Thursday, February 12, 2015

Re-Defining FOMO--We all need to put down the phone

(From the February 12, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Several years ago the New York Times had an article aboutthe new concept of ‘FOMO,’ an acronym for Fear of Missing Out. It related to social media, and the fact that so many people can’t go more than a few minutes without checking their Facebook or Twitter feeds to see what vital nugget of information they may have missed.

A friend may be grilling asparagus at this very moment, for goodness sakes. Or someone may have posted a ‘selfie’ of themself doing something unremarkable in front of a nondescript landmark.

Frankly, there is not a lot to miss in terms of quality content. Even the “breaking news” that comes into the notification center on my smart phone is often an item of marginal urgency.

Ultimately, the fear people have of missing out is based on social pressure. The phenomenon of needing to feel engaged and relevant almost constantly is a socially constructed reality. Yet so many people are drawn in to it. It requires mature discipline and self-restraint to put down a phone for several hours and be okay with that. The fear of missing out, in other words, is a fear of people’s own making.

I see this phenomenon in action all the time. On the college campus, on sidewalks around campus, in hallways as they wait to enter a classroom, even in the classroom, students check and re-check the smart-phone screen like Pavlov’s dogs, responding instinctively to every beep and buzz. My wife and I have seen young people on a date walking hand-in-hand on the pier, and in their free hands they each check their own phones. I call it a bizarre dance of disconnection.

Let’s be real, though. Adults are just as guilty. In meetings, in cars, adults who should be paying attention to people and circumstances around them are in tune with their tablet, phone, or laptop instead.

The thing is, most people know it’s a problem. Last week a faculty colleague of mine shared on Facebook (I know, that’s ironic) a video about the folly of phone addiction. In the video, a young black man raps some savvy lyrics about the problem. He asks a friend to meet face to face, only to be asked when he wants to Skype. He points out the human attention span is now one second less than that of a goldfish. The average teen texts every 20 seconds when they are awake. He calls Facebook an ‘anti-social network’ for its pushing us to count friends by number instead of by quality.

I shared the video (I know, again, ironic) on Facebook and received a lot of affirmative comments. Again, many others agree that smart phones, social media, and technology in general can get out of hand. It all can control us instead of us controlling it.

And that’s the answer. “Everything in moderation,” or “nothing in excess,” is an ancient sentiment, attributed variously to Aristotle, Socrates, obscure Roman dramatists, and the plumber who raised me. Regardless of the source, it makes sense today too with regard to use of technology.

As new technology emerges, it is always a two-edged sword. There was great fear that the telephone was an intrusion into people’s homes when it was new. But it also served to provide substantial benefits to society. It’s how we use it. It’s the same with smart phones and social media. I read books and magazine subscriptions on my phone, and I can keep in touch with acquaintances that I otherwise would not see for months or years. I teach how organizations can use social media for transparent, dialogic communication with their various publics. However, I can’t let it rob me of my time by worrying about keeping up with all of the mundane minutia that pops up.

Numerous articles and blog posts address the problem now. They give advice to otherwise savvy business professionals about how to control their use of email and social networks. The key advice is to “batch manage” such communication. In other words, check email and social networks in batches, maybe twice a day. This relieves the stress and allows one to be more productive and focused as opposed to being constantly interrupted.

I’ve been employing this strategy, having been guilty of being a little too excessive in checking and responding to messages. I feel greater peace and productivity at work. And in my personal life, I have come to redefine FOMO—I fear what I may be missing out when I’m looking at my phone. The sound of a bird chirping. The pleasure of reading a good book. Something my wife says, or the look on her face when she laughs. I’ve learned to choose my wifey over Wifi.