Zachary Bell | Facing the fear of missing out
Critical Playground | How FOMO belies the depressing economy of Penn’s social life
March 27, 2012, 1:08 am · Updated March 28, 2012, 11:41 pm·
“I know I shouldn’t go, but I just have to. I have like a really bad fear of missing out.”
If you’re partying where the party’s at, then you’ve probably heard such a line.
FOMO, or the fear of missing out, refers to the social anxiety students may feel from missing an event, falling behind or tumbling into social bankruptcy.
This is because at Penn, we don’t just hang out. We build social portfolios. We are investors in the Penn social life stock exchange, carefully selecting which events to attend, accumulating diverse social capital, so that we may be accepted in an impressive number of social scenes.
When I look at my Facebook events page, my heart palpitates. On a given weekend, there are a few student performances, a sports game, a downtown fundraiser, a house party and maybe a concert or conference. With Greek life and extracurricular groups, it’s even more cluttered.
The pressure to maximize social value and the abundance of options can make social planning a taxing experience. The plurality of choices raises our expectations for the events we do attend, because we are hyper-aware of the opportunity costs.
College sophomore Corey Bassett relates to this pressure, saying that at college she feels that “I’m supposed to be having the best time of my life … making the most out of every second.”
This social anxiety comes with some negative side effects. Constantly weighing the value of our social choices takes us out of the present — rather than appreciating the event, we are stuck comparing currencies or planning strategies for our future investments. It’s not about going. It’s about having gone.
FOMO also destroys free time. Bassett explains that even though she thinks of herself as independent, it can be difficult to go to sleep early if everyone else is out. If you want to stay in, you fall into social debt.
But it’s not surprising that we feel this way. We already live in a society where references to movies and TV shows are considered significant points of connection. It’s not necessary to watch 30 Rock with a friend so long as you can both quote it and laugh. We’ve replaced the co-created inside joke with the co-consumed one.
Like a primetime TV show, a Penn event that is highly attended holds higher value. In conversation, we exchange our social currency: were you at the mixer? Did you see his three against Harvard? What did you think about Aziz’s set?
These transactional conversations turn us all into marketers. “We’re all going to Smoke’s! You have to come, don’t be lame!” We become attached to our social investments, so it becomes a personal offense if a friend is not interested in them. Because if no one goes, then the venture loses value and we’re not as sure if we should still buy shares.
The best traders accumulate a diverse portfolio, so that even if they don’t attend a particular event, their social value is secure. Being in a certain sorority, club or sports team may equate to “coolness” according to this calculation, regardless of character.
It makes sense to value people with similar interests, but it doesn’t make sense to uncritically adopt an institutional value system and discount those who don’t buy into it. It took me too long to realize that many of the most interesting people at Penn will never show up to Feb Club.
This spring break, I finally divested by leaving the Penn bubble to go camping in South Carolina. I stepped out of the stuffy and frenetic stock exchange building to breathe the fresh air. When I turned around, I could see the limited dimensions of the building and realized that it was just one in a sprawling landscape.
That’s not to say that going to speakers, parties and shows is bad — it’s just to say that there’s no reason to fear missing out on them once you realize it’s all play money that’s only good for exchange with other Monopolists. Go because you want to hear the speaker, not so you can talk about what was said.
What are the alternatives? We can be social life entrepreneurs: design our own products and name our own prices. We can also be social life anarchists who don’t privilege an event over another.
When we graduate, we can choose to enter another economy and enslave ourselves to a system where we have the potential to lose value. Or, we can create our own, with only value to gain and nothing to fear.
Zachary Bell is a College senior from New Haven, Conn. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Critical Playground appears every other Tuesday.