Mark Zuckerberg was in first grade when a business school professor coined the expression “fear of missing out” 30 years ago. The researcher noticed how people struggle to choose when they are afraid of not picking the best product.
It was a mid-20th century retail revolution for shoppers to have so many choices.
You know a cliché has hit the big time when it turns into an acronym. Who doesn’t know that FOMO refers to a common anxiety nowadays?
Three decades of FOMO later, with our always-on, always-connected devices always in our hands, FOMO has morphed into a vague, broader fear. Now we’re afraid that everyone we follow on social media is more beautiful, has cooler stuff, and is having way more fun than we are.
Of course, there’s nothing new about envy or the competitive instinct in humans. Cain murdered Abel in a fit of jealousy, and the Tenth Commandment forbids coveting our neighbor’s property. When I was a boy, 60 years ago, my parents called the neighbors’ conspicuous consumption “keeping up with the Joneses.”
News junkies hate it when you hear a breaking story before them, and cutting-edge influencers have always already heard the latest hit song and tried the newest fusion food truck.
You might say FOMO is just an algorithmically enhanced version of an old human weakness.
But how ironic. In 2021, it’s hard to read a blog, a newspaper feed or an online magazine on my mobile device without running across an article about how the internet is distracting me from What Really Matters. The scolding is full of hand-wringing about our virtual substitutes for real life.
No doubt, you’ve seen that too and tsk-tsked about Instagram pictures of food you can’t eat, people’s Moscow troll farm Facebook ‘friends’, and all the funny memes forwarded instead of laughing together around a real table with real life humorists. It’s a long list, and you’ve probably intuited most of it, even without reading the articles.
People say, “Disconnect. You’re missing out on life.”
I don’t know any of these concerned folks IRL (in real life). Nope, their caring advice comes to me through the very same connected devices that feed the FOMO beast.
“OK, Boomer,” the wise guy Millennial says. “It’s been a long time since Timothy Leary’s ‘turn on, tune in, drop out.’ ”
“Dude,” I’m hip enough to respond, “check your attitude at the door. Hanging around here like you rent the place, go back to your avocado toast at Starbucks.”
We are distracted these days, and sure, there’s a lot of virtual reality in our lives. I mean, does your phone’s weekly screen-time report feel like an accusation to you, too?
All those empty carbs of online time! You don’t have to know much more German than “kindergarten” to think of the word “ersatz.” If not, the everyday English expression “second-hand” says it just fine.
The well-intentioned refrain of advice to unplug makes you worry that while you’re online, you really are missing out on something better — but it’s not online. It’s not other people’s enviable lives that you’re missing. It’s your own life.
Another irony is that the term FOMO itself is only online. Like emojis and the written but never pronounced sibling graphemes, IMHO, LOL, YOLO, TMI, ICYMI and WTF, those generational passwords in all-caps, FOMO doesn’t exist outside the internet.
Maybe it is time to put away the phone and computer for a day or two. Turn off, tune out, drop in. Stop to notice the life flowing around you, the river Heraclitus once said you couldn’t step into twice.
When you get really mellowed out through meditation (or, if you prefer, something stronger), you realize that there is also a retrospective version of FOMO. That is the still un-acronymized RFHMO, “regret for having missed out.” That’s the feeling you get when you look back and recall all the things you might have done but didn’t do.
In 1969, were you in the mud at Woodstock or did you hear Led Zeppelin rattle the neighborhood windows at Green Lake?
Did you spend enough time with your children when they were little?
Did you run that marathon or climb Mount Rainier?
Looking back at the forks in the road you did take and at all the other forks you didn’t, it’s obvious there was plenty of life that just got missed. The key word is an old one: regret. The roads you took are always fewer than the infinite number of diverging roads not taken in Robert Frost’s yellow wood. And that has made all the difference.
“Tell me what you regret, and I’ll tell you who you are” is a wake-up call for drowsy septuagenarians. We understand all too well the line in Randall Jarrell’s poem, “the ways we miss our lives is life.”
But wait. Before you go, just a second. Let me show you a picture of my grandson Jack on Instagram. Let’s see … where is it? I know it’s here somewhere. You should see how many likes he has.
Dan Clouse is an award-winning columnist. He lives in Lakebay.
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