The effect of social media on our everyday lives is not always pleasant: studies have shown that many Facebook users are increasingly depressed, as they compare their own life, appearance, and popularity to other users. In his Aeon Magazine story “Escape from the matrix,” Jacob Burak suggests that social technology can have another detrimental impact on users:
FoMO (Fear of Missing Out) [is] the latest cultural disorder that is insidiously undermining our peace of mind. FoMO, a spawn of technological advancement and proliferating social information, is the feeling that we’re missing out on something more exciting, more important, or more interesting going on somewhere else. It is the unease of feeling that others are having a more rewarding experience and we are not a part of it. According to a recent study, 56 per cent of those who use social networks suffer this modern plague.
Of course, that sense of missing out is nothing new. An entire body of literature describes the heart-wrenching conflict between romantic aspirations and social conservatism. Edith Wharton, Charlotte Brontë and Stendhal, to name but a few, described the angst of missing out long before we could look up high-school friends on Facebook.
But while 19th-century protagonists spent a lifetime grappling with a single missed opportunity, today’s incessant flow of information is a disturbing reminder of the world rushing by.
Social media is, in many ways, set up to make us feel “left out.” No matter we barely know that person from our economics class—they’re friends with all our other friends, but they haven’t “friended” us. Thus our Facebook profiles become an ever-swelling amalgamation of distant acquaintances and people-we-met-once-at-that-one-event, people we will rarely (if ever) have a face-to-face conversation with. As Burak puts it, “technology has become the major construct through which we define intimacy. We confuse our hundreds, or even thousands, of ‘friends’ on social networks with the handful of intimate friends we have in reality.”
Instagram is an interesting case study of FoMO, as well: the network seems to encourage the sharing of specific experiences, with certain filters and finesse, in order to be appreciated by one’s friend group. And whether it be foodie pics, sunset pics, selfies, or the like, we are also encouraged to include the appropriate hashtags, so that other Instagram users (aka strangers) can find them, favorite them, and follow us. Special events necessitate special hashtags, so that everyone following you may know that you’re attending #mikeandjoannaswedding, or #jasonsbirthdaybash.
Why is it that trips to Seattle or Vegas or NYC must be shared with every friend on social media, or that we must accumulate more than 50 likes on pictures or statuses in order to feel accomplished? According to research, Burak says that “FoMO occurs mostly in people with unfulfilled psychological needs in realms such as love, respect, autonomy and security. All in all, we are afraid of missing out on love and on feeling that we belong…” Thus, we see that FoMO is directly tied to our habits of social comparison and obsession with other people’s opinions. The more we see Facebook users with 1,200 friends, or Instagram users with hundreds of likes on one photo—the more left out and inadequate we feel. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of comparison, feeling insignificant, and then trying to build a more praiseworthy, perfect self image.
During my sophomore year of college, my political theory professor postulated that freedom does not, in fact, mean being able to choose whatever we want. Such “freedom” is actually slavery to our senses and appetites. Rather, he said, freedom includes limits—limits imposed most often by our society, institutions, and/or ourselves—and these limits actually help to build a more full, robust freedom.
This argument seems ever more applicable to social technology. In this age of limitless friend groups and sharing, we often become chained to the activities and personal projections social media presents us with. We become ever more focused on the maximization of our shareable experiences, to the detriment of our mental peace and real-life relationships.
Perhaps one of the most powerful things we can do to combat FoMO is to let go of the search for online perfection. Too often we project our lives through an Instagram filter, trying to be perfect to the world around us. When we do this, we don’t understand our own limits.
But we must also accept the limits of time, space, and place. We must understand that 100, or even 10 friends, are better than 1,000. We must again cultivate the understanding that a photo appreciated by our grandparents and parents should mean more than a photo shared by thousands of strangers. We must regain an appreciation for the private and personal—even if it means limiting our chances at online fame and notoriety. The world of limits often seems a dreary one to the social media user—but within those limits, there truly is opportunity for a more healthy, wholesome life.