The genius of Black Mirror’s choose-your-own-adventure film isn’t new technology. Nor is it the mocking façade of free will that guides users through the experience. Bandersnatch succeeds because it acknowledges and respects a powerful new fear insinuating its way into our culture: fear of making the wrong choice.
This isn’t the first time I’ve addressed my generation’s reluctance to make decisions. I’ve decided to revisit the issue for two reasons: primarily, I don’t think my first piece did it justice and, secondly, because of Bandersnatch. I have yet to find a single person who was content with their original ending during that film, myself included (I went back again and again to see if there was anything I’d missed). That user behavior is symptomatic, as is the sheer popularity of the program.
Fear of missing out, often abbreviated as FOMO, has become pathological. Every generation worries about big decisions — which job to take, where to move or live, whether or not to end a relationship — but none with the relentless intensity becoming increasingly familiar to new generations. FOMO has become ubiquitous, almost hegemonic in its persistence, and there are a few detectable reasons why.
The easy answer is technology. Stream-of-consciousness texts, Snapchat maps that show you where your friends are 24/7, Instagram updates that keep you informed of the good times everyone else is having. Social media is self-aggrandizement by its very nature; digital selves are nothing but carefully constructed highlight reels designed by a public relations team of one. We all know this, of course, but that recognition doesn’t prevent us from being bothered when we see people we know having a good time without us. The constant barrage of options and information provided by social media means we are constantly, forever painfully aware of virtually endless options and lives that seem to be better than our own. And so we end up with FOMO — after all, how could anyone ever be content with their current choice when there are so many more options visible? Dating apps like Tinder are perhaps more extreme examples of this; endless seas of faces and possibilities make it more difficult than ever to pick one without regret.
But FOMO doesn’t end with social media. It’s also a direct result of — and contributor to — an increasingly volatile economy. According to Forbes journalist Jeanne Meister, most snake people spend just two years in one job before looking for another. Uncertainty about whether a job is a right fit, fear of missing out on a dream, or sheer opportunism are all symptoms of FOMO.
But, as psychologist Peg Streep writes, “it takes a certain attitude to be driven by FOMO.” The attitude in question is also, not coincidentally, one that is often attributed to snake people: incorrigible certainty that you are destined for greatness. One 2012 study shows that 72 percent of this generation wants a job where it can “make an impact,” and 65 percent believe they can achieve that within five or six years. Also included on this grocery list are employers who value their workers’ opinions and companies that share employees’ values. All of which, when combined, seems extraordinarily naïve, especially considering that roughly 90 percent also want flexible work hours, job security, good compensation, and a good work/life balance.
The line between optimism and delusion is a fine one. I challenge anyone to find a position that fully satisfies each and every criteria established by our youth, much less a job that’s available and accessible to millions of freshly-minted job-seekers.
FOMO exists because we were raised with the intrinsic, incurable belief that we could do anything and everything we wanted to. This is a common knock against snake people, but that doesn’t mean it should be discounted out of hand. We are products of an established psychological movement rooted in recognizing self-esteem, and the consequences of this origin story are finally manifesting themselves.
Originally published 1/15/19.