Last year, I was thinking of leaving my job at the New York Times. I eventually did, but before I left, a friend told me about a job opening at a small startup in San Francisco. The company had six people at the time, and was looking for someone to work on their iPhone app. I was a couple of degrees of separation from the founders, and good iOS developers were (and still are) difficult to come by. I decided that there were plenty of startups out there looking for good people, and that I’d bide my time and decide on something else later.
Two weeks ago, that company was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion.
I’m not going to say I’m sure that I would have received an offer, had I applied. Am I confident that I had a good shot? Yes. Absolutely certain? No. I can’t say if I’d be a happier person if I was in San Francisco right now, working at Instagram, prepping myself for a move to Facebook. But it’s still hard not to think about what life would be like right now if I’d applied for that job. And now every professional opportunity I see brings with it the fear that if I don’t jump on it, I might miss out on being a part of The Next Big Thing.
There’s a word for my feelings right now: FOMO, the fear of missing out — that strange, jangly mix of unease, fear, and envy that results from knowing that you could be doing something more fun, more productive, or somehow more amazing at any given time. And whatever you’re not doing seems to have a way of being the thing you’re most afraid of missing.
Before the Internet, FOMO was mainly confined to real-life experiences and social interactions. Now we have more choice than ever before: we can choose our friends from anyone in the world (with an Internet connection anyway); our lovers from any of a growing number of people who have signed up for online dating sites; or where we’re going for drinks that night with a thousand different recommendation engines.
Then there’s that moment when everyone’s talking about that story everyone read or that movie that everyone saw — except you. Or Girls or Mad Men or Veep. Will I ever get to see Radiohead again? Will I ever get to the end of my Netflix queue? I really do, at some point, need to watch all of the La Blogothèque Take-Away Shows. And what about The Wire? I still need to finish the last four seasons. Shit.
We don’t just have more choice— we’re more aware of the fact that all of those choices exist, that all the things we didn’t choose are still out there, like if you laid out the blueprint for a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but for our lives.
Does all of this choice make us happier? Not everyone agrees. Research suggests that as the number of options increases, we become overwhelmed and find it increasingly difficult to commit to any one of them, and are less happy afterwards with the choices we did make.
The more FOMO permeates our lives, the more it drives a growing dependence on the tools we use to communicate. That someone felt the need to come up with a game to combat incessant texting and checking-in at meals speaks volumes about how socially crippling unchecked FOMO can be.
As the number of things I might miss out on — and the ways I can find out about them — increase, I find myself wondering how we’ll deal with this in five or ten years. Will we be tempted to livestream our friends’ headcams from the couch while they stumble drunkenly through Coachella 2022? How big can my Netflix queue get before I give up and just wipe it clean to stem the ever-present feeling of guilt? And how long before literally every person I know is simultaneously Kickstarting something?
There’s a flip side, though. FOMO is, in a much larger sense, the thing that keeps us alive. What is the survival instinct if not a very basic, primal form of FOMO? It’s the force that drives us to make serious, life-changing decisions, like changing careers, or moving to a different country. There’d also be no parties, because there’d be no one who cared enough to attend them.
You know who has absolutely no fear of missing out on anything? People suffering from clinical depression. FOMO keeps us hungry. It makes us crave knowledge and experience. It gives us stories to tell at cocktail parties. The absence of FOMO is “meh”, and nobody ever did anything worthwhile with “meh”.
I think that some degree of FOMO is natural and healthy, but only to the point that it drives you to keep discovering new people, places, and experiences. And we can all benefit from remembering that with so many pastures to choose from, the grass will always be greener on the other side of a touchscreen.
Especially when you’re looking at it through an oversaturated retro filter.