On the Fear Of Missing Out


November 14, 2012

Daily Beast has a recent piece on FOMO, which translates to the: Fear Of Missing Out. After providing a few case studies on this condition that apparently plagues Millenials, the author claims: “FOMO is our generation’s cross to bear.” A few responses immediately sprung to mind:

1. I can accept the idea that FOMO is a characteristic of the Millenial experience, specifically in that the term has in the past been genetically linked with the study of motivations for social media consumption. A collection of recent Harvard studies have determined that “upwards of 80% of posts to social media sites (such as Twitter) consist simply of announcements about one’s own immediate experiences.”  Even if the “proximate mechanisms” that motivate this type of social media disclosure are currently obscure, it is thought that this type of self-revelation has an “intrinsic value” similar to eating and copulating. A few years ago, Pew polling suggested “new social norms that reward disclosure are already in place among the young,” which underscores the idea that Millenials are not simply more open to advances in social media, but are actively receptive to redefining the various norms that generate concepts of privacy and propriety.

But, it is a mistake to think of this FOMO as something particular to being a Millenial, or that it is a defining Millenial condition. Thinking of the “fear of missing out” as the burdensome cross of a particular generation sui generis requires a moderate lack of historical consciousness. The connection this concept forges between an inexplicable desire for self-disclosure and the use of media – social, literary, film, or otherwise – as an outlet for this ongoing autobiography is actually a handy heuristic for several recent eras of culture and commerce.

Relative to film in particular (as this is ostensibly a place to talk about film), the last century of cinema teems with so many examples of this “fear of missing out” that one may be inclined to think that film as a quintessentially modern art is preoccupied with the promises and problems of self-disclosure. Our recent adaptation to hand-held cinematography, and even hand-held device cinematography, is an indication that this connection between social-media induced FOMO and FOMO as cinematic theme has at least been tacitly made in popular culture-making.  The once more tacit preoccupation with self-disclosure in cinema is becoming overt in its very form.

2. At the end of Fellini’s 8 ½, Guido confesses that he has been addicted to taking every opportunity that has come his way for fear of missing out on that one golden chance. As a result of this “fear of missing out,” his interior life has been cluttered with too many attempts to say what he has always wanted to say about himself, all of which have been clouded by commercial concerns. In the final sequence of the film, which is actually quite terrifying when seen through the lens of this prior disclosure, every actor from the film parades into the frame and cavorts on the drooping husk of a massively failed sci-fi blockbuster set. Here, Fellini seems to be proclaiming that the path to true self-disclosure, which eludes us throughout 8 ½, is not something that cinema has made clearer for him.

This becomes programmatic for Fellini, as his following films turn acutely toward surrealism. The jig was up. But Guido’s reflection extends beyond Fellini’s canon into the task of all post-neorealist film, which defines the bulk of what we see in cinemas to this day. Every brow-height of our culture is, and always has been, riddled with this “fear of missing out” and all the ways we try to circumvent its clutches. This means that FOMO as currently experienced provides us an opportunity to engage cultural expressions of similar fears in the past rather than simply despair of its contemporary presence or resign ourselves to puzzling at its “proximate mechanisms.”

3. FOMO derives from our unfettered access to other people’s narratives in social media, which simply increases our opportunity to feel left out. Every Twitter refresh offers as much portent as lining up to be picked for a grade school kickball team. One commonly recommended solution to this conundrum is limiting one’s access to social media. While that may be handy as a stopgap measure, it is not an adequate treatment for the underlying illness.

The solution to social media-induced FOMO is not less media, it is better media. Here is the prescription: Go start digging into cinema about the universality of this sense of loss and isolation. Bear witness to the way many artists have attempted to resolve their “fear of missing out.”  Start all the way back in 1934’s L’Atalante, and watch what happens when Juliette runs off into the glittering streets of Paris. Is it a species of the “fear of missing out” that underscores Murnau’s 1927 Song of Two Humans? In 1966, when Marie becomes separated from her donkey in Au hazard Balthazar, do we begin to see the specter of FOMO looming? Taxi Driver, Broken Flowers, 400 Blows, Le mepris, Vendredi soir, Jeanne Dielman… I am beginning to see this “fear of missing out” and its connections to self-disclosure as the primary concern of a litany of cinema classics.