included.

The fear of missing out is actually causing us to miss out. Instead of doing work many are spending time figuring out why they weren’t invited to a certain meeting, which then leads to having to stay at work later or take work home. Rather than enjoying a movie with our kids we’re focused on what thousands of people on Twitter are doing. A night out with friends isn’t complete unless we check our phone to see what other people are doing. Our life at that present moment can’t be better than all the other things that might be going on. And the emails and texts that come in might bring an invitation that must be answered immediately or we’ll be left out while everyone else gets to do something amazing. Or so we now believe.

When it comes to our own safety, some states have had to step in and make texting and driving illegal. What’s more important than being focused on safety while driving? Yet, the fear of missing out has re-wired our psychological belief that life is of utmost importance and has made us believe that we could be missing out on something amazing if we ignore that text. Truly, there are very few things that we’d miss out on if we don’t check that text. In fact, if you’re expecting something that you can’t miss then it may be better to be solely focused on that one thing and put everything else on hold. But we don’t live like that any more.

We now live in a connected world with technology driving our social lives, and to some extent our self-worth. Yet, the more technology we have that will keep us connected the more we’re often missing out on the experience we’re having at that moment. The fear of missing out keeps us on edge wondering if we could be doing something different or better. And we judge ourselves and our lives based on the wonderful lives our friends have … based on what they post as their status update or write about on their blog or tweet or Instagram or Facebook.

Real life connections are suffering. Because we fear that if we’re not online we could miss out. Miss out on what, we’re not exactly sure. All we know is that if we’re not present online then we’re missing out.

Have you heard of this phenomenon of the Fear of Missing Out? What are your thoughts about connectivity and judging ourselves based on the online lives of others.

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