FOMO: Why We Can’t Get Enough of Social Media


Think about it, you wake up, and what do you do? If you are like 80% of smartphone users in the U.S., you are checking your phone for social media updates before you even brush your teeth.

Social media has become something of a compulsion. At some point or another, you and hundreds of millions of other users will find your way onto Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Snapchat, or Instagram – be it to connect with old friends from days gone by, to interact with other people and ideas, or explore the endless sea of cat-related videos and memes, social media has become an indispensable part of our day.

Much of this is due to our human cravings for dopamine, that neurotransmitter responsible for your pain and pleasure receptors. In recent years, research has shown that dopamine not only triggers rewards in the brain, but also “seeking behaviors” in which we seek out information and human interaction. With the digital era in full spin, it has never been easier to satisfy these wants. Twitter feeds, newsfeeds, and a plethora of apps have put these platforms of innate satisfaction right in our pockets.

The Social Media Habit

According to evolutionary psychologist Emily Deans, dopamine is a powerful driver of our behavior and “may well be the secret to what makes us human – meaning awfully bright, able to plan ahead, and resist impulses when necessary.” But the advent of social media has created new anxieties for many that are caused by this idea that we aren’t good enough, popular enough, or active enough online. It’s labeled under the blanket term FOMO, or “fear of missing out.”

Checking in on the lives of others and crafting your own persona can be literally addictive, and the perpetual dread felt from the lack of dopamine triggers causes your brain to generate this fear of an unfulfilled life, the feeling that you are missing out on some bigger picture. As you endlessly gaze upon the happy faces of a life well lived, frozen in time, you may reflect upon how the last year of your life has gone and feel that you’ve come up short.

In order to fight these feelings of inadequacy, social media users might tailor their posts to create a new online persona of someone that’s more confident, popular, and knowledgeable than they are in real life. The skeptical among us could say that, in a way, social media has turned us into digital narcissists hoping to be acknowledged for our achievements and ideas. We seek what author Jonah Berger calls “Social Currency” – something that encourages social media users to self-promote and advertise themselves almost like marketers sell their products.

Essentially, your dopamine receptors are being hijacked by these wells of instant gratification creating this almost natural habit of pulling your smartphone out of your pocket and opening up Facebook when there is a lull in your interest. Chances are you could perform the motion in your sleep and it’s just as likely you have.

Where Do Marketers Come In?

Basic marketing strategies such as celebrity endorsements, appeals to authority, and prompting customers to “hop on the bandwagon” have been used since the inception of advertising, and at their core rely on the innate human drive to belong. That same drive is the basis of social media, and taken to an extreme, the root cause of FOMO. Marketers need to be conscious that this exists, because it allows us to better identify with the people that we’re trying to reach.

What’s unique about our time is that social media empowers customers to become a part of your brand – no one has to miss out and in fact feedback and engagement will do more for brand loyalty than pressuring your fans to hop on a passing trend for fear of missing out. The truth is that marketers can assuage FOMO by authentically engaging with their audiences over social media and making them feel important and valuable. This is the keystone of marketing personalization, and something that the next generation of marketers must be conscious of moving forward on social media.

In fact, we’re already seeing a natural response in the gradual blurring of the lines separating brands and people: brands interact with their fans on a personal level (e.g., Taco Bell’s fantastic use of social media) and people interact with others as brands (e.g., your fancy LinkedIN headshot). You are not you on social media, you are your brand. On the flipside of the coin, brands aren’t just logos and slogans anymore: they must interact with their customers as people.

FOMO is something that we’ve all felt at one point or another, and are collectively responsible for in some way. As marketers, shouldn’t we use our influence to help make the world a less anxious, more inclusive place? I’d like to think so.



About Author

I'm an Ogilvy wannabe at The University of Akron studying Marketing Management and Integrated Marketing Communications. If I'm not at the parks, you can find me at your local library.

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