The FOMO Threshold

September 24th, 2019

The fear of missing out (otherwise known as FOMO) is a powerful psychological force. How many times have you made a decision simply because you were worried about the social implications of not being part of what was going on? Staying up late to binge a new show on Netflix so you could talk about it the next day with coworkers? Buying the latest tech gadget to keep your early adopter status? Being the first to share breaking news, without first checking its validity? In a rush to not be left out, we often make hasty decisions that put our innate desires to be part of the in-crowd ahead of knowing better.

But what is the threshold for FOMO? How much are we willing to look past to find this social reassurance?

For me, FOMO reared its formidable head during my recent experience with the FaceApp Age Challenge. Like many of us, I check my Facebook feed regularly. At first, I noticed Pages sharing unbelievably realistic pictures of celebrities appearing much older than they actually were. Sometime soon after, my friends were the ones sharing pictures of 80-some-year-old versions of themselves, all made possible by the AI and machine-learning baked into the world’s overnight sensation, FaceApp.

The name of the app was familiar, as I had experimented with it when it first came out. Another thing I was familiar with: The app was created by a Russian developer. This day and age, it’s hard to think about “Russia” without also thinking about potential privacy concerns. And many people actually were concerned about this.

When Jim took to the streets, he asked people about this specifically. This is how one of the conversations went:

Jim: “If you were to use an app like FaceApp, and you knew that the app might use your information in some way outside the app, would you then read through the terms?”

Friendly Omahan: “Now that you brought that up, yeah, I would. But before, I had zero concerns.”

Here’s where it gets funny (or I guess sad, depending on how you look at it). Unlike this Omahan, I actually knew that using the app came with a potential side of nefariousness. But, in my mind, the feeling of fitting in and sharing my photos with friends outweighed any potential privacy concerns I had with using an app made in Russia.

My FOMO threshold?
A handful of likes and a few quick laughs.

I eventually wised up and deleted the app. Though there were conflicting reports, recent stories suggest there probably weren’t any privacy concerns different from the privacy concerns that have existed for years with services like Facebook and Instagram. Which, in and of itself, should be concerning.

But can FOMO play a positive role in advertising? In short, yes. To quote a mentor of mine, there’s something worthwhile to the idea of “positive anxiety.” But as advertisers, it’s up to us to self-regulate our wildest inclinations and set a high moral standard for everyone else.

Tapping into the feeling of wanting to be part of something timely and relevant is not necessarily bad. And with positive intent, FOMO can be a remarkably powerful tool for good. But to quote another mentor of mine, “With great power comes great responsibility.” OK, that was Uncle Ben. But truer words (now more than ever) have never been spoken.

The FaceApp #AgeChallenge

FaceApp is a mobile application for iOS and Android, developed by the Russian company Wireless Lab. The app uses artificial intelligence (AI) to generate highly realistic transformations of faces in photographs. The app can transform a face to make it smile, look younger, look older or even change gender.

In July of this year, the FaceApp Age Challenge was born. People were encouraged to take a photo through FaceApp and alter their appearance to make themselves look 30 years older. In a matter of seconds, the app added very realistic wrinkles and gray hair to the photo. People then shared the photo on social with the hashtag #AgeChallenge.

Needless to say, the challenge went viral. Hundreds of thousands of people participated, including many celebrities and businesses.

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