Social media is fuelling insecurity and causing a loneliness epidemic, a former investment banker tells Lucy Holden
10 September 2018
“There’s a wet ribbon hanging around your toothbrush. Why?” asks my boyfriend.
“It’s supposed to make me remember to be grateful for three things every time I use it,” I say. “I’m reading a book about how to avoid foblo, and achieve jomo. I think we have ding addiction.”
“I’ve never taken ding,” he protests.
Ding refers to the sound our phones make — the one that triggers us to grab them as if they were the last TV in a black Friday sale — and Belong, a new book by a former investment banker called Radha Agrawal, is designed to cure it. It is also designed to rid us of the new fomo (fear of missing out), foblo, which Agrawal says is the”fear of being left out”, and encourage jomo, the “joy of missing out”. Tired of acronyms yet? It’s all very modern.
Five years ago Agrawal, 39, launched Daybreaker, a series of teetotal raves that have become so huge they take place in 25 cities around the world and have been attended by 450,000 people. Part of the reason you can’t drink is that they often take place between 6.30am and 8.30am. If you can imagine a fluorescent, pre-work workout with a DJ spinning decks (Agrawal and her twin sister, Miki, control the music if you’re in the right city at the right time), you are close to picturing them. Their aim is to encourage sober interactions between an oftendrunken age group, in the name of community and banishing loneliness, which 2.4 million adults in the UK suffer from, according to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics.
Daybreaker and Belong were part of the same epiphany. Agrawal, a Cornell graduate who describes herself as a “community architect”, was training to be an investment banker in her twenties and working in an office in the World Trade Center in New York. Two weeks after the training finished and she was moved downtown, the 9/11 attacks occurred. “My world turned upside down,” she tells me on a Skype call from New York.
“It made me think, ‘What the f do I want to do with my life?’ When something like that happens to you, you suddenly have this idea you’re living on borrowed time. Death is among us all, so why sleepwalk? You might have wealth in a job like [investment banking], but what if you wake up at 30 looking 50 after so many 100-hour weeks and realise you hate your job? That costs too much. Plus I was an arsehole back then: miserable, stressed, overworked. Completely out of alignment. I was just sad, actually.”
Agrawal, who is half-Indian (her father), half-Japanese (her mother) and uber-American in an American Dream sort of way, was made redundant shortly after the attacks. The company tried to help her to find a similar job, but she realised in interviews that she didn’t want anything remotely similar.
“I want to go into the film industry,” she told a bemused investment banking boss who had to check whether she knew which interview room she was sitting in. It’s a massive testament to Agrawal’s charm that when the interviewer was told, yes, she did know this was an investment banking interview, they called an old schoolfriend who worked in the industry and got her a job as an agent in advertising.
However, Agrawal realised she was spending most of her time in bars, boozing and bored. “I found myself stuck at the same sports bar every Saturday, and I frequently drank until I blacked out,” she writes in Belong. “I was not respecting myself or my body.”
“I was all about the boozing, bars and clubs in my twenties,” she says now, talking to me from her bohemian-looking sitting room in Brooklyn, where she lives with Eli, her 27-year-old fiancé, whom she met on the dancefloor at a Daybreaker rave.
Eli is cooking a breakfast burrito in a kitchen just out of shot and he’s cooking for three, given that Agrawal is six months pregnant with their already-named daughter, Soleil.
“He’d say hi, but he’s naked,” she says, having already apologised for the “state” of her tidy-looking house. They are in the middle of packing for BBwps Burning Man, the festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, which was also where Eli proposed, in the middle of a sandstorm, last year. Given Agrawal’s social theories, it’s not surprising that they have made Burning Man their thing.
As B” t “For “Burning Man is not a festival,” the not-festival’s website says, “Burning Man is a community.” community is what Agrawal and Belong are all about. She thinks we’ve lost our sense of it, partly because we’ve “bastardised” the word “friend” with Facebook and spend so much time on social media. Our “friends” might not be the kind of people we would actually want to be around if we thought about it, she believes.
“I was a cool kid among cool kids in New York,” she says of her twenties. “Then I realised I was living as an inauthentic version of myself. I thought about making friends as something I didn’t have time to do. Work always came first and cancelling on people was normal. I spent time with people who were fine but not inspiring, just because it was easier.
“People in their twenties aren’t taught how to socialise, so you go to uni and go to the pub and get completely hammered, then do it over again. We’re alone in a crowd when everyone’s drunk or drugged up, and so many people in their twenties are actually very lonely. I really want some of the ideas in the book to be taught in schools because I think that would help us make more authentic connections with people. I want to disassociate alcohol with socialisation.”
The dance parties were one way to do this, and a way of starting to build her own community, she says. “I decided dance and music were important to me and I wanted to be around people that enjoyed the same things,” she says. “Now I’m in my late thirties I find my people quicker and I have a growing tribe of amazing humans, but I first had to break away from what I had and ask myself what I wanted in order to change and feel really happy.”
Part of what she didn’t want was her former engagement to a man 12 years older than her. “God, of course you can feel lonely in a relationship if it’s not the right one,” she says.
For someone with such an online presence (she posted a baby scan very early on and the video of Eli’s Burning Man proposal is on her Instagram), social media is a strange thing to preach against, but she manages by turning off the “ding” on her phone. “It’s as easy as that. That puts me in control when I look at social media,” she says.
It no doubt helps a little towards banishing foblo, the worst offender because it’s fuelled by insecurity and we have to start with ourselves if we want to meet the right kind of people, she says.
“I am beautiful energy wrapped in human form,” I tell the mirror after I’ve brushed my teeth — something else I’ve learnt from the book.
“Of course you are,” says my boyfriend, “but can you take that disgusting wet ribbon off your toothbrush now?”
Belong by Radha Agrawal, £14.99, is published by Workman