Fear of missing out on something better going on somewhere else — a better party, a more interesting conversation, a more gripping movie — is no doubt part of being young. For me it goes as far back elementary school, when we’d go on field trips and the better crowd was always the one in the back of the bus if I was in the front — or in the front of the bus if I was in the back. Why were they all singing and laughing and carrying on, and we were all so quiet?
But when fear of missing out not only gets its own acronym (FOMO, the Urban Dictionary’s Word of the Day for last April 14) and, worse, when it becomes a rationalization for a truly unforgivable style of social interaction, I start to worry about the next generation.
According to a piece in today’s New York Times, this nefarious FOMO is leading packs of twenty-somethings to become smartphone-addled, constantly texting and emailing while they’re in the presence of people they should be having a perfectly good time with, always on the prowl for the next better thing. It’s so bad that one of these offenders actually admits to sort of slipping “in and out of consciousness” while he’s with people, because he’s spending so much time attending to people he isn’t with.
The irony to me is that this guy, Spencer Lazar, who’s practically addicted to the constant quest for his “information edge,” is starting an online service, Spontaneously, that’s supposed to help friends connect with other friends in person. If they all act like Spencer once they’re in each other’s presence, why even bother?
I’m guessing Spencer is probably in his late 20s, since most of the people in the article were, but his age somehow never appeared — hire some more proofreaders, New York Times! The article describes what it’s like to hold a conversation with him IRL.
You’re passing in and out of consciousness, listening for the key words, the meat of the conversation, but letting the ancillary parts drift off. You can miss important details or offend someone by not being present.
Now, I know not to trust trend stories, even when they appear in the vaunted The New York Times, but the one really troubled me. Especially because I asked Sam if it sounded like the way she and her friends behave, and she said yeah, it pretty much did. (She also discovered that she and Spencer have 16 mutual friends on Facebook, which I guess isn’t that surprising since they’re about the same age, class, and sensibility, and since Spencer has 1,639 friends.)
The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 30 percent of young adults say they sometimes use their smartphones to avoid interacting with the people they’re with. (70 percent use them when they’re bored, which no doubt includes some of those same people.) And we parents just aren’t getting it. As 29-year-old Jordan Cooper put it, when he’s with his mother and spends all his time texting and tweeting and checking Facebook, she tells him — no doubt hurt in the way we dinosaur fifty-somethings get hurt about such behavior in our beloved children — that he’s being anti-social. But Jordan puts her in her place. “I’m being social,” he tells his mother, “just not social with you.”