Between FOMO and JOMO — You’re reshaping communication

DroidconSF 2018 Keynote Writeup

Britt Barak
15 min readFeb 25, 2019


Remember when phones were just phones?

It was actually not long ago, I remember it as a kid. We had a telephone in our home. It was just a stationary device, like a fridge for example: when you were hungry, you would go to the fridge, open it, grab some food, close the fridge, and that was it! The same way, if you wanted to have a conversation with someone distant, you would walk over your stationary phone, pick it up, make the conversation, hang up, and that was it! We went a long way since then.

When phones became mobile.

Although many people would guess it to be a decade later, the first mobile phone call was actually made in 1973. Martin Cooper, the lead engineer at Motorola, called the engineer from AT&T to say “Hi, we beat you! we have a mobile phone!”.

Martyn Cooper with the first mobile phone prototype.

The device was available for commercial purchase only 10 years later. You had to charge it for 10 hours in order to get 30 minutes of conversation.

Did you think the new Pixel is expensive? this device cost almost 4000$ which worth today about 10000$.

Years 1990–1995 represents the time when mobile phones started to become popular for the average household. Quite quickly they became a standard device for everyone to hold.

A significant historic turning point was in 1997 when the world best app was created: SNAKE! 😉🐍

From that moment on, communication became something that is in everyone’s pockets. Literally. Phones come with us every day, everywhere, they know about us so much, we are always within reach, we are always connected…

In 1992, when phones got SMS, communication started to be richer. It suddenly has not just voice, but also text. It suddenly is not just synchronic, but asynchronous. In 2004 communication becomes even richer, when phones got MMS, and allow us to send not just 1000 words, but the photo itself.

In 2007, iPhone was announced. Technically smartphones and apps were available before, but that symbolizes a point where standards began to change: what does the device look like? what does the interface should look like? what are the functionalities a mobile phone should provide?

The new standard dictates for phones to fulfill so many other functionalities, that are quite fundamental for our day to day lives: navigation, transportation, payment, alarm clock, camera… All of these, and much more, are now hosted in one device, which is in the palm of our hand (or in the worst case — in our pockets), every day, most of the day.

Before then, the phone would help us communicate with other people, by sending them voice, text or photos. With mobile applications, we can think of an app as a new form of interface for communication, between us and a service, business or functionality. In a way, apps are yet another expansion of communication. It is another step in the communication evolution. It looks and feels different. But still, it’s a form of communicating: asking for some service or functionality and receiving it.

That device became so fundamental to our lives, that many times we identify with it and by it.

Literally, think how many times you were asked to give your phone number in order to verify that you are indeed yourself. You had to prove that you are reachable with the very phone number that you provided, in order to prove that you are a real trusted person.

It’s not trivial when you think of it.

So what we do, as app creators, is basically to make people feel connected: connected to each other, or to the services of the companies we work for, or to the world.

In this sentence, lie two very important responsibilities of ours:

First, since we realize how much this being connected means nowadays, it’s our social ethical responsibility to make ALL people feel connected. We have the power to create an inclusive and connected world for everyone.

Accessibility and inclusion have been a discussion for a while now. Recently, in Droidcon UK 2018 I had the privilege to share a personal story of where did it meet me, by the story of my beloved grandmother. Only lately, when her vision started to impair, did I realized how do apps can play a significant part in connecting disabled people to the world. Suddenly, it hurts even more, when those people are the ones that we love so much. Apparently, it’s not that hard to make them feel included and potent. It is in our hands, all we need is to be minded enough.

The second emphasis is that we make people FEEL. It’s not just that we enable them to do something, it’s not just about cold functionality. It’s about feelings. Feelings are so important! Think of those days when you’re happy and positive: everything just falls into place, it all works out, the sun is shining, bugs are fixed, all’s perfect! You smile to people around you, they smile back. Thanks to you their day might be pretty much the same! No need to mention that when you’re less positive, somehow the world is less positive as well, right?

There’s an interesting study, that took a few apps of different kinds, and checked the feelings users have toward them. Some types of apps result in positive feelings while other types result in negative feelings. Another interesting part of that study was that, on average we use the positive feeling apps 9 minutes a day each, and the negative feeling apps 27 minutes a day each. Interesting, isn’t it?

One of these negative feelings, and one of the reasons we’re eager to constantly stay connected, is something that we fondly named: FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out. We’re so scared to be missing something, that for the slight possibility that something will happen or someone will need us, we stay connected and use the negative feeling apps more than we rationally would.

FOMO got us quite hooked to our phones. Recent studies show that an average American adult spends 3 hours and 35 minutes a day (170+ minutes) on their phones. Also, we touch our phones an average of 2617 times a day! That’s a lot! remember that a few of these apps don’t even make us feel good. If we’re rational people, and we’d like to think that about ourselves — something other than our feelings has to cause that.

Tristan Harris is a fascinating leading figure in this domain. He was a design ethicist at Google, and now has an organization called Time Well Spent. I believe he was the first to talk about the fact that our apps and slot machines work on some similar principles.

Slot machines make more money in the US than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined, and 3–4 times more addictive than other types of gambling. So if you’re looking for an addictive money generator, it only makes sense to learn from slot machines…

What do apps have to do with slot machines? Here are only a few points:

  • Stimulation: the colourfulness and the high pitch short tones, cause our brain to physically think that something important is happening. We’re physically alert, focused and prepared. Very similar to the colourfulness of apps, the screen light that stimulates our eyes, the notification sounds…
  • Polling a lever or pressing a button to make some quick action to occur. These create a illusion of control: we seemingly initiated the action, so we’re emotionally invested in it, we want the result to be successful. At the same time, the effort wasn’t too much, so we won’t ditch the process and it will be easy to repeat until the desired result. Does it remind you scrolling forever, or swiping forever, or clicking to make the same thing happen over and over again…?
  • Variable reward — we don’t know what’s the result of the action we initiated going to be: are we going to win? are we going to lose? This anticipation gets us physically hooked. It releases a chemical in our brain, called dopamine. Dopamine is in charge of our pleasure centre in the brain. It’s the same chemical that is released when we eat food, or an addict consume drugs. Dopamine level arises when we anticipate something but doesn’t change when we consume it. Physically, you will have the same thrill from the action, regardless of the result. Many scenarios on our cellphone imitate this: when we get a notification — is it going to be interesting? Is it going to be good news or bad? The same thing happens with apps that we scroll or swipe through a feed or cards to get the next piece of content. Or when we see that someone is typing… what’s going to be the message?

Are we really addicted?

Recently, a mental condition for phone addiction has been recognized and is called Nomophobia — No Mobile Phobia.

There is a specific scientific definition for a phobia or addiction, and not that many people actually fit in the medical criteria. However, so many people often say that they feel addicted. Also, so many people overuse, misuse or abuse mobile phones. Therefore, it sounds like a phenomenon that we as a society or an industry, should start addressing.

As people got aware of their phone consumption habits and ramifications, they realized it got to the point where it’s taking too much of a tole on their lives. Suddenly, something interesting happened: some small moments when you couldn’t be connected- because your battery died, or you didn’t have reception, or you forgot the phone in the car… these small moments became moments of joy!

There’s even a name given to it: JOMO- Joy Of Missing Out.

The issue is that it’s hard to get long enough and recurring moments of JOMO. A major reason for it is because that we are social creatures, and we are fed by social approval. This is how human beings work.

If we are disconnected while someone else tries to reach us, it’s not going to feel nice. This social conception is a strong factor in our decision making, in this case — to stay connected.

A fascinating professor, who I had the privilege to attend a few of his classes, Professor Dan Ariely, talks a lot about behavioural economics and the fact that humans are actually irrational creatures.

Among other studies and stories, I remember him telling us about the fact the daily brushing of our teeth was not introduced due to the fact that it occurred to people that it’s good for their health. The real story was that when one company decided to add a minty flavour to their toothpaste. They created a massive campaign that essentially educated people that one must have a minty breath. For your sake? No! But to be a good neighbor to the person next to you. And when everyone can smell their neighbor’s minty breath — you don’t want to be the one who’s breath will embarrassingly stand out!

Similarly, when your surrounding expects you to be connected — it’s even harder for you to ditch that social expectation and disconnect, even if you might want to.

We’re stuck in that obligation loop: when someone sends you a text, you feel obligated to answer. When you answer, they feel obligated to reply back. and so on and so forth…

Social approval for JOMO

Around that idea, here’s a personal experience of mine, I learned not many people have known:

As mentioned, I was born and raised in Israel. I wouldn’t label myself as a very religious person, but the most sacred and holy day for Jewish people is Yom Kippur. It is a day of self-reflection, where you have an opportunity to look inside and figure out the good and bad things you did during the past year. To support that, we eliminate any external stimulation, so that the body and mind be in utmost peace. For 25 hours, many people don’t eat or drink, don’t work, some don’t use any media nor electricity. But these things you can either do or don’t in your own home, and no one knows.

However, on that day, the entire country essentially shuts down: stores are closed, offices are deserted, and the most apparent thing: people don’t drive. The roads are empty, peaceful and quiet. You can only see some kids with bicycles riding on the highway. To be honest- this is quite magical. This is a photo that I took from the balcony at my own apartment, during Yom Kippur (don’t tell 🙊). You can see the Ayalon highway, which runs along the entire Tel Aviv, and is jammed for 364 days of the year — resting and sunbathing.

The quiet Ayalon Highway, in Tel Aviv, during Yom Kippur.

When all the roads are empty and quiet — you don’t want to be the one breaking the silence! So why not enjoy it?

Suddenly it’s easier and far more joyous to disconnect from all media, since we all do it together. You don’t feel guilty, you’re not worried you’re missing anything, you can just relax. This is a time when many people, even not for religious reasons, just enjoy the shared JOMO feeling of this day.

It’s easy to say- if it doesn’t make you feel good — just don’t do it, don’t use that app or that device. But first, it’s harder than it seems as for the reasons we mentioned.

Second, since technology, in many aspects, created that issue, technology also has the responsibility as well as the resources to help fix it!

Indeed, it seems that recently more and more companies are starting to have this in mind. For me, a very significant milestone was that at last Google I/O (2018). Android P was announced with an emphasis on JOMO or Digital Wellbeing. On the users perspective, some of the significant features are:

  • Digital Wellbeing dashboard that allows you to see how much time you spend per app, how many notifications an app produces, how many time you unlocked the device, and more…

Also, a bunch of features makes it easier for the user to disconnect, to make the device silent.

  • “Shush” or Do Not Disturb mode once the device is turned over.
  • App Timers to put a time limit on the usage of specific apps.
  • Grayscaling your screen from some hour. As mentioned, the colors physically draw our attention and make things feel urgent and more stimulating. Grayscaling eliminates this and is said to allow a better night sleep.

What does it mean for us, app creators?

Mainly, in my honest opinion, it means that we have to be more responsible.

We understand our power and impact on people’s lives and we want to do the right thing.

Also, users are nowadays more aware. They have tools to help them get the disconnection and better realize which are the apps that are challenging their JOMO. You don’t want to be the app that is too intrusive or too demanding. For that, your app will get uninstalled first.

What can you do?

First, in general, try to do it less. Users are just aware of the intrusiveness of apps, and you don’t want to be the app that notoriously stands out. Users can easily shush the device, the app, snooze notifications, unregister from certain channels, and if it’s still too much- they will uninstall it.

  • If and when possible, it’s even more important now to minimize notifications. Youtube, for example, allows you to receive 1 notification a day with updates. Try to bundle notifications or use certain notification styles that can provide a better summary of the info you want to notify the users about.
  • Interrupt when things are really important. Try to understand what might be more important for your users. Gmail, for example, suggests us to notify the emails that we defined as important. In general, we do know that users care more about the people that are important to them, rather than the content.
  • If you already interrupted, try to make it count, and help the user be productive. Add actions to the notifications, show enough data that doesn’t require to open the app, allow the user to reply. As notification got more powerful for devs in the recent Android versions, it’s a lot easier for us to create useful notifications.

As users will be more aware to claim back their time, it’s even more important now to be more respectful and less wasteful of their time. Be minded of your onboarding process, watch for confusing UX or performance issues.

If there are “shortcuts” you can provide, in UX or functionality, to make a faster → it’s even more meaningful. A nice example is when Google Photos suggests styled photos, and creates animations for you. It saves the users the time to do that.

The good news is that nowadays it’s becoming more and more approachable to use ML models to makes even more “magic” and smarter decisions for your users. Even if you are not a data scientist, MLKit is a great place to start!

Another reason users don’t close an app

An interesting term we should consider is called “Stopping Cue”. For us, humans, it’s harder to stop a process before it finished. It’s easier to stop when there’s some kind of a break. For example, when the chapter in the book is over. Nowadays, as many apps and services are fighting over users attention, one trick of theirs is to remove these stopping cues. Think about autoplaying videos vs having to click the Next button, or infinite scroll vs paging…

I mentioned before that some actions the users do “automatically”, like on a slot machine. If we do want to prevent that, and help the user take a second and consider if s.he really wants to do that action, we need to create a “stopping cue”, some friction. It’s a relevant principle not just for apps, but for breaking any habit.

I remember another story from Dan Ariely where he talked about a study they did in a big tech company’s offices, to decrease the consumption of candies, in favor of creating healthier habits. They took the candy bowl and tried a few different things, to see where would people take less of them: they placed it in different locations in the cafeteria, they put a warning sign next to, but the thing that helped the most was just adding a small friction: a cover, that the employees had to pick up before grabbing a handful of chocolates. Apparently, small friction does a lot, and many candies were ignored.

Another thing is that less information in your app can make a more focused and productive use of the app. Notice how Photos suggest “clearing the clutter” and leaving you with only the best photos to view for when you open the app next time. Similarly, Gmail has a priority inbox, where you can see only the important/unread messages, rather than all of the emails, that will make your session si much longer. It allows you to manage your time better and is some very strong Stopping Cue.

To wrap up

That space between FOMO and JOMO, is what we should strive for when building an app. From one hand, we want to engage with our beloved users who don’t want to miss the app’s value. At the same time, we should make sure users feel in control of their time and attention, rather than the app controls their time. We should allow them to disconnect whenever they want and still everything will be just fine.

That’s the sweet spot that you want to find.

For the next feature, you’d design or develop, try to ask yourself: is it contributing to better communication? does it make users lives better? more productive? more efficient? more fulfilling? or… does it focus on holding their attention?

Thank you for reading! ❤

This talk was given as an opening keynote at DroidconSF 2018.

I wrote a personal story on my journey to writing and presenting it.

Would love to hear if you found here at least one point that resonates with you! Find me on Twitter 😍



Britt Barak

Product manager @ Facebook. Formerly: DevRel / DevX ; Google Developer Expert; Women Techmakers Israel community lead.