MoMo - the anxiety that strikes when friends become non-users

Sebastian Greger

The impact of social technology’s non-use on its users is sometimes abstract to explain. But every now and then, the issue surfaces in very accessible manner as in an editorial piece by Radhika Sanghani on the Telegraph.

While active social media users, through constant sharing of detailed accounts from their lives, can cause their friends a fear of missing out on some of the activities mentioned (Sanghani refers to this as FoMo in an earlier text), the article suggests that the opposite behaviour - friends not sharing anything - may cause an even more severe symptom among SNS users: MoMo, or the “mystery of missing out”.

Whereas FoMo is the constant, nagging knowledge that you’re missing out on an event - because you can see it happening on social media, via your friends - MoMo is born out of plain old paranoia. Namely, when those same pals STOP posting anything at all.

Why did they stop posting?

The stress symptoms described in the article result from the attempt of a user to interpret the sudden lack of updates from their peers and assign it a meaning:

  • A personal issue of the non-user with the recipient,
  • an intentional attempt to make themselves more interesting by being mysterious,
  • something going on “in secret”, with the user accidentally or purposefully not being told about,
  • the possibility that another social channel has replaced the current one and the user is for one or the other reason not aware of it, or
  • a friend simply taking a time-out from technology for a while.

Regardless of the motive a user imagines for the stopped influx of information, the main cause for the anxiety is that the receiving side in a non-use situation is not aware of the reasons for that behaviour. As the psychologist quoted in the Telegraph piece states, the roots of the issue are not the lack of the knowledge but the unexpected and unexplicable change in the communicational pattern.

Interaction design can’t help to understand peers’ non-use

The omnipresence of social technology in some cultures has created an assumption that its use is the normal state of things. And while the reasons for a user to no longer update a certain channel can be manifold, they can likely be summarized in two categories:

  • Non-use as a socio-communicational act, for example in order to appear mysterious and make oneself more interesting through sparsity or revoking certain followers’ access to one’s updates.
  • Personally motivated non-use not guided by the intention to be interpreted by others, such as the lack of time/interest, a shift in personal perceptions of values and worth or the inability to use a channel as before.

What makes MoMo and its impact interesting from an interaction design perspective is the understanding that, while an artefact is able to transmit messages through use (most systems help the users to frame other users’ activities according to how they were created), users are pretty much left alone once a peer stops using it. Since the use of social technology is voluntary and led by individual worth considerations, there is no way a system could help the friends of a non-user to understand why they do not see any updates any longer.

I'm Sebastian, Sociologist and Interaction Designer. This journal is mostly about bringing toge­ther social science and design for inclusive, privacy-focused, and sustainable "human-first" digital strategies. I also tend to a "digital garden" with carefully curated resources.

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