The Home of FOMO
Alarmed that we might have missed something, we sent Ben Schreckinger to track down the origin of this year’s hottest meme. Turns out, the madness over our Fear of Missing Out began just across the Charles River, exactly a decade ago.
The first paper on the Fear of Missing Out—FOMO, the ailment of our cultural moment—was written back in the year 2000 by a marketing strategist named Dan Herman, but the concept took many years to gestate. Now, after a long incubation period, FOMO is suddenly ubiquitous. Studies estimate that around 70 percent of all adults in developed countries suffer from the creepy, sometimes all-consuming feeling that something’s happening and they’re not a part of it.
Last year, a team led by Oxford University’s Andrew Przybylski published a major academic study of the phenomenon, finding that FOMO correlates with general discontent, and that it disproportionately affects young people, especially males. Headline writers at the Huffington Post appear to be particularly stricken: In June alone, the site screamed, “Could Your FOMO Kill You?” and helpfully hawked “A Cure for FOMO.” If you clicked on the latter, you’d end up on a LinkedIn article that informs readers, “It really doesn’t matter who or what age you are; the FOMO bug can infect anyone.”
FOMO is everywhere—and yet nobody seems to know where it came from. Certainly Patrick McGinnis didn’t know. When I called him recently and told him that FOMO may have come, ultimately, from him, he thought he was being pranked. From what I could tell, though, the first chronic outbreak of FOMO occurred in 2004, at Harvard Business School. McGinnis was there, and fully captured the epidemic in an op-ed piece he wrote while earning his MBA. On the eve of his 10-year HBS reunion, McGinnis, now a venture capitalist in New York, agreed to meet me for beers at the Marriott Copley Place’s Connexion Lounge. A youthful 38-year-old with the neatly cropped hair and the standard blue button-down of a banker, he claimed to know nothing about the worldwide-meme status of FOMO. Aside from one national business school blog that reran his op-ed, he was unaware that FOMO was a thing at all.
Back in 2004, he said, he’d been much more concerned about what he called Fear of a Better Option. “I thought FOBO was popular!” he protested. It isn’t. Regardless, I egged him on, and eventually, McGinnis divulged what can only be described as the one true origin myth of FOMO. Here’s what he told me.
It was the summer of 2003, and McGinnis’s fellow MBA candidates at Harvard were an unusually jumpy bunch. Before they’d even applied to business school, the quick dot-com boom/bust cycle had left many of them shaken. Then, just as they were finishing up their applications, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. With a year left between school and the much crueler world beyond, the class of 2004 regarded every moment as an essential experiential opportunity. “All you wanted to do was live life to the fullest at every second,” says McGinnis, who took his GMAT exam in New York the day before 9/11. “You felt the need to do everything all the time because you’d seen your own mortality.”
But this mentality had its costs: McGinnis and his group found they couldn’t commit to anything. Working with the rudimentary tools available to them (cell phones and address books), they developed complex algorithms to plan their social lives. Every Friday night, they’d frantically crisscross Boston and Cambridge, cramming in face time with anyone and everyone they knew—even ignoring the Killington ski house they’d rented for the winter for fear that leaving town would mean missing out.
McGinnis and his group eventually gave their anxiety a name: Fear of a Better Option, or FOBO for short. While tongue in cheek, the term expressed a heretofore unspoken truth. Says Phil Tseng, a fellow HBS grad, “It’s actually an amazing acronym, because it captures the essence of life.”
But McGinnis and his group soon discovered that their problems didn’t merely revolve around the elusive “better option.” Fearing that they’d miss a chance to, well, who knows, became an even larger source of anxiety. Wherever you deposited yourself at any moment, you were setting yourself up for failure, relatively speaking. McGinnis and his friends dubbed this more pervasive dread FOMO, for Fear of Missing Out. Out on what? They weren’t exactly sure. But the unknown can be terrifying.
Every generation has its afflictions. The early-20th-century Viennese had the Oedipus complex. Twentysomethings of the 1990s had angst and ennui. What McGinnis had stumbled on—FOMO—would soon become a hallmark of the digital age. But back in 2004, as FOMO’s patient zero, McGinnis didn’t quite know what he had on his hands. He did, however, set down a nascent theory of FOBO, FOMO, and the ensuing panic in an op-ed for the HBS’s student newspaper, the Harbus.
McGinnis’s piece described a typical FOMO-fueled HBS night, starting with an on-campus sherry tasting at 5 p.m. and winding down in the wee hours of the morning with stops at the Border Café, Finale, Grafton Street, and the Hong Kong. “You’d always have trouble getting people to commit,” he says, “and I think that was a new phenomenon at the time, because before the age of mass social media, people made plans and then they stuck with them. Because what else were you going to do? And so you’d make a plan for Friday night and you’d go somewhere, and you’d stay there, and that’s what you did.”
Now, all bets were off.
As FOMO’s earliest sufferers, McGinnis and his posse were desperate for better tools to help them connect and plug into the scene. For better or worse, they were about to get their wish. The previous summer, while in Prague, McGinnis had witnessed the future: “People started massively texting all over the place in ’03,” he says. “I remember thinking to myself, Why is this happening? Why are people texting?”
While McGinnis pondered texting in Europe, his friend and classmate Claire Marwick, now a hedge fund manager in Scotland, sublet her university apartment at Soldiers Field Park to two undergrads—“This guy who was called Mark Zuckerberg,” she says, and his friend. A few months later, Zuckerberg would launch “the Facebook” from his dorm room, and FOMO would have a brand-new enabler.
FOMO simmered at HBS until 2007, when a BusinessWeek article announced that the epidemic was catching on everywhere, and it was chronic. The desire to participate in all available social opportunities (which now, with globalization, could include a weekend jaunt to Asia) led students to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on supercharged lifestyles. “It isn’t worth coming off as cheap or petty when you’re building a network for life,” one student at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management explained in the piece. In March of that year, the Guardian included the term in a glossary of youth Internet slang. Meanwhile, Facebook was an upstart rival to MySpace with a piddling 20 million users, but was growing exponentially, along with FOMO.
In 2008, Citysearch in Australia ran an ad featuring a “doctor” warning about the dangers of FOMO, depicting one poor sap (the “patient”) literally paralyzed by indecision about what to do on a Friday night. McGinnis’s 2004 op-ed was prescient in that regard: “FOMO and FOBO are irreconcilably opposing forces, the antithesis of yin and yang,” he’d written, “and can drive a person towards a paralytic state I’ll call FODA, or Fear of Doing Anything.”
McGinnis says that at the time, FODA “was more of a theoretical construct.” But with the advent of social media, FODA has become a major issue: FOMO sufferers report being unable to tear themselves away from their Facebook and Instagram feeds, ironically making it harder to engage in real life. For many, the fear of missing out has become self-fulfilling.
According to Google Analytics, most FOMO searches currently originate in Cambridge and New York City. “Where you find very bright minds, you find minds that are craving stimulation,” says Marjorie Kroeger, a Newton therapist who specializes in Internet and sex addiction.
But while Cambridge remains a FOMO hotbed, the affliction has evolved since it first struck at Harvard a decade ago. The rise of Facebook and the proliferation of smartphones have provided us with a constant drip of what we don’t have. “If we were still all on mainframes in the living room and we didn’t have access on a phone,” Kroeger says, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” Now, the affected carry FOMO in their pocket wherever they go.
Back in the bar, McGinnis says he’s none too bothered by the irony that the thing he’s missed out on during the past decade was the rise of the FOMO meme itself. He maintains that the fear fades with time, and at 38, he’s far outside the phenomenon’s demographic. Unfortunately, he says, there’s no such cure for FOBO. The fear that a better option exists out there, somewhere, never subsides. You may be able to handle missing out on things, but grappling with the idea that there’s something superior in the universe (and that you’re not a part of it) is much more difficult to overcome.
“I don’t like FOBO, because FOBO is just rude,” he says. “And FOBO, by the way, doesn’t go away. FOBO gets worse and worse, because the more egocentric and important you feel, the more you feel others’ time isn’t worth the commitment, and I see that getting worse with age with my friends, and with myself.”