What do you mean there's something better going on elsewhere?!
You're on a first date with a man who just might have the potential for a second date, maybe even a third. He's laughing at your jokes and flirting with you. There's nowhere you'd rather be. Or maybe you're hosting a dinner party for your favourite girlfriends, trading stories about men, mothers, clothes, careers and all the other things that bind you. There's nowhere you'd rather be. Or, perhaps more prosaically, you're in your trackies, alone on the couch, with a store of junk food and a stack of the rom-com DVDs your boyfriend refuses to watch. There's nowhere you'd rather be.
Or is there? Suddenly, your phone flashes and sounds its seductive beep. A friend has posted a message on Facebook about a fabulous party she's at, just around the corner. Someone else has tweeted about the awesome band they're dancing to at this very moment. Your peace is shattered and you're instantly anxious. Maybe there is somewhere you'd rather be.
Or maybe you're just suffering the pains of modernity's newest affliction: the Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO. Defined as the anxiety, irritation, frustration and envy that other people's social media updates can induce in us, pundits and psychologists worry that FOMO is affecting the quality of our relationships with one another and, more importantly, ourselves.
While FOMO isn't new, it is certainly becoming more intense. Ariane Welch, a 30-year-old PhD student from Sydney, acutely remembers the FOMO she felt as a child. "I was the youngest so my bedtime was the earliest," she recalls. "I remember feeling very lonely and convinced that everyone else was watching up-late episodes of Play School without me."
Now Welch, like many of her generation, gets a similar wrenching feeling when she's not comforted by the warm lull of tweets, status updates, instant messages, texts and Foursquare posts; all the things that ensure we're more informed than ever about what everyone else is doing. Log on to any social media website and you'll be confronted by a cavalcade of other people's experiences. Never before have we had such transparency about what our friends are doing, thinking, reading and eating.
On any given day, you might have one friend tweeting about their Nepalese trek, another posting video of their new baby, and another logging into Foursquare, urging you to check out the newest wine bar. All of life is there on the screen of your smartphone. And while it's usually interesting to know what others are up to, it's hard to resist comparing your life to the exciting ones unfolding on social media. Of course, our turbocharged, cyber social lives can have their upside. Recently, a group of Welch's friends in the UK threw a big party she really wished she could be at. To make her feel included, her friends hooked her up to the bash via Skype. Technology helped her join in. "It made me feel like I was missing out less than before the technology was there," she says. "It made me feel more included."
Yet, while she was partying via Skype, Welch was overlooking the people and the parties in her immediate vicinity – loved ones she could see in real time, in the real world. And this is where FOMO bites. If we're constantly anxious that something better is happening elsewhere, we're never fully in the moment. We can't appreciate life's full kaleidoscope of experiences if we have one ear pricked for the "ping" of a smartphone, letting us know what's going on somewhere else.
Welch agrees. She laments the days when she could go on car trips and sit for hours gazing out the window, thinking about everything and nothing. "They were really calming moments," she says, adding, "I don't think I could do that now."
Sherry Turkle, a science and technology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, has published a book, Alone Together (Basic Books, $46.95), which poses the question: "Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?"
Professor Turkle claims she has attended funerals where people have been checking their smartphones. She's interviewed adolescents with Facebook fatigue and children who report that their parents pay more attention to their phones than their offspring. She says it's time to "put technology in its place".
"There are times and places where we need to give each other our full attention," she told US comedian Stephen Colbert in an interview on The Colbert Report earlier this year. "There starts to be a degradation in the quality of what we're asking and answering because we're expecting a quick response."
Heidi Krause, a 34-year-old web producer from Sydney who has a fast-paced media job that requires her to update several Twitter accounts and develop social media strategies, finds her digital career often spills into her personal life. Krause says her friends routinely chide her for checking her smartphone while at dinner or out at a bar with them.
"I know I have been rude to people doing this," admits Krause. "I definitely check Facebook and Twitter incessantly. I think a lot of it is habit – I have an addiction to it. It started when I was single and I wanted to see what was happening, whether I was missing something."
But Krause doesn't think her reliance on social media is necessarily a bad thing: "I just like to know what everyone's doing. I have always enjoyed knowing what's going on. I don't want to be the person not in the conversation."
Krause says she likes the voyeuristic aspect of social media; the idea that you can look into other people's lives. But do the lives of others, as they're portrayed online, ever make her feel inadequate by comparison? "Yes, I think it can," she concedes. "But I can also feel that way if I go to the park on Sunday and look at all the families. It's a state of mind. Sometimes it's the opposite. I look at people on Facebook with families and think, 'Thank God. I'm so glad I don't have your life.'"
Welch, who's single, admits the self-congratulatory Facebook feeds of others do prompt her to reflect on her own life. "When you turn 30, Facebook definitely becomes 'look-at-my-beautiful-baby book'," she says. "Partly I enjoy that, because it's lovely to see my friends having babies. But it makes me conscious of making different decisions from them."
Krause admits her otherwise comfortable moments of solitude can sometimes be tainted by FOMO. She says technology can make you feel lonely at times. "You've got all these people who are tweeting or posting status updates about their children or husbands, and you could be just sitting on the couch with a glass of red thinking, 'Oh God.'"
To Krause, the self-consciousness of social media can be trying – the way people constantly feel the need to update their experiences, as though it's not worth doing something unless you can tell everybody, instantly, that you've done it. "It's similar to travelling for long periods, where you get obsessed with taking photos. You're in such a rush to document it, you miss the moment. But this is even worse because on social media you miss your moment by being in someone else's."
Australian social researcher and author Hugh Mackay says the technology may be new, but FOMO is as old as human society. "What we are looking at is a basic human tendency; this desire to connect and be plugged in," he points out. "If we go back to an indigenous tribe or a 17th-century village, we will find the same fear, because so much of our identity is wrapped up in being connected to some kind of network that defines us or is an extension of our own life."
What is novel, adds Mackay, is the pace of our modern networks. Whereas once we wanted to be informed day by day, now our communications move at such a frenzied pace that we want to be up to date minute by minute. "I think we can't go on like this; it's too intense and the sacrifice we're making is in the time we could otherwise be spending face to face with each other," he says. "People feel they're so informed about their online acquaintances, there's no need to meet face to face."
Another consequence of our relentless digital lives is that a whole generation is growing up uncomfortable with solitude. "When we are over-hyped and in this state of continuous connectedness, there isn't time for proper reflection, which demands periods of solitude. This is all leading up to a bit of a counter-revolution," predicts Mackay. "Eventually, we will retreat from this frantic response to the fear of missing out, but it will be another generation before we adapt."
Dr Darryl Cross, a clinical and organisational psychologist from Adelaide, says he often sees teenage clients who rush home from school to check what's being said about them on social media sites and what they might be missing out on. "The jury is out on how this will affect face-to-face relationships," he remarks. "Success in personal relationships is really a matter of practice. You need to get good at relating to people in the flesh, and if we are doing this online, you have to question what it does for social interaction."
And without success in relationships, our lives will be empty, no matter how full our Facebook feeds. Or, as Professor Turkle puts it: "You live for your communications with people; you don't live for your communications with technology."