(Note: This was part of the HT Brunch cover story for 3rd August 2014. You can read the shorter print version here.)
“I cried because my 3G was down, until I met a man who had no smartphone.” – Rumi
The internet is arguably the greatest invention of the 21st century, second only to the polio vaccine and the cyborg that assumed the form of Mick Jagger many years ago. Like the best drugs in the world, it offers escape in enslavement and we’re only too happy to roll up our sleeves for the friendly neighbourhood wi-fi dealer. The sensory overload it offers is eclectic, to say the least. On the one hand, it allows us to obsess over a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who joins an ad agency in the ‘60s so that he can drink Scotch all day and bide his time, before marching through an expanse of undulating breasts to reclaim the Iron Throne, currently occupied by the mother of Ted Mosby’s children.
While we’re devouring our way out of this pop culture pile, we’re also taking in other vital information, like real-time FB updates on the bowel movements of a guy you once met at a party in 2008. And somewhere in the middle lies a carnival of countless gifs, memes, listicles, must-watch videos, Twitter controversies, wardrobe malfunctions, social media gossip, longform pieces and impotent outrage, all tugging at your sleeve, begging you to watch their latest trick, until you give in, putting aside that unfinished presentation, letting go of the steering wheel, leaving your patient half cut up on the operating table, over and over again, until you sense your brain leaking out of your ears, holding up a white flag.
The most recent brain-stomp happened a few weeks ago, courtesy Poonam Pandey, Queen of The Will-She-Won’t-She Clan (Spoiler Alert: She won’t.) This is a woman whose entire career is based on the fact that men like adipose tissue. I’m sure the first question she asks herself every morning is, “How do I find a topical connect to my jiggly bits today?”
Thankfully, the World Cup was on at the time, prompting a brainwave that was both hilarious and tragic. Around the quarter-final stage, Poonam Pandey announced that if Brazil won, she would give away her bra to one lucky fan. The only thing prospective serial killers winners had to do in order to win that bio-hazard was to tweet answers to the awfully-worded hashtag #WhyIWantBRAOfPoonamPandey.
Poonam ran this contest only because — and I wish I were making this up – the word ‘Brazil’ contains the word ‘bra’. That’s it. That was her entire reasoning. I don’t know what she would’ve offered if the Virgin Islands had qualified for the cup.
This Twitter contest wasn’t something that I, or anyone else, needed to know about. I couldn’t have avoided it either, because it was right there all day, being shared and retweeted, albeit ironically. But to be completely honest, a part of me wanted to know, because judging people is extremely therapeutic.
The inability to cut off from such noise is just one of the symptoms of a form of social anxiety called FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. Of course, that’s just the informal name – the scientific term is ‘HAHA YOU’LL NEVER BE SANE AGAIN’.
This fear is compounded by the possibility, no, certainty, that everyone you know is doing better than you. You know this because you’ve seen all their status updates, which make it seem like they’re sitting in castles, wallowing in cake, while you’re out on the streets, fighting stray dogs for a slice of bread so you can start a food blog about it.
A great side-effect of this is an actual, physical sense of discomfort when you’re separated from your phone. I’m not saying that I’m obsessed, but if my building were on fire and I had to choose between saving my phone and a newborn baby, I would, without a doubt, pick up the baby to check if my phone was underneath it.
Now I’m not a “trained psychologist”, but I did watch an episode of House where he pretended to be one, so I feel qualified to say this: FOMO is just Insecurity 2.0. We all want to sit at the cool kids’ table, and be told that yes, we belong, except that the location of the table changes every time you look away.
But hey, don’t take my word for it. This was first put forth by a social scientist at Oxford called Dr. Andrew Przybylski, who apparently spends his free time hating vowels. According to Przybylski’s survey, the Fear Of Missing Out was strongest in people whose basic psychological needs, like love and respect, were unfulfilled. This was followed by another groundbreaking study on how hunger was strongest in people who were starving and that fire burnt the brightest in people who were aflame.
In the good ol’ days, FOMO was simply referred to as ‘being a whiny little word-I-can’t-use-in-print’, and was cured by letting leeches suck the insecurity out of you. They don’t do that anymore because you’d ask the leeches to do a Foursquare check-in at your skin.
Things are different now, presumably because there’s way more pop culture out there. After a long day of work, I love nothing more than to come home, assume a supine, pantless form and let the latest TV shows just wash all over me. Even so, I’m terrible at keeping track of everything, and my list of unwatched TV shows now runs longer than a Sri Lankan surname. There’s True Detective, Fargo, Veep, Penny Dreadful, Broadchurch, The Bridge, Halt and Catch Fire and Masters of Sex, to name just a few.
You’d think it’d be stupid for entertainment to turn into a some sort of a race – that’s what the rest of our lives are for. But the availability of content isn’t the problem. It’s the fact that we feel the need to share everything. You know things have gone too far when porn sites offer a default share button on every video. We committed to this social media nonsense so hard that marketers thought we’d actually click a button to tell the world we’re watching ‘Midget Rides Donkey Into A BBW’.
Of all the networks out there, Facebook has to be the biggest source of overload. It’s like a party that started off as fun, but now you just want to get hold of your friends and leave, because random strangers have started making small talk about their “opinions” and “feelings”, all of which are stupid. Seriously, this my default reaction while scrolling through my news feed:
“Holy crap, you got fat.”
“Ooh, who’s that hottie? Oh wait, double-barrel surname. Never mind.”
Instagram’s better, because you get to jazz up your neediness with pretty filters. Meanwhile, Twitter is a completely different beast. Sure, it’s great for when you want to overthrow oppressive regimes so as to make way for more oppressive regimes. But it has also destroyed productivity the way Hitler destroyed the hopes of anyone wanting to sport a cool half-moustache.
I’m just glad social media wasn’t around during the Mughal era, because then the Taj Mahal would never have been built. Also, it would’ve made for an awkward deathbed conversation:
I feel bad for kids in the future who’re not going to be able to live up to our expectations, thanks to all the baby videos we’ve already watched. My kid could be a brain surgeon at the age of six, but I’d still be thinking, “Meh, not as cool as Charlie Bit My Finger.”
Their history lessons would be different too, given how just about anyone today can get their fifteen seconds of meme. I can’t wait for books of the future, like Miley Cyrus’s Long Twerk To Freedom, typed out entirely through the process of twerking. And who can forget the definitive exploration of female friendships, 2 Girls 1 Cup? (Legal Disclaimer: DO NOT EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER GOOGLE THAT I SWEAR THIS IS NOT A JOKE IT WILL MAKE YOU WANT TO SET YOUR SOUL ON FIRE.)
I could run down our obsession with virality all I want, but the truth is that as a modern-day writer, my career relies on distracting you better and for longer than anyone else. In fact, I wanted to call this piece ‘Exclusive Katrina Kaif Bikini Shots Reveal Birthmark Shaped Like Ranbir’, just so it would stick in your goldfish brain. I cannot lie – I want you to tweet and Facebook and reddit and Snapchat this piece to everyone you’ve ever known. Do it before the next distraction comes along. Seriously, hurry. Poonam Pandey just started unbuttoning her top.