The power of communication has been unleashed on the Internet as never before. It is now possible to know almost instantly what is happening around the world, to broadcast one’s ever-changing “status” to real or virtual friends and acquaintances, to express oneself endlessly in 160-character increments, to blog multiple times a day one’s erudite or inane musings to an audience that can number in the tens of thousands. Everyone has the power to become a “brand” and many have done so to great lengths, baring their life and its inspiring or sordid details without regard for privacy, confidentiality or simple reserve. With this phenomenon, new stressors are born, old ones are better overcome, and still others morph into more or less ominous sources of anxiety.
Take for example the ability to know, via Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram, the whereabouts and activities of our immediate and extended social network. It is possible to know, just by virtue of swiping the screen of a smartphone, who’s out, who’s dining with whom and where, who’s at the club or the sports arena—often with photos and videos of the event as it unfolds in some sort of electronic play by play. Truly fascinating glimpses of reality in some cases, not so interesting and even banal in many others.
One of the newest stressors originated by this type of instant access is “fear of missing out,” or FOMO. It is a bizarre reversal of social anxiety, the particularly debilitating condition which causes people to reluctantly withdraw from interpersonal contact due to stress overload. In FOMO, the stress comes from the anxiety provoked in recipients of instant messages by the awareness that others are socially involved at that very minute, while they are supposedly missing out on something fun and interesting. In other words, being at home, at work, or otherwise “not there,” not doing the things others are doing and that are being portrayed in the photo or video or described in the message, is sufficient to produce anxiety, which perhaps could be referred to as non-social in nature.
FOMO is a close cognate of that other need to be connected at all times, for which there may already be an acronym of which I am not aware, yet. Being “out of touch” means not having 24×7 access to email, IM, social media—and that’s simply too horrible to contemplate. Voice calls are becoming an endangered species, as people seem to prefer, in increasingly greater numbers, to text or post. The stress of not having access, no rhyme intended, can be fiercely acute. Its excesses bear on the ridiculous, and increasingly more often, on the tragic—as in the train operator in the San Fernando Valley who wrecked his passenger train while texting to his friends. For the growing number of car accidents caused by this technological distraction there is already an acronym, TWD or texting while driving.