Fear of missing out may be a latter-day anxiety, but we all need to embrace it

Published in The Independent on Sunday on May 23, 2015

The acronym Fomo (it stands for Fear of Missing Out, in case you have, um, missed out) entered the lexicon back in 2011 – and it’s showing little sign of abating.

It’s nothing new, this social anxiety that comes from worrying that everyone is having more fun than you; I daresay even Ugg the caveman used to fret that Ogg had found a better mammoth-hunting spot than him. But everyone is agreed that if you take a primal fear and give it a smartphone, the anxiety gets much worse.

It’s no coincidence that the tap-happy acronym emerged at around the same time we all went Instagram- and Twitter-crazy. Alongside Facebook, these apps not only present us with endless streams of photos of other people having a fabulous time in flattering filters, but also offer ceaselessly updating lists of “must-see” gigs and plays and movies; clubs and cocktail bars and pop-up restaurants we “must visit”; and the greatest records and boxsets and books of all time that we “must” consume before we die… presumably of exhaustion.

Even when you’re having fun, it’s easy to find yourself having a quick social-media scroll when your dining companion pops to the loo; suddenly, a snap of friends on a holiday pops up and makes your going out feel like missing out.

Fomo is now such a widely used phrase that there’s even a recent modification, Fogo – or Fear of Going Out – applied to events that everyone else is at but which are now so mainstream that they’re totally lame (the celeb-filled, much-Instagrammed Coachella Music Festival prompted the coinage in a recent New York Magazine piece).

But Fomo is also now being taken seriously – London’s ICA is even hosting a summit on the phenomenon this month. Granted, its three-day examination of “the progression and trajectory of technological, ecological and cultural advances” reaches far beyond our propensity for hissy-fitting over sold-out gigs, but it nonetheless legitimises Fomo, taking the notion of “postdigital anxieties” as a given.

Now, anxiety is good for no one. And I certainly suffer from this very modern malaise: feeling not only overwhelmed by all the things I’m going to, but also all the things I’m not. But here’s the thing about Fomo: it can be a spur.

It would be easy to spend life sat on my sofa nibbling Ferrero Rocher layer by layer and watching First Dates. In fact, I love doing this. But I love doing it because I do it once a week. If I was watching vapid telly every evening… what a waste! The fact that when I’m doing nothing, social media is gently (OK, insistently) reminding me of all the brilliant things I could be doing – well, it does actually make me go and do them. And that’s great.

It is good to get out there and use your brief, precious life. That could be sport or political activism or pot-throwing; for me, it could be watching plays (it often is watching plays; I love watching plays) or going for a picnic with friends or walking up a hill or dancing till 5am.

And yes, Fomo is bad for your sleep patterns, because you never want to say no to an invitation, or leave in case something fun happens; but I say, I can sleep when I’m old – while I’ve still got the energy, bring on the afterparty!

Fomo may make us feel shaky and miserable sometimes. No one wants to feel left out. And no doubt it will recede with age – or at least it will morph into being jealous of other people’s houses rather than their house parties. But for now, for me, I think it is helpful.

The fear of missing out can push us to live life to the full, to live each day as if it were our last, to seize the day, and other cheesy inspirational-poster quotes. If Fomo didn’t exist, just think how much more you’d miss out on.

Fear of Missing Out, bringing together theorists, academics, social thinkers and artists to discuss the impact of mass digital culture, is at the ICA (ica.org.uk), London SW1, from Friday to 31 May

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