There's a Special Kind of "FOMO" Stressing Us Out — And We're Doing It to Ourselves
"It is a literal crime that you haven't watched The Wire," my roommate said to me.
"I know, I know," I said, kind of embarrassed.
The truth was, I knew enough keywords to navigate myself around a discussion of the critically acclaimed HBO series. Drug dealing, Baltimore, the insanely attractive Idris Elba and someone named Bubbles — I could get by. But after years of being told how much I'd "absolutely love" the show, it got buried on the endless cultural to-do list, becoming just another one of the "Did you see it?"s thrust upon me by friends, family, bosses and the endless scroll of my social media streams.
These days, "it" could be the buzzed-about New York Times article on "The Price of Nice Nails." Or the question could be about watching the viral Amy Schumer "Girl, You Don't Need Makeup" video, or listening to the new Miley Cyrus "Happy Together" cover or the latest This American Life.
It doesn't really matter, because there will always be something else. There's never been a time when we're more confronted with all of the culture we're missing — the binge-able TV, the viral YouTube star, the weird Instagram post from a celebrity. It's pop cultural FOMO, exacerbated by digital technology (isn't everything?) and topped off with a dose of judgment.
The hardest part? The judgement comes mostly from ourselves.
Keeping up with the Kardashians... and 1,374 other shows: The phenomenon is best crystalized in the 2011 Portlandia skit "Did You Read It?" In the sketch, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen compete in an intellectual arms race to see who is more culturally aware. The New Yorker article about how golf is an analogy for marriage? Read it. The thing in Mother Jones about eco-chairs? Of course. Eventually, Carrie and Fred march into moving traffic in an attempt to read the last bit of text they haven't yet read: the phone book.
If the problem feels like it's gotten worse, you're not imagining it. The more our technology evolves, the more it is available to be consumed on more apps and downloaded on more devices (hello, Apple Watch).
TV recaps and live-tweeting were just the beginning; in 2013, Netflix's decision to post the entire season of its new original show, House of Cards, brought us bingeing. In January 2014, Facebook took a cue from Twitter's location-based trends and rolled out its own trending topics, feeding us articles we then feel compelled to save to read (or "read") on apps like Instapaper and Pocket. The deluge has prompted the rise of what you might call "pop culture coaches" — newsletters and subscription lists that digest the biggest buzz of the day.
According to marketers, the coveted "millennial" demographic is already spending 17.8 hours a day (!) consuming media, a staggering figure made possible by the fact that around 85% of us own smartphones, a number that speeds upward year by year. And we can't consume fast enough, as the national debate over net neutrality confirmed.
If we're all sitting down to a potluck of cultural media, there are 500 different variations of a green bean casserole served on 1,000 different platters. And most of us are already stuffed.
Cowering in shame over missing Shameless: While it's easy to parody, the pressure to keep up is high, implicit in the very phrases "must-see TV" and "going viral." As Karl Taro Greenfeld aptly writes in the New York Times, "What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate."
Sandy*, 29, told Mic that her catch-ups with friends have turned into rehashes of everything they've seen or watched that week. "If I haven't watched, say, last week's John Oliver, there's weird awkward gaps in the conversation," she said.
That awkwardness can easily morph into a feel-bad FOMO. "I sadly feel sort of left out of the Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Louie conversations," Chris, 27, told Mic, who hasn't watched any of the most recent critically lauded and highly publicized series. Worse is when, as the Vulture staff put it in 2013, our pop culture blind spots feel like "shameful holes" in our knowledge.
"I've never even read Lean In," Sandy said. "It's a stain on my name. When it's brought up in conversations, I'm sort of like, 'Yeah, I know what you're talking about...'"
Drowning in tidal waves of Tidal news: Even if we have the will to alleviate our guilty pop culture FOMO, it's too exhausting and daunting to get caught up. There's a reason few readers got past page 26 of Thomas Pikkety's buzzed-about, 685-page book Capital in the 21st Century.
"Story of my fucking life," Gabby, 26, said of keeping up with the pop culture and news cycles. "If I consumed everything I wanted, it would take my entire day. I don't even think my brain would be able to retain all of it."
Added Ian, 29, "Every day someone talks about a YouTube channel or some famous blogger. Now, everyone who has a computer and the necessary peripherals is a DJ, photographer, filmmaker, journalist."
That innovation is a double-edged sword, because we always get a little more than we asked for. Much as we love our connectivity, we know it's ruining our sleep and hurting our social lives. And while the urge to remain culturally fluent is admirable, often what we're catching up on isn't about Syria or the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We're deep in the bunker of cultural flotsam and jetsam, from rumors of Raven-Symoné hosting The View to the latest Jimmy Fallon hijinks. We start with the lofty likes of Jonathan Franzen and winnow down to "Did you hear the mashup of 'Wrecking Ball' with the theme of Serial... Oh wait, what about the Biggie remix?"
We're often mindlessly consuming culture we're not actually interested in, just because we feel obliged to.
Making it harder on ourselves: The hardest part of swimming upstream against the current of pop culture FOMO? We turn around and do it to each other. Whenever someone admits they haven't read/watched/listened to a new piece of cultural media, there's always someone at the bar eagerly offering a "Really? OMG you have to!" Much as we begrudge being on the receiving end of the guilt, we dish it out in equal portions.
"I've chastised people for not listening to Serial. I'm like, wait, you don't know what MailKimp is? That's ridiculous," Sandy said.
"I was mildly scandalized to hear that multiple friends had never gotten around to watching Breaking Bad," Molly Fitzpatrick wrote for Nerve in an essay about the joy of missing out. "It can be difficult to restrain yourself from evangelizing when you find out a friend hasn't seen something you love, something that you know they'll love. That's part of the problem."
Is there a solution? One way to alleviate the stress is to keep in mind the upside — the passionate chats we hold with friends and colleagues, full of hand gestures and coded references to the Red Wedding or Don's Coke ad. When we run with the race, we get to engage and connect.
And if you don't find yourself quite as fluent as you'd like when the "Have you read it?" questions pop up? You can gain just as much from embracing a different kind of response: "No."
* Name has been changed to allow subject to speak freely on private matters.