On FOMO (& Still Sharing)

Caterina Fake’s brief March post about the social media-induced “Fear of Missing Out” syndrome — not really experiencing the party you’re attending, for example, because you’re reading tweets from another one across town — has stuck with me. The FOMO term was new to me, and I admired the way Fake, who clearly knows the benefits of online social connections, wrote of its deeper ramifications:

It’s an age-old problem, exacerbated by technology. To be always filled with craving and desire (also called defilement, affliction) is one of the Three Poisons of Buddhism, called kilesa, and it makes you a slave.

Earlier this month, Tamara and I flew to Bosnia and Herzegovina to spend about 10 days with her extended family in the town where she grew up. Though I took 500 photographs and wrote my own notes about the experience (including some for a future post), I made the decision to take myself out of the social-media sphere for that time. I was off Twitter. I wasn’t scanning Facebook or posting photos to Instagram. I uploaded one photo to my travel blog, and spent the rest of the time simply in the present moment. Since I wasn’t breaking to broadcast what was happening to me right then (which would then likely be followed by a check-in to see if anyone cared) or to see what was happening with people not walking along Europe’s Sava River, or eating octopus from the Adriatic, or driving past sheep on a winding road in Serbia, I absorbed more from those moments. I also relaxed more. And I remember more.

Let me be clear: I love technology. I use Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Readernaut, and I imagine I will continue to. I think what I learned was that while I will always be a sharer online — here, on Flickr, on Twitter — I will try to remember the benefits I felt after eliminating play-by-play updates and hourly check-ins and notifications, whether I was their producer or their willing recipient. I suppose I’m writing this to remind my future self of the private, un-Likable upsides of a moment — whole days of moments — being truly mine.

A few weeks after Fake’s post, Jenna Wortham published a NYT article called “How Social Media Can Induce Feelings of ‘Missing Out.’” In the piece (which includes a quote from Fake), Wortham candidly chronicles how a relaxing, solitary Movie Night she’d recently planned for herself went wrong: The stream of interruptions she had programmed her flashing phone to deliver — friends’ tweets and status updates — was being delivered with disruptive precision.

Though both these pieces end with a reclaim-the-moment charge, Fake’s made me smile (“FOMO can be fought. Stay alert! En garde!”), while Wortham’s made me sigh:

That evening, though, I flipped the phone over to hide its screen. That helped me ignore what my friends were doing. I settled back to enjoy the evening, deciding not to venture out into the cold and misty night.

We — and I include myself in this ‘we’ — used to worry about technology distracting us from meaningful work. It’s now distracting us from free time and play. How proud we are, how triumphant we feel, when it doesn’t. Successful leisure has become a feat.