Nerd Processor

The Anxiety of Nerd FOMO

This golden age of nerd pop culture can be an exquisite torture for actual nerds

Credit: Soloma_Poppystyle/iStock/Getty

IIt’s very likely first among first world problems, but there’s just too much good entertainment out there. It’s an actual dilemma, especially for geeks. Because even though we’re living in a golden age of nerd entertainment, the likes of which we never could have dreamed about as kids and teens, all that beautiful content is stressing us out.

Even if you’re just an average consumer of entertainment, you might feel like it’s impossible to check out everything you might be interested in — to watch every popular movie and great TV show, hear every hit album, read every critically acclaimed book and comic, play every lauded video game. You’re right — it is straight-up impossible. The only way to navigate this plethora of art is to become increasingly picky about how you spend your time and what you spend your time on.

Nerds don’t have more hours in the day than regular people, of course, but we often don’t have the luxury of being selective. Nerds are completists by nature, whether we want to collect the entire run of a comic book or all the action figures in a certain toy line or make sure to see every Star Wars product.

With so many new series, so many movies, so many sequels and reboots and revivals, it is extremely rare that there’s an actual end, which means almost nothing can be completed anymore.

And nerds are never satisfied with a single subject. They’re likely to be completists for multiple genres — science fiction, fantasy, superheroes, and a few assorted other things, to cite the example of one geek who also happens to be me. Or rather, I’ve tried to be a completist of many, many things, but with so many new series, so many movies, so many sequels and reboots and revivals, it is extremely rare that there’s an actual end, which means almost nothing can be completed anymore.

Yes, I could theoretically try to be pickier, to winnow down the entertainment I consume to the subjects I enjoy most, but that’s not how being a nerd works. You don’t stop being a fan of something because you’re running out of time or because you don’t have enough money to purchase all your favorite stuff. You might be forced to become choosier by sheer necessity; I’ve certainly had to drop TV shows and comics and stop playing video games almost entirely over the past few years.

But I still have countless shows and books and more squatting at the top of my pop culture to-do list, a list that has been growing for months: the most recent seasons of Syfy’s 12 Monkeys and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, plus several shows on the DC Universe streaming services. I also need to watch Star Trek: Discovery and the critical sci-fi darling The Expanse, neither of which I’ve even had a chance to begin. I remain a bit anxious that I don’t know what’s happening in the Supergirl TV series and the main Batman and Avengers comic books, and I feel pangs of anxiety knowing there’s a mountain of great video games that I don’t have time to play. Meanwhile, still more new items are added to my list of things I need to experience, even as I struggle to keep my head above the crashing waves of the modern nerd renaissance.

The acronym FOMO — fear of missing out — is primarily used to mean a feeling that other people are doing cool things without you, that you’re missing something fun because you’re stuck at home watching, say, Star Trek: Discovery. It’s different for nerds, because there doesn’t need to be another person involved. We’re not worried that someone else is enjoying Star Trek and we’re not. We’re afraid of missing out on the content, or rather, the consumption of the content. We’re afraid of not watching or reading or playing all the wonderful stuff getting released nowadays — and that’s so much stuff.

If you think this is weird, you have a valid objection. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s even more senseless when you realize many nerds can still feel the panicked need to consume even if they don’t particularly care about the content. Chances are you know somebody who watches some show they hate, maybe because they loved it once, or maybe because they’ve seen so much that they feel compelled to keep going even if they’re not enjoying themselves. Now add the idea that nerds can still desperately crave to see something they actively hate, and you’re beginning to see our plight.

For nerds, it’s rarely about enjoyment; it’s about consumption and compulsion.

If you have ever talked to a Star Trek fan, or a Star Wars fan, or any reader of a comic book, they will gladly tell you which elements of their objet d’affection they hate, and they will tell you in such detail and with such vehemence that it seems impossible that they actually like it at all. Sometimes nerds may even hate the majority of the property they love, but that doesn’t actually matter. I can’t tell you how many Star Trek fans I’ve known who have complete disdain for one or more entire TV series in the canon and yet have watched every single episode of even the shows they despise the most.

For nerds, it’s rarely about enjoyment; again, it’s about consumption and compulsion. Say there’s a Trek fan who hates the old Deep Space Nine and the Enterprise TV series with a passion. This has exactly zero bearing on whether or not they watched those shows. Of course they watched them — every single episode. Not because they liked them, obviously, but because of the completionism that drives fans to spend their time unhappily watching a show they honestly believe is a travesty to the franchise they love. After all, if you’re a true Star Trek fan, the idea of not watching Deep Space Nine, even if you loathe it to the core of your being, is absurd. Fans watch, period. (And then they bitch about it endlessly online to their fellow fans.)

While I have and am still watching and reading things I do not care for out of completionism — and sometimes inertia — I suspect the underlying driver is one that many nerds of my generation have. We know what it was like before this golden age, when it was a cause for major celebration when anything even tangentially nerdy broke through into mainstream media. The 1989 Batman movie was a cultural touchstone, but I remember being nearly as excited for 1996’s The Phantom movie, starring Billy Zane—even though it was based on a character in a comic strip from the 1940s that I’d never read and didn’t particularly care to—just because it was a movie based on a comic. The movie was terrible, and I knew it would be. But I was waiting in the theater to see it, just as I did for a dozen other equally awful geek movies of the ’80s and ’90s — simply because it was nerdy.

Back then, nerds were desperate. In 2000, when X-Men kicked off the modern superhero movie craze, we were overjoyed. When Arrow premiered in 2012, proving to Hollywood that people craved nerdy TV shows as much as they did movies, we nerds watched. And then we watched the spinoffs: The Flash, Supergirl, and others. And then Marvel got into the fray with Agent Carter and Agents of SHIELD and then moved to Netflix with Daredevil and Jessica Jones, then to Hulu with Runaways and Legion on FX, and then people started grabbing whatever comics they could find to make TV shows like The Walking Dead and Preacher, and now Disney is going to have a streaming service with so many Star Wars shows and Marvel movie spinoff series, and so many more are already in the works—well, you get the idea. It’s daunting to even consider.

When the avalanche was a mere snowball, I consumed all of these things because I was just excited that they existed. Even if some of the shows were bad — and many definitely were — they were made for me and my ilk. That was all the reason I needed. Now I watch as much as I can, and I tell myself I’m totally going to get around to that massive pile of Supergirl and The Gifted and Cloak and Dagger episodes that has been hanging out on my DVR for nearly a year. My heart knows better.

Nerds can’t force themselves to stop being fans of something, so, unfortunately, much like many of the actual problems facing the world, there’s no easy solution. Unless, I suppose, the mass public gets tired of superheroes and science fiction and the like and Hollywood turns away from nerd entertainment. Then we nerds would finally have a chance to catch up on everything we’ve been missing. And when we’re finally done, we could finally get back to complaining about how there’s nothing for us to see anymore.

The former editor of io9.com, Rob Bricken has been a professional nerd since 2001. He also often cries at children's cartoons.

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