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FOMO: Be there or die!

Published in May-Jun 2012

The neurosis of being cool.

I had to skip work yesterday. It wasn’t a choice; the city was ablaze and I was too rationally terrified to step out of the safe confines of my home. Besides, I was confident the office would be near-deserted. After all, we Pakistanis have a healthy tendency to be lazy when allowed.

But I was wrong. Several people did show up at work and proceeded to have a grand old time. So when I walked into work today, I found them giggling inanely about some joke that had been cracked and enjoyed by all in my absence. And it irked me because I was a latecomer to the arena: not having witnessed the joke firsthand meant I didn’t get the context, didn’t find it rib-achingly hilarious and wasn’t privy to the long list of jokes spawned by this one demon.

In other words, I missed out.

This is a phenomenon that affects younger people far more acutely and frequently than it does senior citizens like me. See, my having missed out on a joke resulted in short term irritation. For someone a decade younger, it would mean the end of life itself. It would indicate a lack of coolness, a sinking feeling of rejection and ultimately, soul crushing alienation. Young people’s lives revolve around the position they occupy in their peer group and that position is not as secure as one would think; it’s cruelly fluid. If Aamir hasn’t played the latest version of Black Ops, he isn’t as cool or as relevant as he was yesterday. And if he hasn’t even heard of it, well… he might as well give up altogether.

In the words of Bianca Bosker, an editor for The Huffington Post, “FOMO (fear of missing out) is the sometimes energising, sometimes terrifying anxiety that you are missing out on something absolutely terrific. It could be a TV show, a party, a gadget, or even that really good burrito from the food cart. The important thing to keep in mind is that FOMO isn’t just a state of mind; it’s a physical state. So as a FOMO sufferer, I can report sweating, itching, pacing and compulsive refreshing of my Twitter feed.”

#### FOMO is relentless, and inescapable, and here to stay. And it inspires extreme reactions in people. Observe two conflicting hypothetical cases.

Sounds deliriously exciting and horrifyingly taxing. We used to make fun of those shallow idiots who would update their statuses every 15 seconds: you know, ‘I was in the loo, now I’m in my room, later I’ll be in the lounge,’ etc. Well, sneer no more, for this is their affliction.

Ironically, the vastness of media and the permanent sense of multi-level connectivity heightens FOMO to a hitherto unknown degree. Before, there was just your landline and email. Now, you have got Facebook and Twitter and BBM and a host of channels, where people make the time and effort to keep their lives updated, and to stick their noses into other people’s lives with equal intensity. And if somehow you were not logged into FB for a minute and within that time something momentous happened, you would have lost something infinitely precious. All your mates are giggling and elbowing each other right this second, while you sit alone weighed down by your ignorance. And don’t even try to get in on the joke now; it’s too late. Centuries late, in fact.

Lately, I have seen FOMO everywhere (I don’t know, maybe this newfound diligence to never ever miss out on a single thing of note is giving me delusions). It’s even been covered in a memorable episode of How I Met Your Mother, called the ‘Curse of the Blitz’. Yup, the ‘blitz’ being the unlucky individual who somehow managed to always, always, be absent for the funny. I remember it especially because it starred a Lost alumni (which will be my favourite show for all eternity, critics be damned) and because I did in fact inflict FOMO on a friend: “you mean you ‘haven’t’ seen that episode??!”

FOMO is what prompts those enthusiastic discussions over the merits of a Veena Malik controversy; it’s what encourages late night repeat viewings of political talk shows to catch particularly offensive gaffes; it’s what nudges the manliest of manly specimens to succumb to the lure of fantasy fiction (hello, Game of Thrones!); it’s what pushes young men of a certain section of society to start strutting about like skinny Pakistani versions of Chulbul Pandey; it is what goads these same young men to splurge their meagre salaries on an iPhone, even when it means they won’t eat lunch for a month. Hell, FOMO is probably the motivator behind (a fraction of the attendees) PTI’s jalsa in Karachi. And Humsafar of course. FOMO is relentless, and inescapable, and here to stay. And it inspires extreme reactions in people. Observe two conflicting hypothetical cases.

Fazal is addicted to FOMO, and he loves it. He doesn’t want it to ever stop, even if it means he will be logged onto Facebook 24/7 and that he will need to constantly scour the internet for any anecdote, info, or strangeness. Yes, he suffers from a tiny bit of anxiety. But it is completely bearable because the gasps of admiration and awe he elicits when he discusses something current are immensely gratifying. So what if he hardly gets any sleep? It’s worth it.

Umar, on the other hand, has given up. He used to be Fazal once. He used to tear his hair out, slap himself to stay awake and subject himself to boatloads of crap in an effort to find that one precious nugget. Umar would break into a sweat and start tapping his foot and grinding his teeth at the notion that somewhere, somehow, something cool was happening and he had missed it. It ruined his peace of mind, his existence. Then one day, Umar stopped.

He logged off Facebook, he switched off from BBM and he sat back. He took a breath, and he accepted – finally and with much agony – that keeping up with every triviality under the sun was not possible and ultimately not worth it. Instead, Umar became the anti-FOMO. He embraced SOAMO: serenity of always missing out (I totally just made up this acronym; cool, no?). He began dissing the herd, the ones who were still logging on and commenting and updating. And in so doing, he cemented his unique image of coolness and all-round amazingness.

Sadly, most of us don’t have the gumption to be Umar.

We are too obsessed with remaining Fazal, being connected, in-the-know, in-on-the-joke and all those other ‘in’ related things. And as long as we remain like this, FOMO will continue to capitalise on our fragile egos and cackle with glee each time one of us refreshes our FB page for the 100th time in five minutes.

But I don’t care. All I care about right now is not missing the launch of Sana Safinaz. If I’m not there on the very first day, I might as well be dead.

Sara Amjad Qureshi is Senior Planner, JWT Pakistan.