From JOMO, With Love

On the “Joy Of Missing Out”

Did I stay on social 10 years for the “FOMO”?

Does that make it my fault? Wimpy-fearful, uncool-coward, me?

I let myself be trackable, therefore trickable — datafied, catagorized, algorithmically monetized?

I’m to blame, sleepless-sorry former-me, pinprickled by this clabbery custom reality constructed of decontextualized user content, aggregated to “optimize engagement,” and sell my well-wrangled attention to the highest-bidder for profit?

I deleted my Facebook account in August of 2018. It’s been three years — long enough that all that feels really long-ago. And long enough to talk about the JOMO: the Joy Of Missing Out.

First a caveat: it ain’t all bon voyage and creme brulee: many little things get harder when you give social media the single-fingered-salut!

Some restaurants hide their menus there. Municipalities and parks services will bury their updates there. Local groups and clubs — even your kid’s school — will want you to meet there. Your workplace might even expect you to show up to sponsored events there. These irritations can’t tempt me back, but they are irritations.

Then there’s the are-you-a-real-person?-problem. People make decisions about you based on your position in a recognizable network. I haven’t published in a literary journal since I deleted myself from Facebook. Is that because I erased the decade-long data-trail showing I was connected to all kinds of impressive writer types? I can only suspect. But I suspect yes.

There are friends I miss — not just “Facebook friends” but actual friends, including some relatives — whom I’ve failed to stay in touch with by other means. They are there, tucked away in Facebook like photos from my kids’ first year in school, content (as once I was!) to accept the convenience of passive log-ons and automated connections. You forget how to stay in touch by will of love and consciousness, you forget how to be the link in your own chain. People will neglect to tell you about a death or diagnosis, because “it was on Facebook.” I’m not seeing as many baby pictures as I’d like.

These are sacrifices. But then there’s what I’ve gained in exchange for these sacrifices.

I own my mind and time. Since I left online social stimulation behind me, I’ve read so many books! I’ve learned new skills, created new art. I’ve started a little micro-farm. There’s no debate here, it’s just a fact: social media is a time-suck, and if you leave, you discover you’re not as rushed, you have many more hours every day to do things you really want to do.

But it’s more than just hours on the clock: social media changes how you think. Even when you’re not “on,” you find yourself asking if each of your thoughts or experiences or photos is “share-worthy,” and perhaps re-writing, re-framing, or re-taking them, if they’re not. You feel like you’re staying connected with people you care about, but your brain is hard at work for Mark Zuckerberg, creating engaging content (unpaid!), to keep your connections well-hooked, just as their brains have been hijacked to do the same to you. Zuckerberg can sell your eyeballs for billions only because of this user-generated, “donated” creativity.

Social media makes you ruminate on conflict and discord. The algorithms that decide what you see and don’t see are designed to increase “engagement,” and, to all the world’s dismay, it turns out negativity is way more “engaging” than positive or neutral things. Cue the evolutionary biologists: yes, our ancestors who reacted to the bad stuff lived to procreate, anxiety has its honored place. But this isn’t it.

On Social, you see “what you want to see” (kitten videos, your cousin’s pumpkin farm), but you also see things that make you feel like all humanity is going to hell and the people who aren’t outright monsters are fools. And then, even when you’re offline, you’re still thinking about those things. I counted one day how many of my in-person conversations with others included the phrase, “I saw on Facebook…” and it was close to 100% — the exceptions included someone asking me where the bathroom is.

Leaving social media is the best thing I’ve ever done for my mental health. I’m freer, calmer, more “myself” — did this come at a cost? Oh yes. Was the cost worth it? Oh hell yes.

Imagine having several more hours every day to pursue your interests, no thoughts that include “I saw on facebook…,” and very few ruminations on other people sucking. You rarely compare yourself to others, you feel almost no need to impress, and while your friend circle is now much smaller, you possess confidence, even certainty about who your real friends are! Since longest-ago “friend” connections dissolve the quickest, your past ends up firmly in the past: exes? Elementary school friends? Forget about it. The souvenirs of long-ago are plopped in the trunk of experience and shoved up into the attic of memory, where they belong — and we feel lighter. We should not have to drag our pasts behind us like Marley’s ghost in chains.

The only good thing I got from 10 years on facebook was a better appreciation for life without Facebook.

To just sit outside and watch the stars, feeling alive and now, with full ownership of my thoughts and experiences. A joke shared between me and a friend is a moment fully expressed and lived in the actual experiencing: it is satisfyingly complete. It doesn’t need to be re-packaged for secondary consumption, because there will be no secondary consumers of my life. That moment belongs to me.

This is the “joy of missing out”: it’s partially an ecstasy of independence, but it’s also a strengthening of the relationships that matter most. When you choose to close yourself off from the “global everything-chatter,” you’re also choosing to listen to whomever is right here, right now — whether that’s yourself, or a child, or a really good friend who, for some time, you’ve kind of taken for granted. Sometimes it is someone who surprises you. Or a cat. :) Sometimes it’s the weather and animals and machines and materials of the spaces we move through — the whole great beautiful world of which we are an essential part!

And you can be more confident that your thoughts are your own, when you divorce yourself from the algorithm-designed information stream that’s peppered with pushes to your habits and will. When you ask yourself why you think what you think, the answer is never “a decontextualed nugget of grievance and/or outrage, machine-fed into my bloodshot eyes.”

You breathe better. Sleep apnea is when you hold your breath in your sleep — the drop in oxygen in your system causes disturbed REM cycles, memory loss, and ultimately brain damage. But there is also “email apnea,” noticed and named by a Microsoft engineer decades ago, where you hold your breath while you check email. And now there’s Facebook apnea and Insta-apnea and we might as well just call it “feed apnea.” I’ve experienced them all.

What strikes me as interesting, is that there’s no “book apnea.” When I’m reading a book, I breathe easily — even if it’s an exciting book, a real cliff-hanger. I may be on the edge of my seat but I’m never holding my breath. I don’t hold my breath when I’m talking with friends. There’s nothing inherent to interaction or information that makes our bodies tense and our diaphragms freeze, our blood-oxygen drop, our muscles tense…

At its heart, the Joy of Missing Out is really just that: you are missing out on something, and you know you’re missing out on it, and you feel really good about it. You’ve been there and done that, and you know now that it was ultimately a waste. You can’t get those years back. But you can take them away from the billionaire who conned you out of them by deleting your account, and you can from that day forward, simply prefer not to. And there is no other word for this feeling but JOY.

JOMO: Five Stars, Recommend