FOMO'ed Out in Beerland


Human survival depends on assessing risk, and as we’ve evolved, we’ve gotten better at it. As social beings, we’ve adapted to increase our assessment by including trusted advisors—members of our tribes. Even our brains have evolved to determine whether or not we’re getting the goods from our fellow tribespeople. 

That specialized part of the brain is a part of the limbic system, the amygdala, whose job it is to detect whether something could be a threat to our survival. Not having vital information or getting the impression that one is not a part of the “in” group is enough for many individuals' amygdalas to engage the stress or activation response or the “fight or flight” response.

This adaptive response, so good at preserving the species, may not be great for individuals. It creates a constant desire to remain in the loop—one that can, in the modern world, be effectively impossible. As recently as ten years ago, it was possible to account for every important brewery in the US—by whatever metric you chose to use (region, size, quality, historical significance). There were only 1500 breweries total in the country, and most of those were modest brewpubs. Five years ago things became more challenging—America was up to 2,500 breweries—but with the help of the media, ratings sites, and word-of-mouth, one could reasonably expect to be able to identify important breweries.

Now there are around 6,500, and the system has broken down. There are too many breweries to keep track of even when you parachute into a small city like Bellingham, as I did earlier this week. It is often the case that the best breweries in a city were founded in the past few years. The explosion has meant that the media can’t keep up, word-of-mouth is spotty at best, and even the ratings sites record few reviews. (Have a look at Structures, one of my highly recommended Bellingham breweries; two-thirds of the beers listed have three ratings or fewer, and a number have none. The beer with the most ratings has 12, the next-most has seven .)

if you go to Bellingham and spend less than a week there, you’re almost certainly going to develop a twinge if anxiety thinking that maybe the best brewery in town is the one you haven’t been to, the one no one knows about. Unless you really don’t care about beer, you’ll experience at least a mild case of that dreaded 21st-century malady FOMO, the fear of missing out. And Bellingham only has a dozen breweries. God forbid you plan a trip to Portland or Denver or Chicago, where visiting all the breweries would take weeks.

What Happens When Drinkers Give Up?

It's possible that my Twitter community is an especially mentally-healthy lot and not typical for beer drinkers overall. It's also possible that the pressures of FOMO have created a more universal response to the stress: "Whatevs!" ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  When I posed the FOMO question, people almost universally said they'd wrestled with it. But most also said those days were done. This captures the mood very nicely:

The experience of FOMO is not just an internet meme or pop psychology—recent studies have documented its effects. (It's more severe among younger people, and social media has definitely worsened it.) The combination of social media and market fragmentation has affected most domains of interest, not just beer. What hasn't been studied is how people respond to this sense of overwhelm. If they keep trying to keep up, that will make individuals more unhappy but will be a boon for those fragmented markets. If, however, they decide to get off the treadmill, this could have profound consequences for industries like beer. If my Twitter community is any guide, people are getting off the FOMO treadmill.

In our last podcast, Patrick discussed some of the motivations that affect consumers. One is the desire for variety, but it is counterbalanced by a desire for reliability. Amid all this FOMO-ing, we are encountering a fair amount of unimpressive beer. In an earlier era—like, three years ago—the risk/reward ratio of getting a bad beer versus making an unexpected discovery wasn't so bad. Now, though, I think most people are feeling like it's a total crapshoot. Even if a beer is merely just average, it means having chosen it over a reliably excellent beer we've already identified.

I have learned to temper my impulse to predict the future. One could imagine a number of ways these trends could play out. What we can say is that it almost certainly acts as an accelerant for current trends. It will be harder for new breweries to break through and find an audience, and that process will take longer. Breweries that make a mistake and lose their audience will have a harder time winning them back. And we, as consumers, will increasingly narrow our attention to those several breweries we know and trust.

Finally, it means that that list of "important" breweries will be more sticky. I saw this phenomenon when I visited Boston last year. New Englanders have identified a dozen or two breweries that count as must-sees, and little breweries making beer as well or better find it next to impossible to break into the club. There are too many breweries in the country for us to know them all, but our amygdalas aren't about to stop prodding us to find out what the group knows. So we repeat the information about those good breweries we all share in common. And if there's a really wonderful little three-year old brewery making better beer we don't know about? Whatevs--we can live without it.