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!
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