Published as: Reagle, J. (2015). “Following the Joneses: FOMO and conspicuous sociality.” First Monday, 20(10). (Acceptance rate 15%.) Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6064/4996
ABSTRACT: I argue that the proliferation of the term FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and its siblings (FOBO, FODA, MOMO, FODO) can be understood as envy-related anxiety about missed experiences (fear of missing out) and belonging (fear of being left out). Beyond feelings, people who speak of FOMO also speak of it as a behavior, most often as a compulsivity (related to what I characterize as conspicuous sociality) and as an illness to be remedied. And although FOMO is often seen as a recent phenomenon, I argue it is a continuation of a centuries-old concern and discourse about media-prompted envy and anxiety (i.e., “keeping up with the Joneses” and neurasthenia).
Key words: FOMO, envy, social comparison, social media
Acknowledgments: I thank the following for suggestions: Anna Glina, Sumana Harihareswara, Ben Peters, Devon Powers, and anonymous reviewers.
Joseph Reagle is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern. He’s been a resident fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard (in 1998 and 2010), and he taught and received his Ph.D. at NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. As a Research Engineer at MIT he served as an author and working group chair within the IETF and W3C on topics including digital security, privacy, and Internet policy. His current interests include life hacking, geek feminism, and online culture. His most recent book is Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web (MIT Press, 2015).
Following the Joneses: FOMO and Conspicuous Sociality by Joseph Reagle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
In June of 2013, a Wikipedian created a two paragraph article for FOMO, the “Fear of Missing Out” (Fear of missing out, 2013). The first, short, paragraph described it as a form of social anxiety, “a compulsive concern that one might miss an opportunity,” and linked it to social media. The second, similarly short, paragraph described a recently published research article by social psychologist Andrew Przybylski (2013) and his colleagues that hypothesized that some people may gravitate toward social media because of unfulfilled psychological needs. The researchers asked questions about comparisons with friends, being left out, missed experiences, and compulsion. They found that those who scored high on these items were typically young, male, and with higher levels of social media usage and lower levels of general mood and life satisfaction.
This moment in which FOMO, a seemingly faddish neologism, was recognized in published research and, more popularly, at Wikipedia, was the apex of an almost decade’s worth of cultural circulation. For many years the expression had been used as a hashtag on social media and had been mentioned in hundreds of news articles, from online sources like Salon to print papers like the New York Times. Although Przybylski et al. (2013) attempted to circumscribe the notion of FOMO via a ten-item questionnaire (distilled from an original thirty-two items), popular discourse has been much messier—fascinatingly rich and sometimes incoherent. And inquiries into its origins, including Ben Schreckinger’s (2014) tracking down of its likely originator, tended to see the notion as a novelty of only past decade. I engage in a more thorough inquiry into the “FOMO” expression and, more importantly, the notion it signifies.
This inquiry into FOMO is inspired by a work that began long before the Internet. At the end of World War II, Raymond Williams, a young man from Wales who had taken part in the invasion of Normandy, was struck by how much things had changed. In a conversation with a friend that he had known from before the war about “the strange new world around us,” they concluded that people “just don’t speak the same language.” Later, as an academic, Williams (1976, p. 9) continued to be fascinated by language and began collecting histories of select words and their usage; this manifested in his 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. He wrote that this book wasn’t a glossary of a particular academic subject nor a series footnotes on the history of the dictionary: “It is, rather, the record of an inquiry into a vocabulary: a shared body of words and meanings.” Most compellingly, these keywords shape how we approach “certain activities and their interpretation” and are indicative of “certain forms of thought”; conversely, they can also “open up issues and problems” which need greater attention (Williams, 1976, p. 13). Similarly, Leo Marx wrote that the emergence of such words or new meanings can “prove to be an illuminating historical event” (Marx, 2010, pp. 562–563).
Much like Williams, many people today are fascinated with the life of words in popular culture. The Digital Keywords project, spearheaded by Ben Peters (2014), has updated Williams’ lexicon with about two dozens words, including geek and hacker. Devon Powers (2015) argued that users propensity to post “first” comments signifies a meta-culture of recursivity and that “firstness” emphasizes the numberness (through ordinality), temporality (through historicness), and promotion (through superlativity) found in society today. More popularly, neologisms and radical co-options like FOMO, 2.0, first, haters, and selfie are documented at Urban Dictionary, have the potential to go viral, and perhaps even graduate into a printed dictionary. Unlike Williams’ terms, such as media and science, these newcomers are not yet “key”; they aren’t essential to a vocabulary of “Culture and Society.” However, they do serve as an index into the hopes and fears of a culture at a moment in time. For instance, the prefix cyber- (borrowed from Norbert Wiener’s coinage in 1948) is now considered somewhat dated, but it is an avenue for delimiting and understanding a period in the 1990s that came to be associated with possible menaces such has cybercrime. More recently, “2.0” was affixed to terms like wisdom, learning, democracy, as well as breakups, defamation, and extortion.
Despite the fascination with such terms, a common failing is for a people is to presume that their moment is special, that a word like FOMO signifies something wholly novel, when, in fact, it can be connected to and contextualized within a longer history. I argue that the proliferation of the term FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and its siblings (FOBO, FODA, MOMO, FODO) can be understood as envy-related anxiety about missed experiences (fear of missing out) and belonging (fear of being left out). Beyond feelings, people who speak of FOMO also speak of it as a behavior, most often as a compulsivity—related to what I characterize as conspicuous sociality—and as an illness to be remedied. And although FOMO is often seen as a recent phenomenon, I argue it is a continuation of a centuries-old concern and discourse about media-prompted envy and anxiety (i.e., “keeping up with the Joneses” and neurasthenia).
My analysis of FOMO is built upon dozens of online articles on the topic as well as hundreds of comments that follow those articles, with two sources meriting special note. First, while discussion of FOMO spans sites as diverse as teens’ tweets to print periodicals, the Huffington Post, a popular liberal news aggregator and blogging platform, has been one of the most prolific publishers on the phenomenon. A search for “FOMO” on the site returns over thirty posts with FOMO-related titles, some of which are discussed below (FOMO Search Results, 2014). As “HuffPo” articles are often accused of being clickbait, a practice in which publishers post content in response to trends, its focus on FOMO is another indication of the term’s popularity. Indeed, the proliferation of stories about FOMO and related acronyms reveals attempts to capitalize on an emerging trend, furthering it all the more. Second, Rookie, “an online publication for teenage girls,” has an article in which staff writer Krista Burton spoke with about a dozen of her colleagues about the feeling, its triggers, and the “ways to combat nasty FOMO feelings” (Burton, 2014). Some of these women are quoted below. It is worth noting that for FOMO, its particular culture and moment is one of relatively privileged and young English speakers: one might argue FOMO is a “first world problem” wherein people have the luxury of worrying about how to best advance one’s career and spend one’s leisure time. As we will see, this anxiety is characterized by some degree of social mobility, discretionary spending, leisure time, and social comparison. As Alain de Botton (2005) wrote in Status Anxiety about the relative abundance of West in the last century, “a sharp decline in actual deprivation may, paradoxically, have been accompanied by an ongoing and even escalating sense or fear of deprivation” (p. 25). This appears to be as true for social capital, “relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Bourdieu, 1986), as it is for economic capital. But first, I turn to the origins and meaning of the term.
As a new notion takes root in the zeitgeist, one can find competing definitions circulating in popular culture and scholarly literature. This is especially so for what Gibbs (2006, p. 30) called cyberlanguage, with “its own brand of quirky logic, which evolves with unprecedented speed and variety and is heavily dependent on ingenuity and humor.” One can see this evolution play out at Urban Dictionary (UD), a Web repository for over eight million definitions of contemporary popular culture, slang, and Internet memes. Submissions, which include a definition and optional example of usage, can be made by anyone providing an email address; other contributors then vote upon whether a definition ought to be accepted. One word can have multiple definitions; the term “Urban Dictionary” entry has hundreds (Lucy, 2005). Because submitters are competing to get the most votes via early, informative, or funny definitions, UD is a useful indicator of lexical trends. UD’s earliest definition of FOMO as a type of fear is from 2005 and it simply expanded the acronym and provided an example phrase, “Jonny got the rep for being a fomo, but jake’s a bigger one” (Justinas, 2005). Oddly, this example is of something one is rather than something one feels; in this, it is much closer to an older meaning of FOMO as a “fake homosexual.” In any case, the most popular definition was posted in 2006: it is “the fear that if you miss a party or event you will miss out on something great” (Beaqon, 2006). This definition and point in time marks the ascendancy of FOMO in popular culture: many more definitions would appear at UD and elsewhere in the following years.
Beyond penning definitions, lexicographers also attempt to find the origins and early exemplars of a term. For instance, the august Oxford Dictionary (2014) locates FOMO’s origins in the “early 21st century.” Although it can be hard to confidently identify a single point of origin, we can be more precise than that. Patrick McGinnis (2004), a Harvard Business School student, wrote a light-hearted story for the school newspaper about students suffering from an array of ailments. Coincidentally, McGinnis is also the name of the character in the 1913 comic strip “Keeping up with the Joneses,” which I discuss later. Harvard’s McGinnis wrote that FOMO was said to lead to a state of over-commitment in which people packed a single evening with nearly a dozen events, from cocktails, to dinners, parties, and after-parties, culminating in a drunken email at three in the morning to a jilted friend: “Sorry I missed your 80’s theme party at Felt—you know that you are totally in my top 15.” However, having once been burned by missing an awesome event, one was likely to become hesitant to committing to anything for certain, leading to FOBO: the Fear of Better Options (McGinnis, 2004). Both of these conditions lead to yet another deleterious condition:
FOMO and FOBO are irreconcilably opposing forces, the antithesis of yin and yang, and can drive a person towards a paralytic state I’ll call FODA, or Fear Of Doing Anything…. Notice that as a person becomes more and more FOMO, the energy needed to maintain such an active social life is tremendous. On the other extreme, practicing aggressive FOBO will only serve to alienate your friends. Poor management of the trade-off’’s between the two forces leads to FODA. (McGinnis, 2004)
Apparently, the term continued to quietly circulate at Harvard, and perhaps other schools, for a few years until Business Week facetiously reported that an “epidemic has hit America’s top MBA programs” (Miller, 2007). Although McGinnis and Business Week never mentioned social media, FOMO’s eventual tethering to Twitter and Facebook facilitated its wider circulation. In 2006, Twitter appeared on the scene, which led Kathy Sierra, a popular tech blogger, to link FOMO directly to use of social media in the following year: “By elevating the importance of being ‘constantly updated,’ it amplifies the feeling of missing something if you’re not checking Twitter (or Twittering) with enough frequency” (Sierra, 2007).
By 2010 FOMO was being used and spoken of broadly, and it was now unambiguously tied to social media. By 2011 the phenomenon was recognized as something that marketers could take advantage of. A report from JWT Intelligence (“converting cultural shifts into opportunities”) recommended that “brands can focus on easing it, escalating it, making light of it or even turning it into a positive” (Miranda, 2011, p. 5, 17). About the same time, marketing consultant Dan Herman created the website
fomofearofmissingout.com to offer his services and stake a claim in originating the term based on a 2000 paper in which he wrote about the “consumer who is led by a new basic motivation: ambition to exhaust all possibilities and the fear of missing out on something” (Herman, 2000, p. 335, 2011). (Another report by Herman (2002) gives FOMO greater attention, and actually uses the abbreviation, though I can’t find any other source confirming its provenance.) In April 2011, FOMO was Urban Dictionary’s “word of the day” (Dossey, 2014, p. 69). In the following year, it was recognized by the Oxford Dictionaries (2012) as the “Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”
In 2013, FOMO appeared in Wikipedia and became the subject of research by social psychologist Andrew Przybylskia and his colleagues (2013, p. 1841). They defined it as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent, FOMO is characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing.” In this definition there is a recognition of an emotion (i.e., apprehension) and a characteristic behavior. This behavior of staying “continually connected” is related to Oxford’s source of the anxiety: “aroused by posts seen on a social media website.” Similarly, contemporary discussions of FOMO invoke multiple, often tangled, references to emotions (e.g., fear and anxiety), sources (e.g., social media), and manifestations (e.g., compulsive checking and illness). Each of these are touched upon more fully below.
Popular and scholarly definitions speak of FOMO as an emotional experience, prompted by exposure to social media and characterized by certain behaviors. Online sources similarly speak of an often uncomfortable emotional response arising from exposure to social media. Interestingly, these sources can reference two different temporal orientations. In studying the “role of affect in decision-making” Loewenstein and Lerner (2003, p. 620) distinguished between emotions that are immediate, “experienced at the time of decision-making,” and expected, “predictions about the emotional consequences of decision outcomes.” Lola, one of Rookie respondents, made a similar distinction and shared that these two orientations are often in conflict.
My experience of FOMO is divided into two types: fear of missing out on a desired experience (“I wiiiish I was doing X but I have to do something else ughh”) vs. fear of missing out on a possible future (“I know I SHOULD be having X experience but I really just want to ____ but then I’ll never _____”). (Burton, 2014)
One can find similar anxieties about the present and future in much of the FOMO discourse. Another dimension of FOMO related feelings is the degree of sociality: lone envy vs. social exclusion. For instance, in seeing a friend’s vacation photos of a beautiful deserted beach, one might envy the experience of being in a beautiful and peaceful place. If that photo received positive comments, one might also envy the social validation received by the vacationer. That is, I distinguish between “missing out” and being “left out.”
In a post on the blog The Art of Manliness, Brett McKay (2013) wrote that FOMO arises because one can “peruse the highlights of other people’s lives in real time.” It is also a modern malady: “When your dad had a sucky day, he might wonder if his old friends were doing any better for themselves, but that thought quickly reached a dead end. All you need to do is fire up the Facebook feed.” For McKay, the result of “firing up” the feed is “paralyzing envy and depression.” Much like many recent articles on FOMO, McKay then goes on to suggest ways to resist, or, in his “manly” words: “Fighting FOMO: 4 Questions That Will Crush the Fear of Missing Out.” Yet, despite his claim about generations past, the triggers, meaning and management of envy is not novel—even if we now have a #jealz hashtag. Emotions are understood and expressed in a culturally-dependent way (Stearns and Stearns, 1985), and historical studies show how this shaped by the technology and media of the time (Malin, 2014).
As seen in Susan Matt’s (2003) study of American envy, there was a shift in attitude from 1890 to 1930. What was once considered personally sinful and socially damaging became a driver of the new consumer society. Much like social media today, the availability of magazines, movies, and advertisements provided a view into the lives of those seemingly better off. The popular press was full of missives on how to manage envy, be it to suppress it or embrace it—much like postings about FOMO today. The resulting envy prompted “emulative purchasing.” For example, even if middle-class consumers could only afford an upright piano in place of a grand, it was still a piano and a talisman of aspiration. Advertising lore has it that a store was able to sell its overstock of almost three-hundred pianos in just three days with an advertisement proclaiming that a purchase would “make your daughter a lady” (p. 17).
This shift in attitude about envy paralleled a change in social expectations. In the nineteenth-century one’s social position was seen as fixed within God’s “great chain of being,” and people were expected to be frugal and exercise self-restraint. As the oil magnate John D. Rockefeller instructed: “Live within your means and don’t think too much of your neighbor’s good fortune” (Rockefeller quoted in Matt, 2003, p. 75, 78). In the dawning Darwinian century, many moralists and magnates still desired a compliant workforce, but some, such as Henry Ford, looked out for the “young man who show signs of being dissatisfied, especially if he thinks he has anything to offer by way of improving things” (Ford quoted in Matt, 2003, p. 83). And advertisers enjoined men to forgo thrift and instead “Tailor your way to opportunity” (p. 78). Similarly, although a woman’s envy was once thought to corrupt her character and threaten household finances, a twentieth century women who dressed well fulfilled her wifely duty and complemented her husband’s professional ambitions.
However, sources of envy have never been as close as a device habitually held in one’s hand. Much like their predecessors a century ago, contemporary writers focus upon a sense of dissatisfaction: they fear their life is not as enjoyable as others’ and they perversely feel worse. For instance, Rookie staffer Estelle asked: “Why do other people constantly go out to parties and I don’t? Why are people looking fabulous at some event while I am literally spilling water on myself at home?” (Burton, 2014) Social media make social comparison more affecting because of the ever-present frames through which one can see others’ polished presentations and sociality. As de Botton (2005) wrote of status anxiety: “It is relative to desire. Every time we yearn for something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources” (p. 39). This is as true for social capital as it is for economic capital.
One of the ways in which people polish their presentation is to appear happier than they are. Alex Jordan et al. (2011, p. 120) found that in studies of people’s estimations of others’ feelings, people typically overestimate others’ positive emotions because people tend to be more cheerful in the presence of others; even if they aren’t, they hide it: “misery has more company than people think.” Others researchers have confirmed that Facebook users believe that others are happier and doing better; the more casual Facebook “friends” one has, the more one feels this way (Chou and Edge, 2012). And although polishing one’s Facebook profile can lead to higher measures of self-esteem, reading others’ profiles has the opposite effect (Gonzales and Hancock, 2011). In sum, the passive consumption of others’ pages is associated with life dissatisfaction “as it triggers upward social comparison and invidious emotions” (Krasnova et al., 2013, p. 7, 12). As a result, some users might react to others’ displays of awesomeness with even more self-promotional content of their own, leading to a “spiral” of self-promotion and envy on an already “envy-ridden” Website.
The Web is littered with dozens of prescriptions for mitigating these uncomfortable feelings. We can “crush” FOMO by asking if the image we are seeing is “an accurate representation of reality?” (McKay, 2013) We can combat the “nasty” feeling by not acting on fear, by appreciating one’s independence, and by taking social media breaks (Burton, 2014). We can “get over Facebook envy” by better recognizing there is likely unseen joy and pain behind any single snapshot (Mcleod, 2014). However, it is not in the interests or plans of commercial media platforms to further our well-being. Instead, platforms further our envy and usage while some in the media lament the emotional consequences—articles which generate additional views and revenue for publishers.
Although the management of mediated envy has a longer history than some might think, social media do add a new element: the pervasive evaluation of one’s social self. In his proposed five step program for overcoming FOMO, Will Welch (2013), GQ’s senior editor for style, likened it to a disease: “Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Vine—they are the mosquitoes delivering the #FOMO malaria.” Social media sites not only show you that you are “missing out,” but that you might have also been “left out.” Many of the Rookie respondents spoke of the resulting sense of alienation. Julianne wrote that her “most acute FOMO” occurs when she is looking at Instagram photos from events she was not invited to.
In fact, the social character of social media has even colonized the notion of selfie, taking a photo of one’s self, to include group photos—though some suggest these should be called groupies (Lafrance, 2014). The group selfie is valued above the lone selfie because too many lone selfies makes one look friendless. Similarly, as Marie noted, “It especially sucks when there are INSIDE JOKES being created without you—and cute Instagram and Facebook pics.” The use of context dependent communication in otherwise semi-public fora amplifies the sense that while the viewer can see a social scenario, they are not part of it.
Research on being left out typically speaks of belonging and social relatedness. Two decades ago, Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary (1995, p. 500, 497) reviewed the empirical literature on the “need to belong.” They defined this as the need for frequent personal interactions within relationships characterized by “stability, affective concern, and continuation into the foreseeable future.” Based on findings across multiple domains, including cognition and emotion, they concluded that this need was a “powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation.” Indeed, social media have done well in taking advantage of this fact. This need is also a constituent in self-determination theory which posits that much of human motivation stems from three sources: a need for autonomy (self-direction), competence (self-efficacy), and relatedness (“the need to feel belongingess and connectedness with others”) (Deci and Ryan, 1985, 2000, p. 73). One of the tasks undertaken by Przybylski et. al (2013) was to see if those who felt lacking in these needs also reported higher levels of FOMO, which they did.
This fear of being left out even prompted a new coinage in July of 2014. Bianca Bosker (2014), Huffinton Post Senior Tech Editor, posted an article which would be followed by about a dozen elsewhere on the Web that month. She noted that “The most anxiety-provoking Instagram photo is no photo at all” and called this the “Mystery of Missing Out” (MOMO). She described the origin of this feeling as arising from when a close friend “posted something highly suspect on Instagram last month: Nothing.” Her fiend had left on a four-day getaway with some pals and she was left with the question of “What were they doing?” and a new trigger for anxiety. MOMO was then picked up by The Telegraph (Sanghani, 2014), without attribution to Bosker, which was subsequently referenced by the likes of Salon (Williams, 2014) and Jezebel (Shrayber, 2014)—the latter’s article had over a hundred comments. The Telegraph chose to cast the issue in the self-help language that characterizes many discussions of envy since the nineteenth-century: “The latest anxiety faced by social media users is MoMo—the paranoia that stems from your friends not posting anything at all. Are they having so much fun that they can’t even share it?”
Of course, in an age of pervasive ratings and rankings (Reagle, 2015) we have more explicit indications of belonging and acceptance than that inferred from a lack of updates. Likes, shares, and retweets are also a source of anxiety, as Rookie’s Hannah noted.
I’d become a validation junkie, too. The hardest part of living without social media was remembering that my little life was enough, so I could just stay there and live it without asking for anyone else’s permission or validation. I realized that for me, posting is like asking the world—do you “like” me? Am I special enough? Am I funny enough, deep enough, smart enough, successful enough, love-able enough? How much do you like my opinion about this, that, and every other thing? (Melton, 2013)
FOMO, and its related neologisms, indicate a diverse field of uncomfortable feelings related to envy and the use of social media, performance of the self, and comparison with others. However, as seen in definitions of FOMO, it also entails specific problematic behaviors.
In addition to feelings of missing out or being left out, discourse about FOMO often focuses on external manifestations, characterizing them as compulsive behavior or social illness. Granted, in some circumstances external manifestations of FOMO could be thought of as a positive, such as striving to advance one’s career or social standing. But in most discussions they are construed as negative—to be managed and cured. In this section, I focus on discussion of what follows an initial elation with social media. That is, upon initial exposure to social media some people are undoubtedly taken with the ability to cultivate an identity and set of relationships (Henderson and Gilding, 2004; Kim and Lee, 2011; Tamir and Mitchell, 2012). Indeed, one might be exhilarated by self-disclosure and impressed with the status accorded to being an early adopter (e.g., a short user name) or proficient in attracting relationships (e.g., friends and followers). A similar sense of exhilaration and satisfaction might have been had by those over a century ago with newfound access to consumer culture and social mobility. However, in both centuries these behaviors come to be discussed as a significant negative—as a disease even.
In Conspicuous Consumption: Unproductive Consumption of Goods Is Honorable, first published in 1899, Thorstein Veblen wrote of a leisure class that demonstrates its status through the nonproductive consumption of goods and services.
The term “leisure,” as here used, does not connote indolence or quiescence. What it connotes is non-productive consumption of time. Time is consumed non-productively (1) from a sense of the unworthiness of productive work, and (2) as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness. (Veblen, 2006, p. 21)
Veblen noted that lasting evidence of what he called “productive labor” is often a material product that can be consumed. Similarly, what he called “exploit” by the leisure class could also “procure some tangible result that may serve for exhibition in the way of trophy or booty.” Such trophies might include superfluous servants, fancy lawns, fashionable wives, a humanities education—Veblen favored technocrats—and domestic horses and dogs—he favored cats (Veblen, 2006, pp. 21, 60–67).
Similarly, on social media we see a conspicuous sociality in which others attempt to convey a wealth of fun and friends—if this can be accompanied by conspicuous consumption (e.g., pictures from a party during an exotic vacation) all the better, though it is by no means necessary. It is as if we are compelled to be extroverts (???). People can even purchase fake friends and followers towards this end. In fact, when such things become grist for the services that rate our influence (e.g., Klout), the incentives for conspicuous sociality are only magnified (Reagle, 2015, ch. 3). There have been reports of people not being hired or promoted because of their Klout scores; even dating services have claimed to use the scores in their matching algorithms (Rosenbloom, 2012). As already discussed, this can generate unhappiness in others via social comparison and prompt what I call emulative sociality, a desire to match what one sees online. And the parallels do not end there. FOMO is often linked to the expression of “keeping up with the Joneses,” which originated at the beginning of the twentieth century. For instance, Hephzibah Anderson (2011) wrote at The Guardian that FOMO is “nothing new, of course, but what was formerly known as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ has been magnified by new technology. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare—they all broaden our scope for comparison.” Claire Cohen (2013) wrote in the Telegraph that FOMO was a new, more toxic, variant of “keeping up with the Joneses.” The reality TV show Keeping Up with the Kardashians, references the expression—and appropriately so, given the daughters’ penchant for social media.
The notion of “Keeping up with the Joneses” found its most popular expression in the Arthur Momand’s comic strip of the same name, first published in 1913. In an early strip of the series, a chagrined Aloysius P. McGinnis has been ridiculously dressed by his wife who proclaims: “we will show that Jones woman that her husband is not the only Adonis that can wear pink socks and a fuzzy hat!” The last frame of the strip showed Aloysius complaining to a bartender “Curses on the Jones’s and their pink socks!!!” (Jay and Holtz, 2011). At the same time, Mark Twain used the phrase in an essay entitled “Corn-pone Opinions” in which he decried the faddishness of the times: “The Smiths like the new play; the Joneses go to see it, and they copy the Smith verdict” (Twain, 1923). Social media is predicated on such behavior in the form of likes and retweets. Today, Smith posts a link to a attention-grabbing story, and others like or retweet it—often without having even read it! But instead of “fads,” we now speak of virality and disease.
In addition to FOMO behavior being understood as a conspicuous sociality, it is also often characterized as an illness. At the Huffington Post, Glennon Melton likened it detoxing from an addiction: “Social media had transformed me into an input junkie. Without social media, I experienced the same restless anxiety I felt while detoxing from alcohol” (Melton, 2013).
Of course, there is a larger debate about whether compulsive use of the Internet is a genuine “addiction” or illness, especially among young people (Moreno et al., 2011; boyd, 2014; Cheng and Li, 2014). But characterizations of FOMO, so far at least, are hyperbolic. In The Observer (The Guardian’s Sunday edition), FOMO is described as a syndrome that “begins with a pang of envy. Next comes the anxiety, the self-doubt, the gnawing sense of inadequacy. Finally, those feelings fizzle, leaving you full of bilious irritation” (Anderson, 2011). An article at the Huffington Post described it as an epidemic and a plague (Beck, 2013). On the blog The Art of Manliness it is described as “a very real malady—one that can sap your happiness if you’re not careful” (McKay, 2013). It’s been likened to “digital dementia” and a “dangerous experiment” (Dossey, 2014). And in addition to the co-morbid maladies of FOBO, FODA, and MOMO, there is also FODO (Fear of Disappointing Others) (Medine, 2014)—fear-related acronyms themselves had become viral. As noted, Welch likened it to malaria: “But just as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis didn’t get a name until Lou Gehrig came around, it took Twitter to give this specific iteration of social anxiety the handle by which it is now known” (Welch, 2013).
Welch’s claim is historically inaccurate in two ways. As noted, although FOMO is now linked with Twitter, the term itself preceded the social network. And, as already discussed, “keeping up with the Joneses” is a centuries-old aphorism identifying the anxiety and emulative behavior resulting from seeing others’ material success. At that time, too, this was spoken of as a disease known as neurasthenia. As Susan Matt noted, social commentators and medical experts linked it to strife and struggle born of restless ambition, emulation, and envy at the turn of the nineteenth-century (Matt, 2003, p. 61). The most vocal proponent of neurasthenia was George Will Beard. In an 1869 article in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal and in an 1881 book entitled American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences, Beard linked social changes and technology with nervousness. For Beard, “the nervous system of a man supplies the nerve-force of all the organs of the body, and can be increased or diminished by good or evil influences, as well as overworked”; that is “Nervousness is nervelessness—a lack of nerve-force” (Beard, 1881, p. 98, 5). What was to blame? In his chapter on causes, he lists many possible sources—which includes most anything he could think of including Protestantism, politics, and noisiness. Yet the brunt of his focus is on the technology that differentiated his period from that of ancient civilizations. The five key differences were “steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women”; when these five things “invades any nation, it must carry nervousness and nervous diseases along with it.” The consequence was that among the modern “elevated class” (the “in-door-living and brain-working classes”), people “are under constant strain, mostly unconscious, often times in sleeping as well is in waking hours, to get somewhere or do something at some definite moment” (Beard, 1881, p. 96, 98). Beard’s odd inclusion of women’s “mental activity” was because he felt his female contemporaries had so much more “brain work” and autonomy relative to their ancient forebears and suffered because of it. (Like Veblen, his work is replete with Victorian and personal biases.) The technological factors are more comprehensible, and the telegraph (his period’s method of sending short text messages across the globe) is called out for special attention. “Before the days of Morse and his rivals, merchants were far less worried than now” because transactions tended to be more local, slower, and less competitive (p. 104-105).
Yet it was not just the communication of worrying fluctuations in the market that contributed to neurasthenia. The printing press and telegraph make “the sorrows of any part of the world … the sorrows of individuals everywhere” (Beard, 1881, p. 134). Similarly, the opportunity to advance socially, and see how others live, overwhelms Americans with the aspirations “to rise out of the position in which they were born, whatever that may be, and to aspire to the highest possibilities of fortune and glory.” Today, some lament this aspiration has become groundless: the sisters of Keeping up with the Kardashians are often associated with the pejorative expression for celebrities who are only “famous for being famous.” In any case, such aspirations, then and now, require one to think carefully and to make difficult choices: “This forecasting, this forthinking, discounting the future, bearing constantly with us not only the real but imagined or possible sorrows and stresses … which is the very essence of civilization as distinguished from barbarism, involves a constant and exhausting expenditure of force” (Beard, 1881, p. 122, 129).
Much like Beard’s proposed neurasthenia remedies of good air and appropriate temperature, FOMO is seen as a condition amenable to treatment. Katie Baker (2014) at Jezebel concluded that she deserved better and was going to quit “cold turkey”: “It’s going to be rough; I’ll never know what my friend-of-a-friend’s bridesmaids wore to her wedding shower. But I bet they picked out some really hideous pastel puffball dresses.” In Welch’s (2013) GQ article “Do You Suffer from FOMO?”, he provided a five step program for overcoming the malady. His first step was to acknowledge the feeling that “I’m not doing the coolest thing ever at every single moment” and that this is okay. Also, his readers ought to recognize that the people who seem so effortlessly engaged and happy are actually working very hard: “An awful lot of exertion—blood, sweat, tears, texts, e-mails, tweets, Facebook lurks, and most of all, fear—goes into making the social arts look effortless.” Finally, we should also distance ourselves from our gadgets but also appreciate that FOMO and envy is built deep into the function of our brains, and not likely to go away—we’ve got to get a grip. Similarly, Martha Beck (2013) at the Huffington Post suggested three strategies: realize that it is based on lies, let the feeling prompt you to adopt an alternative way of thinking, such as finding something to be grateful about, and to understand that it is simply a feeling arising in the mind and which can just as easily dissipate. Also in Huffington Post, Kristin Luna (2014) recommended her readers enjoy some solitary activities like exercising or reading (e.g., “take a ‘me’ break”), live in the present, be curious instead of jealous, count your blessings, and diversify your life (i.e., spend more energy on friends, families, and experiences beyond social media).
Some even resort to using social media, perhaps ironically, to help counter this social media borne malady. The social calendaring service Lanyrd (2011) enabled attendees to easily schedule their time at events like the 2011 SXSW (South by Southwest, an annual high-profile event). Lanyrd also offered a browser extension to those who could not attend, blocking tweets from prominent SXSW attendees as well as anything tagged with #sxsw. Similarly, the website NotAtSXSW.com tried to shore up the self-esteem of those who could not attend by soliciting contributions: “You’re not at SXSW. We know how you feel, but you can still have fun! Send your photo submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll post ’em on our site!” (notatsxsw, 2014) Whether it is seen as a race with or contagion from the Joneses, these writers find FOMO distressing and seek relief from its exhaustion.
When Kathy Sierra (2007) wrote how Twitter enabled people to be constantly updated and connected, she found it ironic that it also “amplifies the feeling of missing something if you’re not checking Twitter (or Twittering) with enough frequency.” When Sierra wrote this, the term “tweeting” had not yet eclipsed “twittering.” Only a few years later, the latter term now seems archaic. The speed of such change is astounding. Decades ago, Raymond Williams (1976, p. 10) felt the same and wrote that in a “large and active university, and in a period of change is important as a war, the process can seem unusually rapid.” We now attribute such change to technology rather than war, but these changes do prompt a common impulse to inquire into how language reflects and shapes culture. In particular, what “forms of thought” are revealed and reified in our language? Williams conducted his inquiry into a vocabulary, “a shared body of words and meanings,” from the middle of the twentieth-century. We need a continuing inquiry into the words of the “early 21st century,” as the Oxford Dictionary (2014) so inexactly located the provenance of FOMO.
FOMO is an interesting term because of its novelty of expression and the continuity (or at least recurrence) of an underlying notion of “missing out.” Moreover, understanding the related “fear” as a continuation of century-old issues might help us better understand it. We’ve long been concerned with envy and how are perceived relative to others. The more things change, the more they stay the same: humans are social and envious creatures. What the FOMO discourse permits us to see is a conflation between a fear of missing out and being left out. In the contemporary eye, to want what we see and to be seen have fused. Lone envy and social exclusion are both facilitated by ubiquitous screens.
FOMO is also intriguing because of its meta-ness. Although the term FOMO emerged independently of social media, it’s linkage to and discussion on social media became self-exemplifying. Sites like Huffington Post posted dozens of articles on FOMO; competitors—fearing they would be left out—did the same. For example, When Bosker (2014) wrote about the “Mystery of Missing Out” (MOMO) at HuffPo, it was followed by dozens of unattributed articles elsewhere.
Yet, I am left with two outstanding questions. Mark Twain’s complaint of fads, of the Joneses liking something and the Smiths following suit, seems appropriate in the age of liking. But we rarely see much discussion of fads today. Do we simply take them for granted? Or do we prefer to speak of them as a disease?
Finally, I’ve looked to the present and the past, but what of the future? Will people still speak of FOMO a decade from now? Or will another, similar, expression go viral with only a few people asking how the newest term is related to FOMO and its antecedents? Consequently, the project of tracing the emergence of new keywords and buzzwords should continue. And this effort should be complemented by a retrospective analysis of how long such terms persist before disappearing.
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