Fifty-six people on Facebook have said they’re attending my event. How many will actually show up?
For many, Facebook serves as a social calendar, perhaps one drawn on a whiteboard – RSVPS are that easy-come, easy-go. A “going” response may change to a “maybe” without notification.
There’s even an “interested” response for people who are unwilling to commit to “maybe”. But more likely, people will either reply they’re attending then be no-shows on the night, or simply not respond to the invite at all.
Facebook has made many tweaks to its events function since “My parties” was introduced in 2005. In 2015 it changed the “decline” response to the less curt “can’t go”, and introduced “interested” to give people the means of subscribing to updates about the event without indicating their likelihood to attend.
It also extended its anxiety-inducing read receipts feature to let hosts know who had missed the invite and who was simply ignoring it.
But change what it might, Facebook doesn’t seem able to make commitments made on its platform stick.
Stating you’re “going” to an event on Facebook is the equivalent in person of murmuring “I’ll do my best to make it but I think I’ve got a couple of other things on that night” while squinting vaguely into middle distance. It’s about as binding as wet toilet paper.
It’s counterintuitive given that Facebook’s events feature is many people’s most vital tie to the platform. When I fantasise about deleting my Facebook account, it’s the thought of the invitations that would not be redirected that stays my hand.
I could do without the stream-of-consciousness statuses by family members and the endless photos of strangers’ dogs (just kidding, I love those dogs), but I don’t trust friends to get in touch about a house party or birthday dinner any other way than Facebook.
Those invitations aren’t even all that frequent – but without an account, you’d be inclined to assume you were missing out on them altogether. It reflects our inclination to treat Facebook Events as a broadcast (“this is happening”), rather than a request (“will you come?”).
You get the notification. You click “going”. And then weeks later, on the night of the event, what do you do? You reconsider how much sleep you got the night before, how much sleep you’re aspiring to get tonight, how many episodes deep you are into your new show, the weather, and what the other options are. You send a quick, overly apologetic message to the host; you confirm to Netflix that yes, you’re still watching; and you revel in the sprawling expanse of evening before you.
The forbidden pleasure of cancelling plans at the last minute – like gaining moments of your life back that you’d already written off – has become a popular meme, the 21st-century marker for universality.
Recently I observed someone post “Sorry, not going to make it!” on the event page for a wedding on the day of the wedding. Less than an hour before the service, in fact. (To be fair, he was among the cohort who had not received a print invite.)
It’s hard to know whether technology has made us a society of pikers or simply exacerbated our pre-existing predilection.
That commitments are easily made on social media and just as easily thrown out is certainly part of the problem. The instantaneous, impersonal nature of the medium makes it easy to indulge that little voice that says “I just can’t face it”, and often without consequence.
But that the impulse is there reflects widespread anxiety: sometimes induced by social media, nearly always worsened by it.
As Simon Copland wrote in February, among Generation Y “it increasingly feels as though anxiety disorders are more common than not”. If someone doesn’t attend your event, despite repeated assurances they would, it might not be because you’re not important to them, or even because they don’t want to come.
As a host, however, there are steps you can take to boost your chances of attendance.
Approach your Facebook event like a marketing campaign: update the page regularly to remind invitees that it’s happening, that it’s important to you that people come and that you are keeping an eye on the RSVPs.
Optics matter: if all the posts on an event’s wall are “Sorry, can’t make it!”, it will create the impression that it’s a priority for precisely no one. Break them up with a few posts of your own – of what, it doesn’t really matter. There’s a gif for every situation.
If your event is at a restaurant or venue, make the Facebook event page a couple of weeks before you need to make the booking to flag the proposed date. Make a poll on the event page to double-check numbers a week or so out; hit up non-respondents directly if you need to.
The challenge varies, depending on the scale of the event. There’s cover in numbers: you’re more likely to pike on a party with 100-plus people invited than you are an intimate anniversary dinner for five, when your absence would be equivalent to 20% of the table dropping out.
This is particularly, painfully obvious for events like protests, with tens of thousands of confirmed attendees often translating to barely enough bodies to fill a room – never is the barrier between intention and action so obvious.
Regardless of the occasion, the Field of Dreams approach – “if you build it, they will come” – is not enough. For really important events, New York magazine columnist Heather Havrilesky recently suggested telling invited guests: “Treat this like my wedding.”
Your mileage may vary, particularly if you are married. But there’s a kernel of universal truth to her advice.
As a digital native, it pains me to say this, but there’s one foolproof way to communicate the importance of your event to your guests, more effective than any gif or digital marketing campaign: sending an invitation in the post.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010