Crystal Major will never forget the time she logged on to Facebook and found a photograph of her closest girlfriends having dinner together. They were out celebrating a birthday at a swanky, downtown Toronto club, and they appeared to be having a blast. “What a great night!” read one comment beneath the flawless photo. “So much fun!” There was just one problem: Major hadn’t been invited to the party.
“I felt left out and wondered why they thought it would be more fun [without me],” says Major, 29, of the grim realization. Though the Toronto-based writer never confronted her friends about it (“I didn’t want to sound like a baby”), it’s something that has clearly stuck with her—that feeling of inadequacy, of missing out.
She’s not alone. In an age dominated by social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we’re plugged in like never before. We’re consuming the latest news, gossip and fashion trends, connecting with friends old and new, networking like mad. It’s all so easy and welcoming. And yet, it’s leaving us feeling jealous, depressed, alone and anxious, thanks to a self-imposed need to be connected 24-7.
Welcome to the world of FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. (Didn’t you know?) It’s the whole “keeping up with the Joneses” phenomenon, only on a much larger scale, with everyone feeling as though we’ll miss some earth-shattering news, or a coveted party invite, if we dare to log off.
Of course, lots of people have a healthy attitude toward technology: They use it sparingly and as a means to connect with friends and family. But just as many have become obsessed, creeping through Facebook (checking out photos of the ex and analyzing his new girlfriend, for example), keeping tabs on hundreds—and sometimes even thousands—of their nearest and dearest. They’ll spend hours each day on Twitter alone—time that could be better spent working out, reading a novel or meeting up with a friend for face-to-face interaction. And, worse yet, they’ll interrupt a perfectly good real-life moment so that they can share it with the masses.
A recent study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking found that women who base their self-esteem on appearances tend to share more photos online. As study co-author Michael Stefanone puts it, “It is disappointing to me that in the year 2011 so many young women continue to assert their self-worth via their physical appearance—in this case, by posting photos of themselves on Facebook as a form of advertisement.”
But that’s exactly the point. Women are using sites such as Facebook and Twitter, along with their own personal blogs and Linkedin accounts, as a way to brand themselves (and brag about their wonderful lives). They’re posting flawless (read: retouched) photos while highlighting their overall fabulousness, be it a covetable new job or drop-dead gorgeous boyfriend. And they’re tweeting from backstage at an exclusive gig or blogging about their latest tropical getaway.
It’s enough to drive anyone mad, especially when viewing all this fabulousness from your living room couch—remote control in one hand and half-eaten ice cream carton in the other. That’s precisely what happened to social worker erica Williams*, who, at the advice of her therapist, decided to quit Facebook cold turkey. Williams was spending three hours a day on the site, looking up photos of smiling, happy couples and reading about their awesome dinners at the city’s hottest new restaurants, for instance, or about a friend’s fabulous weekend at the cottage (replete with shirtless men and dockside mojitos).
“It made me feel bad about myself,” says the 35-year-old Vancouverite who, at last count, had a whopping 662 Facebook friends. “I had a compulsion to check it incessantly. And the anxious feeling I got around Facebook was similar to the feeling I’d get when I had a bad relationship with a boyfriend. it affected the way I viewed myself and made me feel like there were no boundaries, that I was too exposed.”
Williams succeeded in avoiding the site altogether for over a month, a process that made her feel “liberated.” But she recently got sucked back in. “I’m now back to that place where I feel like if I’m not on it, I’m going to miss something,” she says.
There is some good that’s come out of it, however. After constantly seeing where her friends were hanging out on a Saturday night via Foursquare, Williams realized she wasn’t socializing enough herself (at least not in the real world). And so she and her husband dedicated their summer to going out more on weekends, be it seeing a movie or sharing a bottle of red on an outdoor patio.
Most experts would agree it’s a smart move. Margot Feferman, a Toronto-based therapist, says that social media often leaves us feeling disconnected. “You can be talking to five people at the same time [online] and not really be fully present in any one friendship or conversation,” she explains. She recommends differentiating your virtual relationships from your true ones—and embracing the latter. Or, better yet, spending some quiet time on your own, sans laptop or iPhone.
Natasha Lewis* knows this firsthand. The 24-year-old, who works in the Montreal financial industry, plans biannual vacations around technology. Or, rather, lack thereof. She picks destinations that have limited access to the Internet, such as parts of Africa or South America. (She recently spent 10 days hiking in Peru with a close friend—they left their cellphones at the base of a mountain.)
“The biggest problem with [social media sites] is that you stop living life because you’re so focused on tracking everyone else’s,” says Lewis, who likens Facebook to having your own personal tabloid. “It’s all about being seen and heard but it’s a very one-way exchange…it indulges in narcissism.”
Of course, Lewis does like to share the details of her trips with close friends and family and admits that Facebook is a great way of accomplishing that. But she recently took the drastic measure of cutting her Facebook “friends” list in half, from around 500 to 250, to include only those people she truly cares about. (Ideally, she’d like to get it down to 100.) The most surprising part for Lewis was receiving friend requests from people she had cut off her list—people she had spoken to, at most, once a year. “I find that so weird…How does it add value to them and why do the numbers mean so much?” she asks, alluding to what has essentially become an online popularity contest. “It’s bizarre that we’ve lent our identity to circuits.”
Toronto-based Jordanna Ber witnesses that time and time again as a volunteer for teen summer tour company Westcoast Connection. (When not leading tours, 25-yearold Ber spends most of her time online—including handling social media—as marketing and communications coordinator for rethink Breast Cancer.) She shudders at the thought of 16-year-olds witnessing the natural beauty of Hawaii or Alaska, for instance, but doing so while texting back and forth with their BFFs—who are usually standing five feet away—or while posting updates to Twitter. Ber helped implement a “go without day” in which people are forced to turn off their smartphones and computers, which didn’t go over well with some group members. “Some were mature enough to say great, but others were fidgety and completely weirded out…[But] it brings you back to the present.”
On a personal level, Ber has had to bring herself back to reality after viewing friends’ online pics. An avid traveller, she used to post trip photo albums on Facebook for her friends back home to see. Then, as she settled into her career and began travelling less, Ber would follow various friends’ jet-setting adventures with a touch of envy.
“It triggered that fear of missing out,” she admits. “[But] you need to bring yourself back to reality and realize that this is just an edited version of life.” Ber points out that most people are capturing the fun moments only, but what we’re not seeing are the real problems that everyone faces at some point (for example, illness or a job loss). “It’s not just awesome parties and amazing trips with model boyfriends,” she reasons.
In the online world, that can be difficult to see. Many people are Photoshopping their online pics to make themselves look better. Or, at the very least, they’re removing the less-than-flattering ones. Claudia Grieco, a 27-year-old writer based in Toronto, admits to lightly retouching photos that she posts on her lifestyle blog, She’s Such a Charmer; Oh No! (harrietmwelsch.blogspot.com). “I used to have bad bumps on my forehead and it’s always greasy, so I would just airbrush a little to make it look nicer,” she says. “I’m Italian with dark circles under my eyes so I sometimes clean that up too…It’s bad, I know, but they’re only subtle changes.”
Actor and Emmy-nominated writer Mindy Kaling can relate. The 32-year-old author of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, out in November, is best known for playing Kelly Kapoor on the Office. (She also had a supporting role as Natalie Portman’s hilarious roommate in No Strings Attached.) An active Twitter user and former Facebooker, Kaling shut down her Facebook account in 2009 after seeing personal photos, such as candid, makeup-free ones from a friend’s 30th birthday party in Vegas, making their way onto strangers’ blogs. “People started judging me for my appearance,” she says. “I didn’t love that aspect of it— having no control of [the] photos.”
She has also felt left out when viewing online photos of events she wasn’t invited to, such as a close friend’s engagement party. “Because I’m going to the wedding, nobody thought I would come out to New York [from L.A.] for the engagement party…So I saw the photos but didn’t even know it was happening,” she says.
Kaling’s story signals the classic ignorance-is-bliss advice many of us need to revisit in this age of TMI. Constantly checking up on your “friends” can be a real ego bash. (Who gets invited to every event, anyway?) Viewing other people’s seemingly perfect lives doesn’t help, either. Sure, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have their advantages: they keep us connected and help form community. But before hitting the “refresh” tab on your browser once again, consider this: the virtual world is just a carefully edited version of reality. It’s nice to see your friends doing cool stuff and having fun, but when it starts to make your own life seem lame in comparison, that’s when you know it’s time to shut down your computer, get off the couch and start socializing in the real world. It may be old school, but it works.
*Names have been changed