Back in March, as much of the U.S. prepared to go into an extended lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, Twitter was deluged with comments and quips from self-proclaimed introverts who couldn’t wait to settle into domestic hibernation. No more social obligations meant no more dressing up to go out, sitting in traffic, spending too much at restaurants or being hemmed in by giant crowds. Best of all, you wouldn’t have to flake on friends if you suddenly felt the urge to cancel all your plans and commit to a quiet night at home.
Ordinarily, a motivating force that tugged you in the other direction — and underlaid the urge to meet up in the first place — was the fear of missing out, or FOMO. You could argue this dread has always existed, yet we arrived at this slang only recently (Merriam-Webster added it in 2016), with the explosion of social media. Platforms like Instagram guarantee that evidence of what you “missed out” on will soon be plastered on everyone else’s accounts, and made to appear impossibly fun through the exaggerating lens of digital media. For the better part of this year, however, pictures and videos of large, merry gatherings have provoked a response nothing like the jealous regret they once did: We are horrified and full of despair to see anyone behaving as if the pandemic cannot touch them, and we shame this behavior as reckless.
In other words, FOMO as we defined it is nearly extinct. Now and then its effect is noticeable — surely you know someone who wouldn’t have marched with Black Lives Matter this spring had it not been the event of the season — but the FOMO that kept us from declining the usual weekend invites is gone, largely replaced by a fear of the outside world, with its maskless truthers and casual sidewalk dining. You might be addicted to Twitter out of FOMO (if you logged out when President Trump told the world he had COVID-19, you missed a tremendous party indeed), but it doesn’t match the sweaty anxiety of weighing your appetite for IRL occasions against the costs, both literal and emotional. You can no longer reap the dismay of realizing you passed up a good time with your pals at the concert, the big game or the weekly bar trivia night.
What replaces this feeling? For many, a kind of restlessness — cabin fever, minus the sense that civilization carries on beyond your four walls. Some of us, meanwhile, may be adapting too well to the circumstance.
When I jokingly asked Twitter if the introverts were still having a good time, most replied that they remained more or less content in their isolation. I myself have grown rather comfortable with the idea of rarely seeing anyone besides my partner, Maddie, our neighbors and staff of nearby businesses. I even managed to finish my “pandemic project,” the major revision of a manuscript that I hope will be my next published novel. (I also completed the dumb side quest of tweeting about one minute of the movie Heat per day, which took nearly six months.) I’ve always enjoyed staying home and getting cozy with a record playing and a book to read, perhaps to a fault; I’ve often thrilled when the other person is the one to cancel our plans.
This has led to minor friction. Maddie is not so happy to while away yet another Saturday on the couch, and my ease with being trapped in pseudo-quarantine can be a source of aggravation to her as she pines for any escape. Absent anything to properly miss out on, FOMO turns into an existential alarm: You are missing out, along with everyone else, on a life you are nonetheless living, on a piece of time rendered void despite your aging through it. You miss what is no longer there to miss — and this returns us to the original connotation of missing, i.e., the yearning for what has vanished (or never existed).
Where FOMO was the pressure that kept you engaged in a local community, it has come to manifest as the terror of being stuck with yourself. Strangely enough, we miss our fear of missing out. Skipping a group hang was only a pleasure when you had the option. “Doing nothing” is contingent upon having something to do.
The danger, at least for me, is how the deactivated social impulse can lead into a numb resignation. I like my empty calendar, in a way, but this is also a measure of how I’ve “won” the plague lottery: stable job, healthy family and a nice household with someone I love. I have, by current metrics, “everything I need,” which means I have the luxury to let my future continue slipping away, unnoticed and unclaimed. I am safe from a whole range of obligations, the variability in experience, the stress of having to meet new people and charm the ones I like — and the price is my instinct for real-world connection. While certain regions of the country are in a perpetual state of “reopening,” denialism itself tinged with a strain of FOMO, the rest have acclimated, for better and worse, to the conclusion that missing out is what’s best for all.
Nobody can say what a recovery will look like on the individual level, but I suspect it involves relearning a number of relational skills. How to sit in an audience of hundreds, for example, or have a company meeting around a table instead of on Zoom. We can be sure, too, that FOMO returns with a vengeance, for those enduring this era have sworn not to take their communal freedoms for granted ever again. We will be an entire nation seizing the day simultaneously, living to the absolute limit. And that may prove to be a moment crazier than this one.