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Facebook explains why it shows who ignored your event

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I know you only have a Facebook account for event invites, and I get it. This week on Why’d You Push That Button, Kaitlyn and I explore ignored Facebook events. More specifically, we talk about the check mark and “seen” that Facebook puts under any guest’s name who has opened an invite but not responded. Why do people hate to RSVP? Why do we get hurt when they ignore us? Why are we all so rude? What can Facebook do to fix this problem?

We’ve got answers. I talked to a woman named Carrie who tells us about a time she tried to host a bachelorette party, only to have her guests ignore her invite completely. Then Kaitlyn talks to one of my high school friends, Jon, about his notorious reputation for ignoring events. Finally, we chat with Aditya Koolwal, a senior product manager at Facebook, who explains why the “seen” exists. Apparently it’s not just to punish us.

As usual, you can find us anywhere you find podcasts, including on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, and our RSS feed. Catch up on season one, too, if you missed out the first time.

Listen to the full audio of the episode and read the transcription of Aditya’s interview below.

Ashley: How often does the language around Facebook events change? I feel like when I was in college many years ago it was either, “going or not going.” Now it’s like, “interested, going,” and then, “not sure,” or something. So how often are you changing that language?

Aditya Koolwal: Yeah, the language itself doesn’t change very often. But we do periodically make changes. Like when they made the like button turn into those reactions. And that’s usually motivated by some gap, I suppose, in how the product is working for the way people want to use it. Probably the most notable change for you with Facebook events would have been... I want to say three years ago. We sort of split the public event product from the private event product.

And so Facebook events, if you go back even further, if you go back to the mid 2000s, the product was built for private events. It was built for private parties — stuff that you would have used an e-vite for, right? And so it kind of had the traditional invite, guest list, RSVP, going, maybe, not going. It had all of those formalisms that you would have come to expect for an invitation to a private event online. And what we saw was that that was actually not working really well for public events. And we observed this based on how people were using the product for public events and also just interviewing a lot of people that organized public events and talking to them about the problems they were seeing. And then talking to people who liked going to public events, but didn’t feel like Facebook was a great place to learn about those things.

And in that process, we made a few design changes or sort of decisions, I suppose, on how to better serve both private and public events.

Kaitlyn: So I think to be more specific, the language that you’re talking about would be in a private event the options are “going, maybe, and can’t go.” Right? Where like “can’t go” inherently has this expression of regret or whatever. Of like, “Sorry. I’m sorry that I can’t go.” Not like, “I’m not going.”

Language is pretty complex. There’s different states in which people can be when it comes to hearing about or finding out about events. So private event, you can’t see that private event or know about that private event unless someone has invited you to it. Because otherwise, that would be annoying for the person putting it on that anyone could see it, so the only way you can hear about it is through an invitation. And in that invitation process you’re given kind of the standard set of RSVP options. I think one of you alluded to the fact that it’s not like “going, maybe, not going.” And instead it’s “can’t go.” That’s surely because people don’t want to say they’re not going. It feels rude.

And this has been corroborated by a bunch of research that we’ve done. Surveys, in-person research. People just feel it is kind of an affront to say not going. Like if I said, “Hey come over to my house this weekend. I’m throwing a barbecue, or I’m having people over for drinks.” And then you just respond on the phone that you’re not going. That really wouldn’t work, and so that language is important there. What you would say is “Hey, I’m sorry can’t go.” Even if you had no interest, right? Maybe it’s not that you can’t go. Maybe you can go, but you just have no interest in going. You’re still not gonna say not going. You’re gonna say like, “I can’t go.” And so that was just better reflecting the way people wanted to use the product. Using a language that they use themselves when communicating with their friends.

And the sort of upside of doing that is that people organizing these private events will get more declines, which is great because they don’t want to be like “Wait, are you gonna come? Are you not gonna come?” They just want to know. It’s better for them to know that you’re not going to be able to make it than for them to have no clue. So that was helpful for the private event organizer as well as the responder who really just didn’t want to be so literal.

Kaitlyn: But there’s also a third type of event. Which is the public event with a personal stake.

Ashley: Yeah, like my friend owns a bar and he’ll invite me to events. And I’ll be like I know you’re doing this as a bar owner.

Kaitlyn: Right.

Ashley: But I feel like it’s a personal invite, too.

Kaitlyn: I mean I’m talking about if you have a friend who is in a play, or in a band or something. Like I’m invited to this Baby’s All Right event, which is a public event. Nobody at Baby’s All Right knows me, but my friend who is in a band invited me. And will actually look to see if I RSVP’d.

It’s not like all events are strictly private, or strictly public. That’s also not as granular as what happens in the real world where there’s a lot of kind of quasi-public private stuff. It’s a big party, someone rented out a bar, anyone can show up, but not like anyone. Just, you know, anyone that might know someone that I know.

So sometimes for public events, the organizer, let’s say it’s a band or venue owner. There’s a few specific people that they really want to have come. In that case, this invite mechanism with the ignore option may not work as well for them. But that’s just not as common, to be perfectly honest. That is more of a rare thing than it is a thing that people are frequently doing. And probably if they really, really wanted you to come, the chances are they’d probably just message you directly. And that’s actually what we hear from people who organize concerts. Concerts are a big, big use case for events on Facebook. Between standard bands and then, now increasingly over time, DJ sets. We talk to a lot of those people and they say themselves if they really want someone specific to come, they’ll just share it directly with them in a message thread. So we think that direction probably serves that specific use case better. But yeah, you can’t get 100 percent, I think.

Ashley: So going back to when you were talking about private events. You mentioned these event creators want an answer, right? That’s why you invented the can’t go language. It’s a little bit nicer, they get the answer. Everyone’s happy.

Yeah.

Ashley: But the events team has left behind this middle gray area. Of the you can view the invite and the event creator will see that you’ve seen the invite, but you still don’t have to respond.

Mm-hmm.

Ashley: And I’m wondering why does this “seen” exist? It has been the source of some drama.

Oh, I see, interesting. I’m curious to hear about the drama. So yeah, the seen state on the invite. It’s only available for private events, as I think you know. It’s not for public events. And the rationale for seen state is specifically because people who organize private events, they are kind of stressed out. I don’t know if you guys have organized private get togethers, but it’s just a stressful thing. Like you’re hosting, right? You’ve got a lot of people that you expect to come, and you’re not sure if they’re gonna come or not. And people can be pretty lazy about responding. And what we found over time is that people who are organizing private events on Facebook felt like Facebook was not sending their invites. When I started working on events a long time ago that was one of the most common pieces of feedback that I heard about. Both externally as well as within the company. People are like, “I tried to organize my private event on Facebook and no one gets my invites. And so you must have a bug.”

And then we spent a lot of time instrumenting every kind of step from when the person picks a person that they want to invite to it gets sent from their phone to our Facebook servers to whatever process it needs to go through. Back down to the push technology, push notification technology to the other person’s phone. All that stuff end-to-end, and we were not dropping invites. They were going through. People were not responding. I think a lot of it has to do with it might be kind of a new way of how people deal with invitations to things. But if people don’t feel any specific urgency to respond, they just won’t respond. And a lot of people sort of increasingly make decisions about what they want to do literally the day of, or the afternoon of, or the evening of. They’re looking at this as a sea of options. And for private event organizers, that’s just really tough. It makes them feel like the fidelity of the system is really poor. And every other thing that they could use gives them seen state to at least know that the thing got delivered.

Ashley: Okay. So you said you wanted to hear about the drama…

Yeah, sure.

Ashley: We interviewed a woman named Carrie who we found on the internet, and she was hosting a bachelorette party, I believe it was. It was for her best friend, but the best friend had a bunch of other friends. So she created this really intimate Facebook event. And a bunch of the women that she invited left it on seen. And this was extremely frustrating for her, because she was like, I need to order. I don’t know goody bags, and I need to order food, and I need to...

Kaitlyn: Pajama shorts.

Ashley: Yeah. I need to get branded everything for this party, and I have no idea who is coming. So she tried sending Facebook messages to them. And she thinks that you guys should, if someone leaves the event on seen, the event should automatically uninvite them after a certain amount of time. Like they lost their chance.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, you can set a countdown. You have 48 hours to respond or you’re out of here.

Ashley: Yeah. Exactly.

Kaitlyn: Bucko.

I’m sure there will always be cases where it didn’t work out the way folks had hoped. But there, at least from our sort of follow up with people, what people do typically in this situation is they see that someone has seen it. And then they just directly message them and say hey can you let me know? Because I need to buy pajama shorts, and I need to know if I need to get five or six or seven. And that usually works out for most people. Just a direct follow-up. Unless of course they’re inviting people that really, really, really kind of feel like “I don’t even know why you invited me.” Maybe those people would not be responsive to a direct reach out. But, yeah, I think there’s always going to be cases where somebody didn’t really know how to follow up with that information. Or use it to best achieve their goals. But I hope her bachelorette party worked out at least.

Ashley: You know the pain that comes with the seen invite that is not responded to? Reminds me a lot of read receipt pain. Because the read receipt shows that the technology worked. You know for a fact they got it and they also read it, so it’s done.

Kaitlyn: I was thinking that when he was talking about follow-up messages. Because then it’s like you also get a read receipt for your follow-up message. And it’s like ...

Ashley: You just need to make less flaky friends, I guess.

I think with read receipts it’s the same thing. With all of these messaging services and having read receipts. It’s literally like you have option A, which is the sender doesn’t believe the message was sent. Or option B, the sender is forced to confront the fact that the person they messaged doesn’t want to respond. Like which one do you choose? And I think by and large most people are reaching out to people that will probably be amenable to a follow-up if they didn’t immediately respond. So most of these products over the course of time have elected to go with option A, which is at least let the sender know that their technology is working, and that it’s not getting dropped. Because if they don’t believe that, then they’ll just stop using that technology. Imagine if you know you can think of a dozen examples where it’s like, you perform an action and then it just kind of goes out there and you have literally no idea what happened. You’ll probably just stop using that thing.

Ashley: Yeah. I’ve just taken to not opening events. Because I don’t want them to know that I saw it.

Yeah, and I think that’s probably appropriate if you didn’t want to go. If you’re getting invited to stuff that you really have no desire to go. Then that seems fine, right?

Ashley: Yeah. While we have you on the phone I’m just curious to settle a debate here. In Facebook, is it read receipts or read receipts?

I don’t know.

Ashley: Dang.

I don’t know that anyone ever talks about that.

Ashley: What?

I think we just call it “seen state.”

Ashley: Well, you have read receipts for messenger don’t you?

Yeah, but I think they also just call that seen state. Yeah.

Ashley: Alright, the debate will live on. Ashley and I will very much disagree on this.

Well, I would vote for. I don’t know who I’m gonna vote for along with here. But I think it would be read receipts.

Ashley: What?

Kaitlyn: Ha. Interesting. Plot twist.

Ashley: It’s in the past.

Kaitlyn: Because you said read receipts a couple minutes ago.

Did I really? Okay.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, you did.

Language is a flexible, I suppose.