Saturday, November 21, 2015

The week when FOBO stopped being an irrational fear

We all do it and we’ve all been victims of it. By now we must all know someone seemingly unable to go out for dinner without frantically checking their phones between mouthfuls.

Likewise, we've all been joined in the office lift by someone who, on entering, immediately starts thumbing through their e-mail, probably barely seconds since last doing so. And there are suburban railway stations where, every morning and like herds of animals at a water hole, massed ranks of commuters crane their necks over glowing LCD screens.

It has become the go-to reflex action when avoiding eye contact or, indeed, any kind of social interaction. Once, this was known as “phubbing” - a crude portmanteau of ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing’ - the habit of ignoring family members and friends through an unhealthy obsession with a smartphone. It has, however, been identified as more than just a bad habit, but an impact to relationships and even mental wellbeing, especially for those being phubbed, who see it as a sign of rejection and disinterest. And, yes, bloody rude.

But phubbing has now mutated into a syndrome of far greater import: FOBO - the fear of being offline, and its most damaging manifestation, the anxiety caused by disconnection from information, the compulsive checking of a phone even if an important communication isn’t expected.

If that’s you, then you’ll be prone to panic if you can’t remember where you last put your phone down, that you must have it in front of you at all times, that you switch it on the minute you’re allowed to on a plane, or that you even sneak a look halfway through a film - much to the dismay of those around you in the cinema, as the bright LCD glow gives you away.

A British study last year revealed that, on average, we look at our smarphones 221 times a day, which someone has worked out adds up to more than three hours each day hunched over these devices. Last year, the Iowa State University of Science and Technology found how "worried and nervous" people are if they are disconnected, or that their friends and family are unresponsive to digital messages. This even extended to the fear of a phone running out of battery power.

Another study found that 78% of French people spend more than 15 minutes before going to bed looking at their phones, and a similar percentage going straight back to them on waking. In the US, a Gallup stufy found that as many as 63% of smartphone owners kept theirs near them when they were asleep. No wonder phones have been attributed to sleeping disruption disorders.

Some places have resorted to extreme measures: restaurant customers now play the 'phone stacking' game, whereby in a group, everyone places their phones at the center of the table and the first who looks at it lands the bill. One Los Angeles restaurant even offers a 5% discount if phones are left at the entrance. Here in France, President Hollande is understood to have installed lockers outside his cabinet meeting room to, apparently deal with the "addictive behavior" of his ultra-connected ministers. That, though, may be amended in light of this last week’s events.

Most of us wouldn’t know how we coped before mobile devices came along, but when it comes to news, we are now light years away from relying only on neighbourhood gossip, daily newspapers, News At Ten or hourly bulletins on the radio. We’re also living busier lives.

In an interview in June with The Times, Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, told Barbara McMahon: "Everybody is attempting to do more things at the same time and everybody is checking in more often. From a psychological viewpoint, it looks like we all have a touch of OCD." The fact that one of our principle sources of information is now the smartphone, is, he says, a further example of our obsession. "The way we act out this obsession, which is the way people usually act out anxiety-based obsessions, is that we have to constantly check in to reassure ourselves."

Until this last week, I must admit, I've been as guilty as anyone of succumbing to FOBO. My justification has always been that working in corporate PR means being across the news as well as ensuring that I know what's going on around the world within my company. But I recognise that such behaviour is not that far removed from those constantly checking their phones in case World War Three has broken out or One Direction have broken up/reformed/gone to live on a kibbutz.

Events here in Paris in the last week have, more than ever, tested everyone's irrational concern of disconnectivity to the extreme. The attacks just over a week ago, and the continuous newscycle since, has made the need to be connected - for information and even comfort - understandably essential. News services, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and all the rest have, in various ways, provided vital lifelines to developments.

On the night of the 13th, Facebook’s Safety Check provided those of us in Paris with some means of reassurance that our local friends were OK. But not all: it was a WhatsApp message, from a phone down to its last few bars of battery power, that informed me that two of my Facebook friends, who’d been been inside Le Bataclan, were safe. 

The Paris attacks have occurred in a very different era of media consumption and digital social connectivity. 9/11, by comparison, occurred at a time when "the Internet" was a thing you did on a PC. The few ‘smartish’ phones available at the time were crude and clunky.

Still, it became hard to focus on anything else in the days and weeks after the hijackings, not knowing whether they were one-offs...or that there were further onslaughts to come. On the 11th itself, television was the primary information source. Stations abandoned their schedules to provide blanket coverage, for the first time introducing the ‘zip strip’ at the bottom of the screen to keep viewers up to date in realtime. In the process, television news stopped being just a newsreader, but a source of simultaneous, multiple points of information.

14 years on, near-ubiquitous mobile connectivity has had its upside - and its downside. In a blog post entitled "The truths, the half truths and the lies", Gregoire Lemarchand, the head of social media for the French news agency AFP, chronicled how the November 13 attacks in Paris unfolded as a digital timeline, unleashing “an unprecedented storm of rumour and speculation” on social media that even surpassed “the tidal wave that accompanied the Charlie Hebdo assaults in and around the French capital in January.”

But, Lemarchand pointed out, the multiple attacks in numerous locations meant that social media played a bigger part in accelerating the speed of misinformation. Significantly, though he made the following observation: "...there was less irresponsible content and less conspiracy theories than ten months earlier. It was as if lessons had been learned."

Still, though, the 'fog of war' principle applied. As the first tweets appeared, Lemarchand noted: "Some of the early information - like that there had been a shooting at the Bataclan - would end up being true. Other tweets much less so. People were tweeting that there had been shootings and explosions in the Halles neighbourhood - these never happened. But in those early hours it was impossible to separate the truths, the half truths and the lies."

As the Paris newscycle has continued, so the need to be connected has grown ever more obsessive and compulsive, feeding the beast in the process. The attacks - and the subsequent Saint-Denis raid - have generated so many minute-by-minute revelations, that increasingly hyper-competitive news organisations have been constantly trying trump each other with new information, new angles, new opinions, using social media relentlessly and even ruthlessly to build their audiences and even crow about their exclusives.

Television, my iPhone and iPad have conspired to feed the beast, but perhaps on this occasion, the obsessive, compulsive behaviour of needing to keep up in real time is justifiable. To be fair, though, when the city around you is under attack, no amount of obsession will be enough to know that people you care about are safe.

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