I can’t believe I thought I was the only one who felt this way. It turns out there is a common reaction among people in which seeing and hearing about your peers’ activities can make your own social calendar, and even your life choices, seem inadequate. It’s known as the fear of missing out, or FOMO, and with the advent of real-time social media interactions, it’s becoming more prevalent than ever.
Every weekend the Instagram photos, Facebook status updates and flurry of tweets pour in – and yet again, most people seem to be doing something more interesting than I am. My friend, C.L., posted photos of her and her friends gallivanting through South American wine country at the same time I was reheating my pita pocket grilled cheese for a House Hunters marathon. Don’t get me wrong – I love sandwiches, and I love HGTV, but seeing Mendoza through an artsy camera lens makes my Saturday afternoon look like a scene out of a retirement home. Luckily, she’s one of my best friends, so I get to live vicariously through her – but let’s go ahead and compare our recent activities so you can get an idea of what I mean.
What is FOMO?
According to The New York Times article on the subject, FOMO is characterized by a “blend of anxiety, inadequacy and irritation that can flare up while skimming social media.” Any form of media or communication can inspire the same feelings of regret or exclusion, but today’s social spaces make FOMO more likely and more severe because of the immediacy and specificity of the information we can access. If I see a picture of an event that happened a few months ago, I’m much less likely to feel left out than if I know that my friends are currently at a concert, having a great time without me and posting pictures to prove it.
Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics who is quoted in The New York Times article, said these feelings of regret stem from being able to imagine how things could have gone differently. We are constantly being informed through multiple channels of what others are doing and, necessarily, what we are not doing. Mobile phones, tablets and computers give us 24/7 access to information about our friends’ whereabouts and social lives, down to the dish they just ordered at some swanky restaurant you never knew existed. In that moment, you can imagine what your night could have been like if you had made different decisions.
This deluge of real-time information becomes overwhelming and seems to swallow up the things we do on a daily basis, making activities that once brought us satisfaction seem boring in comparison. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Social channels inform us of great opportunities, trends and new places to visit. We get a richly detailed account of what our friends and acquaintances spend their free time doing, which in turn helps us build relationships with them and widen our own horizons.
Branding with FOMO
It’s also not difficult to see how marketers could use FOMO to their advantage. A presentation at SXSW Interactive this year covered just that topic, looking at these socially induced feelings of regret through the lens of “Keeping up with the Joneses.” When you see others leading a life that you envy, it encourages you to spend the money needed to experience the same things. Brands can count on social pressures generated by Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other social channels to create demand for certain products, places and activities.
Ann Mack of JWTIntelligence explained in her presentation how comparing ourselves to others is nothing new, but the modern incarnation of FOMO involves more than the desire to have better things and experiences than our peers – it goes so far as to cause us to question fundamental decisions and the progression of our lives. According to JWT’s report, the millennial generation is most susceptible to these feelings, a trend that could be harnessed to target the younger generation in marketing efforts.
Ms. Mack also discussed current campaigns that harness FOMO for marketing purposes. The AT&T “Don’t Be Left Behind” campaign positions the brand’s 4G services as a way for you to never miss out on social messages that everyone else gets. There are numerous apps that take the same approach, such as barspace.tv, which provides live feeds from participating U.S. bars so that viewers can decide which social scene they want to join and if they’re missing out on something great.
Thankfully, my personal FOMO is always fleeting. Yes, a little piece of my heart shriveled up when one of my friends moved to the Bahamas. And I have to turn off my laptop when I see my other friend checking into that place in New York with the crazy delicious jalapeno cheddar tater tots. But then I remind myself that I have a particularly awesome job, great friends and a baby pug waiting at home – so why should I take my life cues from Facebook?