We've all experienced the scene. A family gathering, a group of friends, in a bar or a restaurant. All chatting. But not to each other. Instead, they sit hunched over their mobile phones, interacting with people far away and ignoring those by their side.
What drives this strange behavior? Recent studies in psychology have found many of us have a condition called Fear of Missing Out, or FoMO. It's described as ‘a worry that friends and important others may be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.'
Such worries have always been around, and in earlier times probably accounted for our tendency to spy on the neighbors or gossip about colleagues at work. With the rise of social media, though, a couple of things changed.
First, we suddenly had access to a lot more information about our nearest and dearest. Today you rarely need to ask your friends about their vacations; chances are you will have seen their snaps on Instagram before they've even returned.
Second, you never knew when new information might come in. While water-cooler conversations can be predicted in advance, a Tweet or a Facebook update can arrive at any time.
The rapid-fire, unpredictable nature of updates is what gives social media much of its allure. But it feeds right into FoMO, as well.
"Social media has lowered the cost of admission for knowing about the things we could be doing," says Andrew Przybylski , research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute in the United Kingdom, and the leading authority on FoMO.
"It sets up an easier space for us to know we are not having the maximum experience."
But at least in the early days of social media you still had to be online to get your hit of other people's action. That meant being in front of a computer with an Internet connection.
Now, thanks to smartphones and other mobile devices, you can check on other peoples' activity all the time. And sometimes it's hard not to.
"Previously, if things were going on someone would have to call you or you would have to turn on the television," Przybylski says. "The way a lot of things are set up now is that they will intrude in the here and now to tell you things."We are in a space where people haven't quite learned yet how to regulate it. The affordance of getting all this great information comes with the cost of having to learn a new cognitive skill."
This sounds like pretty bad news for good old-fashioned face-to-face interactions. But Przybylski thinks that what is happening is actually a chance to master technology in order to lead more enriching and fulfilling lives.
If we can cut through social media's background noise, for example, we can use location-based mobile technology services to find friends and family nearby, giving us more opportunities to meet in person.
Whereas traditional social media use can exacerbate FoMO, mastering it in this way could help overcome the fear. If you lead a richer life you are less likely to feel you are missing out.
Ultimately, Przybylski believes, FoMO "is not a bad thing. It's a chance for someone to think: ‘what are the things I am most afraid of missing?' And that leads to the question: ‘What do I really want?'"
FoMO: The Brand Angle
If marketing is about getting people to buy new things then a fear of missing out should be a great thing for marketers, right? Not so, says Andrew Przybylski. For a start, FoMO itself is not really that enjoyable.
A study of college students revealed those with high levels of FoMO had more positive and more negative experiences of social media. "It was an ambivalent or mixed feeling," Przybylski says; not something brands would necessarily want to encourage.
At the same time, FoMO can be counterproductive to brand loyalty.
"If you want continued brand engagement, you don't want people to experience FoMO for every new model of BMW, because maybe they won't like their current BMW and they will sour on the idea," Przybylski points out.
That is perhaps why the companies that would appear to have the most to gain from FoMO, which are social media providers such as Facebook, have actually become quite adept at pruning the kinds of content they offer you.
"One of the cynical things that people say about Timeline is that it's a way of inserting ads," says Przybylski. "But one of the functions it has is to weight the importance of certain stories to you.
"The folks at Facebook have done a series of A/B tests that look at people's satisfaction with getting a 100 percent fire hose news feed versus a weighted one and they say people prefer the weighted one hands-down every time."
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