Essay: Jonathan Roberts

Personal aberrations concerning the fear of missing out

There are 29,071 full-time students at Virginia Tech. That’s 87, 213 meals each day, countless cups of coffee, minutes on the bus, or hours spent in class. That means text messages, phone calls, status updates, and everything other form of technology-mediated from each of those nearly thirty thousand people every day. Older generations don’t seem to fathom what could possibly be important enough to stay this connected to each other—probably because most of the interactions are topical and have no real bearing or importance. Why do we feel the need to do this, myself included? This phenomenon has been dubbed the Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO.

Theorists have taken up the concept of FOMO, as has popular culture. It’s an explanation of why our generations, the teens and twenty-somethings that are accustomed to being always-on and connected to smartphones, are so addicted. We fear missing anything. This creeps into all facets of our lives. It could be positive, of course. Talking with friends about a homework assignment incessantly over texts as you do it could mean more people remembered the details. It could be negative also: if you miss the party altogether because you stared at your phone through it. If we accept the fear of missing out as a real issue among the youth today, we see it as an interesting cultural phenomenon—for better or worse.

I am certainly not exempt from this phenomenon. I fear that if I don’t check my phone for a while I could miss out on something incredible. After all, what stories of amazing, life changing, college-defining moments happened because they were planned well in advance? If I hadn’t checked my phone a few times I would have never had some of the best experiences of my college life. But people have been having these spontaneous experiences and incredibly unscripted interactions for so long before we could be always connected.

College life—at least early college life—is set up so these interactions could, if we let them, happen without this constant contact. What were dorms twenty years ago? Social hubs. You were friends with who you lived with and talked to them for entertainment. Now, though, you can be anywhere and talk to anyone with a phone. Who would want to be in a hot and cramped dorm when they could think about anywhere else? Now those 29, 071 students are talking to friends back home or across the country about what they’re doing and what their lives are like. It may be escapist, of course, but it certainly is also missing out on the things that you could be doing at the moment around you. We no longer sit down and just talk by choice or roam around the vast campus out of boredom. Boredom no longer exists and we fear missing out on anything that could be better than where we are.

Sherry Turkle addresses this phenomenon in her book Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. The novel is a slightly grim and generation-blaming response to this topic but brings some important insights to this issue. She describes in her chapter “The Nostalgia of the Young” a bit about how technology like this has affected the youth. She describes parents who were as glued to their smartphones (Blackberry’s, she says, which shows the book’s age) and how brought children in to thinking this was acceptable and commonplace (Turkle, 267). She points the blame towards the parents somewhat but also considers whether this could just be a generational and psychological change.

She goes on in the same chapter to discuss Thoreau’s famous “I went to the woods to live deliberately”. I am quite certain that when Thoreau said this he wasn’t thinking about Instagram or Snapchat or even location-based searches. While all these things would almost certainly appall him, as it does my parent’s generation, these alone aren’t the issue. It’s mostly blameless, because technology itself isn’t an evil. It’s a tool and we use it for whether it’s beneficial or not.

In her book, Turkle makes many generalizations about technology and those who use it in the always-on way. I’ve wondered throughout this semester as we’ve been thinking about how we live through technology: am I an outlier in this demographic of rampant technology use, or do I just think consciously on it and do the same kinds of things everyone does? I’d like to think I’m somewhat different and not quite as tied to the technology as everyone else (but I’m probably wrong). I would like to think I’m not really scared to miss out.

When am I using the kinds of social technologies Turkle explores the most? Barring the times I’m sitting down for straight schoolwork—a paper or project—I’m usually on my laptop or smartphone at the end of the day, while I’m in transit, or while I’m socializing. The last item in that list is the most concerning to me, and why I try to be part of the growing trend against technological interruption. When I’m with friends, I am not “missing out”—at least I shouldn’t be. I am a professional writer in essay writing service I am doing something right then, if only watching TV or walking around. Why, then, do I feel the compulsory need to check my phone? Part of me is hoping for something else. The “else” is intrinsically better than what I’m doing right then, even if I had been looking forward to whatever it is for days. The moment doesn’t matter as much with a smartphone because it gives users the ability to plan ahead and figure out what they’d want to be doing next. Before, this would have taken face-to-face or at least conversation-to-conversation and planning. Being in constant contact affords us to ability to plan less. Less planning should mean less worries and a more free and spontaneous lifestyle; it doesn’t do that very well.

We use this ease of contact just to keep tallies on our friends, family, and co-workers; rarely do we use it to perform any task that some simple planning and meeting could not have accomplished. The texts to friends, some of whom are minutes away and some who are hours from you, just give us an idea and a baseline for how the rest of our social circles are interacting at the time. Usually this means a lot of texts concerning friends binge-watching Netflix or some other menial task that lacks relevance to our lives. But what if they’re doing something we’d rather be doing? The chance for that to happen is so enticing that we continue to stay tied into our social networks through our constant contact. Like the prospect of a fisherman reeling in a prize catch, many people continuously text in hopes that they won’t miss out. I always like to think I can distance myself from this phenomenon—especially once you look more logically at how FOMO usually occurs.

Take the university culture on a typical weekend night, for example. The possibilities are seemingly endless, yet most people condense their actions down to a few categories. Anybody could stay in their homes and work on homework. But then you might miss out. Many people might opt to, again, stay in their homes and quietly watch a movie or otherwise relax in some way. But then you might miss out. Another main option is to go out, whether than means to a friend’s homes, an event like a concert, to a local bar. For many, myself included, this is the safest option to reduce the fear that you might miss out on something because you weren’t connected and surrounded by people. This is where a large amount of dependence on social technology happens.

It’s frightening to be making plans when you’re confronted with the realization that the other 29,071 students at Virginia Tech are doing similar things. Sure, many are going to opt for homework or Netflix or simply sleeping. Another large percentage, though, are all looking for something to do that is satisfyingly interesting enough that they can’t possibly feel like they’ve missed out. The collective consciousness of the socially connected masses allows users to seriously reduce FOMO. That is the explanation of why we become socially dependent on these technologies and somehow universally have a fear of missing out if we didn’t have this discourse.

Am I, then, above this fear of missing out? Absolutely, I’d like to think so. Once we’re faced with a strange phenomenon of our culture that makes us look socially awkward and dependent on our smartphones for our happiness and existence, everyone wants to claim that they themselves aren’t part of it. I only escape taking part in FOMO for very short periods of time when it’s not so much that I don’t want to be part of the constant contact but that it’s inconvenient or impossible. When I’m out camping or hiking, a smartphone is very likely to break if I was constantly keeping people updated. In caves and on ropes climbing, it becomes impossible to carry my phone through the wet and muddy landscape—not to mention that cell signals don’t travel underground. Only in those instances do I ever put away the fear of missing out and just do what I am right in that moment.

This whole reflection on my personal habits as well as my generation’s brings me to consider what a professor, Mary Moore, sent my class off with on the last day of Literature and Ecology. She urged us to “live presently”; that is, to become fully engaged in whatever it is that we’re doing. Since then, I’ve made a better attempt to do just that. When I read, I try to read. When I hike, I look down the trail and not down at my screen. When I spend an evening with friends, I try to enjoy what I’m doing right then and let others plan out all the things that we would otherwise miss out upon if we didn’t stay in touch constantly with Facebook.

While writing this, I actually found myself checking my phone less. It’s like a bad habit that we don’t do if somebody is watching us. I certainly experience FOMO in my everyday life. I also find myself being wary of staying too addicted to my devices, though. If it were an addiction, the first step would be admitting the problem and taking steps to change it. As is, though, it seems to be largely a cultural and technological shift towards increase use of social devices. For now, I haven’t found compelling evidence that is scary enough to take steps to limit my exposure to this. Admittedly, though, I might just be scared of missing out.