The iTunes rating system has never really worked. When you view an album in Apple Music, a star appears next to its most listened to tracks, meant to signify the best songs on the album.
Usually, though, the first two or three tracks are starred, regardless of their quality, because with infinite music streaming, we listen to the first few tracks on an album, quickly grow restless, whether we like them or not, and then go searching for something else. There is so much content to listen to — and so little time to listen to it all — we don’t listen to our music all the way through anymore. This is a variation of a phenomenon so common across digital media that it has its own acronym: FOMO.
The fear of missing out.
Of course, the restless human mind has always struggled to maintain a focus on what is right in front of it, while wondering what else might be just around the corner. However, that restlessness is now being cultivated and exacerbated by a digital culture that presents us with limitless opportunities to miss out on something, and constant reminders that we are doing so. Teenagers are distraught about not being invited to social gatherings they see on Instagram. Parents feel like failures as they scroll through Facebook feeds full of family vacations they’ll never be able to go on. We sit down to enjoy a book on our e-reader of choice, only to discover an hour later that we’ve spent most of our time searching for another title rather than reading the one right in front of us. FOMO keeps us hunting around rather than settling in. This has consequences.
For instance, it is triggering a “demographic time bomb” in Japan. The population of Japan is predicted to drop from 127 million people to 88 million people by 2065, and to 51 million by 2115. Last year, in Japan, there were less than a million births for the first time in recorded history. Soon Japan will have almost as many senior citizens as able-bodied workers. Japanese economists are terrified. Why is this happening? Are Japanese families simply having fewer children, or is something else going on?
Something else is going on.
The number of Japanese men planning to marry and start families has dropped from 67 percent to 39 percent, and the number of Japanese women planning to do so has dropped from 82 percent to 59 percent. This kind of change is not totally unheard of — over generations and across the centuries, attitudes toward marriage have fluctuated dramatically. However, this change hasn’t happened over three centuries or even three generations. It has happened in just three years. And Japan is just the canary in the coal mine. We are beginning to see this relationship trend all over the globe. Of course, there are countless explanations for it. Here’s mine: we don’t listen to our music all the way through anymore, and we don’t live our relationships all the way through either.
When FOMO is constantly being delivered into the palm of every hand, it has the power to rapidly transform one of the most fundamental elements of our humanity: our companionship. True companionship requires the commitment to cherish one thing at a time, whether it be in marriage or partnership, families or friendship, neighborhoods or churches. However, when the fear of missing out has taken hold, that kind of commitment feels foolish. Why would we cherish completely this one person or this one place when there are so many other people and places that might bring us even more contentment? Why would we settle for this companion right in front of us when we don’t know what other companions might be just around the corner? As FOMO takes over, it seems there is only one thing we are content to miss out on: true companionship.
One Sunday afternoon, during my fourth-grade year, I drove my parents nuts. I’d heard a song on the radio, and I was obsessed with it. I was desperate to get my hands on “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals. These days, I would just tell Alexa to play it, but back then you had to scrape together a few bucks, find a ride to your local retailer, and purchase the audiocassette single. It was a whole operation. A project. You had to really commit to it. You had to really want it, and on that Sunday, I really wanted it. Unfortunately, I did not have a few bucks. Nor a ride.
Around midday, I started working on my parents. At first, I just dropped hints about how life changing the song was. They didn’t get the hint. I asked them if they’d heard it. They hadn’t. So, I tried singing it for them. Still oblivious. I dropped a comment about how desperate I was to buy it. Nothing. My dad watched football. My mom prepped dinner. The clock was ticking, so I decided to up the ante. I started to express feelings of distress about not having the song. Nada. Of course, feelings are invisible things, and sometimes you have to add something for the senses. So I started to whine a little. I might have teared up a bit. They were unfazed. I got red in the face. I began to make demands. I decided, if they wanted to keep me from my music, I’d take their afternoon hostage with my behavior. I drove them crazy.
I can’t remember which one of them caved. I’m guessing it was my mom. She’s fortunate she didn’t create a dictator with such decisions. At any rate, with a few bucks in hand, we got in the car and thirty minutes later I had my cassette single. When we got home, I slid it into my Walkman, pushed play and listened to it. Over and over and over. I listened to it that day, and the next day, and for weeks. I memorized every word. I learned the song’s every nuance. I wore that tape out. I cherished it so much, I was afraid of missing out on any of its details. That is the fear that frees us up for philia.
In 2016, #fomno began trending on Twitter. FOMNO stands for the fear of not missing out. It is a way of saying that, if we don’t start missing out on some of the digital deluge, we’ll start missing out on too much of the life that is right in front of us. When it comes to companionship, we need a little more FOMNO too. We need to fear not missing out on the seven billion other people on the planet, who only distract us from the fleeting time we have with the people who are right in front of us, right here, right now.
The relationships that see us through are the relationships we listen to all the way through.
In true companionship, we make the daily decision to miss out on almost everyone else for the sake of this one beloved person, or these few beloved people. We resist the urge to skip to the next relationship. We go all-in on the companionship we have, rather than constantly wondering about the companionship we don’t. We listen to our people over and over again, like a cherished audio cassette, memorizing every word, enjoying every nuance, rewinding and playing it all over again. Every moment is a cassette player, and every companion is a song. So, let’s sit back, press play and enjoy the music made by those who are seeing us through this one fragile life.
Let’s not miss out on any of their details.