FOMO and Social Media

I’ve been watching Twitter and Ditto feeds of people at SxSW, and, from a distance, I get a distinct sense of the social anxiety and FOMO that’s going on there. “FOMO” stands for “Fear of Missing Out” and it’s what happens everywhere on a typical Saturday night, when you’re trying to decide if you should stay in, or muster the energy to go to the party. At SxSW I see people wondering if they’re at the wrong party—the party where they are is lame, feels uncool, has too much brand advertising or doesn’t have anyone there they’d want to hook up with—and so they move on to the next party where they have to wait in line too long, can’t get a beer, or don’t find their friends, and so move on to the next venue where…and so on.

FOMO is a great motivator of human behavior, and I think a crucial key to understanding social software, and why it works the way it does. Many people have studied the game mechanics that keep people collecting things (points, trophies, check-ins, mayorships, kudos). Others have studied how the neurochemistry that keeps us checking Facebook every five minutes is similar to the neurochemistry fueling addiction. Social media has made us even more aware of the things we are missing out on. You’re home alone, but watching your friends status updates tell of a great party happening somewhere. You are aware of more parties than ever before. And, like gym memberships, adding Bergman movies to your Netflix queue and piling up unread copies of the New Yorker, watching these feeds gives you a sense that you’re participating, not missing out, even when you are.

There is a company that sells radar equipment to the police as well as radar detectors to the public. Clorox is one of the world’s worst polluters of water, and also sells Brita filters to get the bad stuff out of the water again. Lawyers create mazes that you have to hire a lawyer to escape. Similarly social software both creates and cures FOMO. If you didn’t know that party was going on, you’d be home contentedly reading your latest New Yorker. But since you do, you hungrily watch each new tweet.

It’s an age-old problem, exacerbated by technology. To be always filled with craving and desire (also called defilement, affliction) is one of the Three Poisons of Buddhism, called kilesa, and it makes you a slave. There is true meaning in social media—real connections, real friendships, devotion, humor, sacrifice, joy, depth, love. And this is what we are looking for when we log on. Most of the world is profane, not sacred, in the Mircea Eliade sense. So it is. But within it is the Emmy award speech of Mister Rogers, a Japanese man being rescued at sea, Abraham Lincoln, moms who comfort sick children, the earnest love that dogs have for people…

FOMO can be fought. Stay alert! En garde!

(This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.)

155 thoughts on “FOMO and Social Media

  1. FOMO is a good motivator in the context of a peer group. I use social media for information and value that lies outside of this context. I use it to hear from people I might never meet, to be able to relate to (in some sense) what is going on in Japan right now, to be able to follow your blog here and comment on it and to allow for serendipity that isn’t possible within my limited network.

    To that extent there is true meaning in social media that is over and above group behavior. It allows for empathy and social discovery. That is also one of the reasons I love Twitter and am not a big fan of Facebook. And the real connections, with social media as a primer, are more likely to happen later.

  2. It is like love – what gives you pleasure also creates pain. Onus lies on us to use faculties of brain to make right choice, and stay sane. Good side of the excess or mindless use of social software – it motivates a person to seek true relationships (bonds stronger than being one’s fb friend). Good read.

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  4. I’ve grown a real dislike for social networking for this very reason. I really do sometimes think we’d be happier without any of it. I’m also a sucker for it. A healthy balance, like anything in life, has to be struck.

    Good read 🙂

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  7. FOMO – it´s exactly what´s happening on FB, and it´s what i´m trying to tell friends… 🙂 your article is the first i read that´s looking at the subject – thank you.

  8. The thing that creates a need for itself and cures it, like chlorox and lawyers. I really like this. Beautiful insights. I’m a reluctant SM’er, feeling like 90% of Twitter is the same kind of noise I’m avoiding by shunning FB because of its belly-fat and cracked-heel ads. Still, I’ve made true connections via Twit, deepened standing friendships and learned some valuable stuff. The radar company that sells radar equipment to the police and the public simultaneously. That’s democracy.

  9. it’s a fear – and fears are lies, very convincing thoughts and emotions, kindly provided by your mind.

  10. Yessssssssss. Thanks for such a concise focus on what can often be jagged, disjointed, and sometimes empty interactions. The importance of simply being where you are (and enjoying it for what it is) and not worrying about what else is going on can be the difference between a great experience and an anxious one.

  11. Yes yes yes. This is the very reason why I did not attend SXSWi this year. One night during last year’s SXSWi, feeling overwhelmed by all that you are describing, three friends and I took to the streets of Austin, running and dancing nonsensically in the rain for close to two hours, covering most of the downtown area, and for the most part skipping the check-in points and “places to be.”

    At the end of the night, after a content silence and a sigh, my buddy Jake said, “you know, we could do this anywhere, it doesn’t have to be in Austin.” Agreed.

    All of those social connections that I have online are meaningless if they’re not rooted in some real, human connection — with someone that I can run and dance with in the rain.

  12. What a pleasure to see social media leavened with Eliade, kilesa and Mister Rogers to boot.. It made me wonder, can technology itself help with “the strong sword of detachment” to help us not get entwined in all that we’re afraid of missing out on? Your post made me think of the Bhagavad-Gita: 15, Verse 3, 4. Nice.

  13. I really like the acronym FOMO, I lived college like this as I couldn’t plan more than 2 hours in advance, as I never knew what was coming. I learned that if I looking for what might be better, I really shouldn’t be doing what I am doing and that really helped a lot.

    Anymore it is based on conversations (usually work or affinity focused) that drives things. Spending good quality time with people is one thing I really crave most.

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  16. Used to be the only Fomo sufferers were journalists and day traders. And they were never the most envied among us …

  17. This exactly sums up why I don’t have Twitter open all day anymore, and some days no longer check it. That constant need to catch up on every tweet in the stream lest something be missed.

    Whoever invents the personal bot that gleans the value from the cruft in our social media world will do very well indeed.

  18. “If you didn’t know that party was going on, you’d be home contentedly reading your latest New Yorker. ”

    By the same token, social media–fostered FOMO can be what informs or reminds you of that New Yorker article you haven’t yet read. 😉

    One theory why the FOMO sensation is more prevalent — more pernicious — in this new age of social media?

    “FOMO” has the feel of a discrete event — a specific time, in a specific place — and if you miss it, it’s over. Social media’s telescoping effect on time has turned the fear of **missing out** (which may pass, or turn to TRAUMA (The Regret/Anger/Unhappiness of Missed Activity)) into the fear of **having to catch up**, since you’re likely to find out in time to do something about it — regardless of whether you’d like to or not, or whether it’s a good idea or not.


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  20. Excellent observations. Perhaps there’s a closely affiliated parallel process on that theme- fear of being perceived as having missed out. It’s not so much that you want to experience a particular event, but also that you want to signal to others that you’ve been there, and were a part of something spectacular.

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  23. I love this and the tweet that brought me here:

    @aaron_w_smith I’ve been looking for a goal for my 35th year, and now I’ve got one: tell my FOMO to STFU

    For me, a good conference tweet sparks an idea or lets me know that I should ask that person later for a fuller review of what happened. It’s hard to stuff down the FOMO, but it’s the only way to focus on what matters. Thank you!

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  25. huuuuuuuuuge thanks for this. in college we called it MOS: Miss-Out Syndrome and let it be known that that was in the way early 90’s nary a social network in sight. I succumb to my human frailties all to easily especially where FB is concerned and I LOATHE the way I feel as I judge myself for not being at all the places both literal and figurative that all my friends seem to be at in those moments. thank you for naming this so succinctly and sharing and including us all. I feel slightly better enough to just remain present in my own life.

  26. FOMO in the age (and culture) of American Idol and social software competition (Page rank, flickr Explore, follower counts, etc.) leads to enough ADD and anxiety to power a small city (if that nervous energy could be captured somehow).

    It will be fascinating to see how the FOMO meme telephones its way around the world.

  27. “There is true meaning in social media—real connections, real friendships, devotion, humor, sacrifice, joy, depth, love. And this is what we are looking for when we log on.” I say most of the time! Do you agree? vote here

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  30. Very deep thought put into this write-up. Nicely executed!

    Something to add to your post: We are all voyeurs at the heart of the matter, and we yearn to peer through the blinds of the Internet unto the world.

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  32. Yes , there is FOMO for social media but at the same time, we are being measured in this, companies that we might want to work for are checking social media sites and God forbid, we have no presence or less than 500 followers, we do not get the job. Will people follow me if I had no followers? perhaps not so there it is, hate it but cannot live without it, Good post.

  33. Erica Jong said “Jealousy is all the fun you think they’re having”

    It’s something I’ve always struggled with and agree that social media exacerbates it. I feel like social media is turning into more of a push then an exchange since it’s become so necessary for everyone to have a following.

    That said, I’m closing Hootsuite, where I got the link for this post and spending some time away from my laptop. #irony

  34. Excellent article, Caterina. I’ve been writing a lot lately about the anxiety that technology can create. In an age when we are constantly bombarded with information, it is easy to feel like you are going to miss something important if you don’t follow every RSS feed or read every last tweet.

    Feeling “in the loop” is a base, evolutionary desire that authors such as David Kirkpatrick discuss. Social media takes this desire and inflates it to new proportions. Every otherwise useless piece of information is transformed into indispensible knowledge. The feeling can become overwhelming at times.

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  42. This was a great and interesting post. In some ways FOMO can be distracting, in another way it can be good for business. Social media sites are a great way for businesses to keep check on the competition and to see what current and prospective clients are doing and what their wants and needs are. Trend watching when it comes to social media is in its infancy, but is one great way for businesses to quell their fear of FOMO.

  43. Caterina.. so true. I have to admit I’m a victim and a purveyour of FOMO at times. Living in Austin (and being originally from another large city), one can feel so very connected to the tech, art, pop culture and marketing world while at the same time feeling a bit adrift on a separate island. Wanting to succeed and stay connected it’s natural for anyone of us to feel that “foma” creep. Having SXSW here fis a reverse of that FOMA creep-even if it’s feeding from a fire hose.

    Thanks for reminding all of us that FOMA is often a false image in of our own creation 😉

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  45. So lovely and so true! And definitely food for thought…. even before you mentioned the excellent Mr. Rogers’ Emmy speech!

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  47. Arg….my first inclination after reading this post was to subscribe to your RSS feed. Great post..really struck home with me

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  50. Lovely insight, and somewhat inspirational. It’s nice to have a reminder that I did *just fine* before I had a phone that could check twitter, and that no one is going to come along and read this pile of un-read NEW YORKER issues aloud to me.

    Hopefully, the pile of books I bought last week on vacation will motivate/guilt me into reclaiming my oh-so-quiet head space.

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  52. Thoughtful and spot-on. It’s a frustrating situation, as I, like so many others, are both seduced and repelled by the relationships made possible by social media.

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  54. I often wonder if the dark side to social media is that it’s yet another thing fueling our dissatisfaction with modern life but promising a quick consumer fix to remedy our ills. We can compare our lives with our “friends” (often only acquaintances) in real-time. How many pseudo friends do they have? How much fun are they having? They’ve got a new house/car/baby/pet that fills you with envy. They’re always uploading photos from the most glamorous hotels/clubs etc. Brag-book 🙂

    The world’s biggest conversation? Perhaps but what are people saying? A quick look at youtube and you’d easily conclude it’s flaming, trolling & bitching. Facebook is the ultimate platform to advertise to people as they’re already insecure about their social status relative to their neighbors/friends. Isn’t that horribly exploitative?

    When social media works, it’s fantastic. In the right situation it mobilises people to help others, to right injustices and create serendipitous opportunities for collaboration, friendship and business.Perhaps we need to start equipping people with a way to deal with its pressures, recognising that many are addicted and poll social nets for any piece of news to jump on. e.g. it would be neat if someone could ration their social networking to a few hours a week to help reduce the FOMO cravings.

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  56. The only thing I’ve found twitter useful for, is to have a direct line to celebrities to criticize and critique them. I’ve tweeted at tons of celebrities with very very critical and hurtful comments, all to great effect. They read all their tweets, and they are not all positive. Which is where I come in.

  57. Pingback: SXSW and the fear of missing out – « #hypertextual

  58. The paradox: it is the craving and desire which brings us to the point of trying one social connection after another, until we tire and decide on meaningful ones. Thanks for the great words!

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  61. Very well written.
    Read about three kinds of klesa written in Hinduism. You will get to know more about life than just ‘social networking klesas’ . 😀

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  65. One of the best ideas I heard was a “what did you miss at SXSW” blog. Because you are almost always missing out on something…

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  69. Anger flows when our family is playing a game of cards and our son, who recommended that we start a game, is diverted to endless texts with his girlfriend. “Being there” is good and addictive distraction is bad.

  70. SxSW was fantastic. I got to chill with the CSS working group for the w3c, meet one or two potential clients, learned a TON about iPad navigation current practices, got started running Cassandra for the first time and many other great things.

    Keep in mind: if you won’t live in SF or NY you are shut out from a lot of casual opportunities to connect with the real digiratti – the ones actually making products. That’s what makes SxSW so great – and totally worth attending.

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  77. FOMO great acronym. Twitter is the worst social media perpetrator of this. The Tech industry moves so fast that you will miss an acquisition, funding, launch, etc if you blink. Somewhat missing the days when FOMO was strictly an offline thing.

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  80. Huh.
    I guess I am a little removed from mainstream culture, but those aren’t the reasons I check facebook at all, really.
    I’d say I mainly check it because nearly all of my friends posts are funny, educating, thought-provoking or a link to something that is. Or occasionally something personal that I’d like to help with and give them advice on or whatever. Conversely, I post things that I think people might be amused or informed by or ask for advice.
    I love my friends and I want to know what’s going on with them. The good thing about facebook is it lets me do that (for the friends who don’t happen to be in my classes) without going to tiring parties. I tend to ignore the events tab or delete most events from it after a brief look because I’m just not interested. Occasionally people post something about heading off to some party I don’t know about and I go “oh yeah it’s a Friday and people go out on fridays” and then go back to coding a galaxy model or something 🙂

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  86. Good article. I think it’s part of a larger issue of envy in a materialistic, celebrity culture. Advertisers try to convince you that you’re not good enough and your life isn’t awesome enough, so you need their product or service. Facebook is a place to boast about how awesome your life is so people will think good things about you. Both create a distorted picture of the human experience.

    I find when I get into that envy mentality, I have to make an adjustment in my life: get my actions more in line with my goals, do things that genuinely make me happy rather than things that will make an impression on others, go back and read authors who celebrate deep philosophical, spiritual, psychological connection, spend time with friends for no reason: no goal, no plan, no event – just company. Remember yourself and your real connections. It seems to chase away the envy so you can enjoy other people’s awesomeness, because you know that you have your own path.

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  116. Great post and insights. I was unaware of the FOMO phenomenon until I bumped into your article, although I can totally relate to it. Wish I didn’t! Thank you very much for this though. Yours and other bloggers’ such posts make it useful and rewarding to be online and connected.

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