In 2013, FOMO (fear of missing out) was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s defined as “Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on social media.”
For thousands of years, more exciting events have been happening elsewhere—divine revelation at Sinai, intellectual revolution in Athens, and, more to our current taste, mass blood-sports in Rome. Back in the day, though, most of humanity was blissfully unaware of what they were missing out on. Only recently, with the rise of social media and smartphones, have we had our noses rubbed in it quite so much.
We check in to social media and see shiny happy people jet-setting to Iceland, genuflecting before the perfect brunch, partying on ever-higher rooftops, and basking in each other’s shiny happiness. Meanwhile, we’re still half-asleep in our pajamas, alone, vacantly dipping anything we can find in hummus, trying to muster the energy to water the cactus. And even the cactus seems to be doing more with its life than us. Reflective unhappiness comes as no surprise.
Of course, the seemingly shiny happy people are only showcasing their shiny happy moments—editing by omission the long stretches between trips to Iceland when they’re catatonic on the couch, half-dressed, flicking through a feed of people shinier and happier than themselves. Data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz notes that while Americans spend roughly six times as much time doing dishes as they do golfing, there are about twice as many golf tweets as there are dishwashing tweets. And while as many people in Las Vegas stay at budget hotel Circus Circus as the posh Bellagio, the Bellagio gets about three times as many Facebook check-ins.
We know this — that social media is only a selective representation of reality — on a theoretical level, but on a practical level we forget. Philosopher Owen Barfield, writing before Instagram, nicely defines the problem: “when the nature and limitations of artificial images are forgotten, they become idols.” The rooftop partier lives in her parents’ basement. The traveler to Iceland was cold and homesick half the trip. The Sunday bruncher had a microwave burrito for dinner last night. Their pictures are all cropped and filtered anyway. When FOMO creeps into consciousness, we need to remember that social media selves aren’t ourselves. They have eyes, but cannot see. They have mouths, but cannot speak. They have ears, but cannot hear. They’re idols.
When we fixate on idols, we forget the flesh-and-blood people around us. Instead of saying hello to a potential friend in front of us, we anonymously lurk a Facebook “friend” we never speak with. Midway through a real-life conversation, we’re distracted by an alert to a virtual conversation we could be having. Even if we don’t pick up the phone, FOMO shifts our attention from the present potential for some small but real human interaction to distant possibilities that will almost certainly disappoint. We’re driven to idol worship by the muezzin call of the ping.
Fear of missing out on a possibility means we miss out on reality. Is there, at all times, somewhere better we could be, something better we could be doing? Yes, probably. But grasping for the phone doesn’t take us anywhere better; it only takes us away from where we are now. And whatever better things we could be doing on a Saturday night, spectating at what other people are doing on a Saturday night isn’t among them. George Orwell said that to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. Our phones aid and abet the enemy in that struggle.
FOMO results from fixating on false representations of people instead of people. By offering a vicarious connection to a more glamorous, but artificial, reality, our phones disconnect us from the reality right in front of us. Sometimes, they very literally disconnect us from that reality. Bloomberg reports that traffic fatalities rose by 14.4 per cent over the past two years, an increase linked to an upsurge in smartphone usage. No matter where we’d rather be, we should keep this memento mori in mind: Life is here and now, and death is the ultimate form of missing out.
Ben Shragge is the digital editor of the HJN. He currently lives in Boston.