FOMO's etymology

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 linguist Donna Gibbs (2006lc, 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 examples 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 (Lucy2005ud).) 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 expands the acronym and provides an example phrase “Jonny got the rep for being a fomo, but jake’s a bigger one” (Justinas2005fmo). 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, a better definition (and the most popular one) was posted in 2006: “The fear that if you miss a party or event you will miss out on something great” (Beaqon2006fmo). 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. In April 2011 it was UD’s “word of the day” (Dossey2014fdd, p. 69).

Beyond penning definitions, lexicographers also attempt to find the origins and early exemplars of a term. For instance, the august Oxford Dictionary (2014fmo) located FOMO’s origins in the “early 21st century.” While it can be hard to confidently identify a single point of origin, I think we can be more precise than that. FOMO’s usage, unsurprisingly, coincides with the launching of Facebook in 2004. In that year, Patrick Mcginnis (2004sta), a Harvard Business School student, wrote a light-hearted story for the school newspaper in which he noted that the students suffered from an array of conditions. First, FOMO led to a state of over-commitment in which people packed a single evening with nearly a dozen events, from Sherry tasting, to cocktails, dinners, parties, and after-parties, with the night 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 (Mcginnis2004sta). Both of these conditions then lead to yet another deleterious condition — interestingly, all without any mention of Facebook.

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. (Mcginnis2004sta)

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.

Ironically, services like Twitter are simultaneously leaving some people with a feeling of not being connected, by feeding the fear of not being in the loop. 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. (Sierra2007cpu)

(Apparently, at this point “tweeting” had not yet eclipsed “twittering.”) In the same year, Lucy Jo Palladino (2007fyf) dedicated a section of her book on how to “defeat distraction and overload” to FOMO, though she focused on examples beyond social media, such as parents’ anxiety that their children are falling behind. Also, Business Week reported (facetiously) that an “epidemic has hit America’s top MBA programs. At Harvard Business School, it’s called FOMO: fear of missing out. Symptoms include a chronic inability to turn down invitations to any party, dinner, or junket attended by anyone who might be a valuable addition to one’s network—no matter the cost” (Miller2007tsl).

By 2010, FOMO was being used and spoken of broadly, and it was now unambiguously tied to social media usage. 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” (Miranda2011fm, p. 5, 17). About the same time marketing consultant Dan Herman created the website to offer his services and stake a claim in originating 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”; (Herman2000ist, p. 335; Herman2011fm). (An early report by Herman (2002tss) gives FOMO greater attention, and actually uses the abbreviation, though I can’t find any other source confirming its provenance.) In 2012, capping its seven year ascent, the notion was recognized by the Oxford dictionaries (2012bwa) 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 received its first scholarly attention from social psychologist Andrew Przybylskia and his colleagues (2013meb, p. 841). 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 we see a recognition of an emotion (i.e., anxiety) 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 discussion of FOMO invokes multiple, often tangled, references to varied emotions (e.g., anxiety) and behaviors (e.g., compulsive checking). Hence, it is worthwhile to further understand what it is that people are speaking of when the lament a fear of missing out.

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