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Zen and the psychology of invitation services [Oct. 6th, 2010|02:01 pm]

Lifehacker.com recently ran a poll of its visitors asking them to vote for the best electronic invitation service.  Facebook received the most votes.  This is no big surprise to me, although a modicum of insight would illuminate exactly how terrible a result this is.  Most of you will remember that I am hosting two parties in the next week and a half, and you will also observe that I did not use Facebook to send out invitations.  If you’ve no interest in a rant on this topic, move along.  Seriously, this is scrutiny over something that really doesn’t matter that much. It might even be nitpicky or didactic.  If you’re the sort who likes to think about the applications of electronic tools to daily activities (which is explicitly part of what I’m paid to do), read on.

Leaving aside the answer that in many cases, the best invitation is one made in person, or in conversation, or in more formal cases by documentation received in the post — this poll was about electronic services.  So reducing the scope of this post to that range, I find fault with this poll on several levels.

For starters, it was a poorly worded and implemented poll.  These sorts of online polls frequently are.  Rather than ascertaining the best tool, they usually end up determining the most popular tool.  One can argue that this is democracy at its best: a popularity contest.  One can also argue that the network effects of the internet mean that the most popular tool is by definitional the best tool.  But fundamentally the idea behind surveys like this is to help people find the most effective tool, and here it misses by a wide margin.

But moving beyond the art and science of polling, let’s critically examine the results.  Facebook as an electronic invitation service does have some pluses and minuses, but I hope to show that the minuses outweigh the pluses.  For starters, it is a plus that it is easy to invite your friends to an event.  Create an event, and FB gives you an easy tool where you can check off your list of friends and it will send them an invitation.  This, of course, falls down if your friends do not have facebook accounts.  It can also fail to alert someone who does not receive notifications by email. More on that in a bit.  Supposing your friend is not on facebook, or in some cases, you do not know if they are on facebook, you can add their email address and FB will kindly email the person.  But for them to give any sort of response they must have or open an account with facebook.  This failure is actually very common of invitation services, and is a major roadblock from my perspective.  Worse, you have now opened a channel between FB and this person, and I, for one, do not trust FB not to abuse this channel.

Second, as many comments to the original poll noted, the response rate to any sort of FB post is remarkably low, and further, even the accuracy of responses is gravely in doubt.  Any invitation methodology will have a lower than desired response rate (Ask me how many people we had to hunt down to get responses to our wedding invites from!), but FB is even lower than the average.  This is because of a conflict in signaling.  Because FB is a general purpose social tool, and one that actively encourages both the act of friending almost anyone for almost any reason, and the act of posting unrelated material to your friends pages (I do not care that you got another sheep on your MarsFarmTown!) there is a very bad signal to noise ratio.  This actively discourages people from paying attention to material flooding across their facebook pages, and also lowers the implicit value people place on these postings.  Net result, if people respond at all, don’t count on those responses.  Presuming they respond in the affirmative to attending the event in question, FB does a poor job of placing significance on this, so the person may not remember or be reminded of their response.  And even if they do happen to recall the event, the lack of weight given to FB items makes it much more likely they will simply blow off the event anyhow.

Now, facebook is a pretty good tool to use in conjunction with an event, if you like.  It does provide a place for people to discuss the event, view details about it, post pictures and videos, etc.  And this is a good thing.  But not redeeming enough to cover the failings at handling invitations to begin with.

Now, turning a critical eye to the other top options in the poll….

Evite is a service that has been around -forever-.  Well, forever in internet years.  This is because it gets many things right — invitees do not need an account with the service to respond, invitations are somewhat customizable (unlike facebook), as a dedicated service people assign more ‘weight’ to the invitations, and in general covers the bases.  But it turns me off every time I get an invite from the service.  Why? For starters, it never includes any of the pertinent details in the email it sends to invitees.  This is a huge black mark in my book.  It means I cannot easily file the details away on my own system.  I cannot quickly respond to an invitation.  I am forced to go to the evite pages, which, unsurprisingly, show me many small advertisements for event related goods and services.  And the next time you go to respond to an evite, count the number of pages it takes for you to respond or manage your response.  Oh, and the number of unneeded flash objects on these pages too.  It is a very mobile device unfriendly system overall (despite their separate mobile page). In all fairness though, evite has evolved somewhat recently, and is better than it was.  It still falls short for me.

Google Calendar also featured prominently in the above poll.  From a time management aspect, this makes sense.  Google calendar makes it easy to send calendar invitations, complete with the necessary who, what, where, when type information.  But it is very much a one-way thing.  Not much in the way of options for someone to comment or discuss the event with other attendees, or to do things like the often necessary “+1″.  And it has all the visual appeal of a dayplanner.  Which is fine for scheduling, but invites should be more… well…. inviting.  And this tool too works best if everyone has an account with it.

Answering the question as to which tool is ‘the best’, the only real answer is the one that works best for you.  All of the above have their place, and I can’t inherently fault anyone for choosing them, unless they’re simply doing so out of ignorance of the options.  So I would be remiss if I did not do my part in relieving ignorance and neglected to mention the tool I use.  Many of you have seen Anyvite in action.  In my opinion it is a better evite than evite is.  That is, it makes it easy to create customized invitations (flickr image search is built in), send those in a graphically pleasing, standards compliant, detail containing email which has simple links for invitees to click on which will record their response in one page load.  A URL can be generated to be shared through any means so that even those people who you do not have email for can join the event. Conversation, communication, reminders, photosharing, and response updating are all rolled in.  Overall it is a better focused tool, echoing the unix philosophy of ‘do one thing, and do it well’.  After all, you wouldn’t use a hammer to tighten a nut.

Thanks to pareeerica for the image.

Mirrored from The Black Horse of the Blog World.


[User Picture]From: offside7
2010-10-06 06:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the heads up on anyvite.

Another negative for Facebook- I didn't realize I had set my account to not notify me when I got an invitation. My invitations were all getting lost in my huge long list of other requests (join my mafia! Visit my farm! Do this quiz! Friend this bot!) and I was completely missing out on things people had assumed I knew about. I also get a lot of invitations from things that are irrelevant to me. (Hey everyone who was ever involved in Hillel- come to this Meet and Greet tomorrow at Brandeis!)

I guess that's kind of part of the noise to signal ratio you mentioned, but my real point was that one can have their account set to not receive notifications of invites and not realize it. This doesn't happen via email.
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[User Picture]From: lucky_otter
2010-10-07 01:55 am (UTC)
I really liked http://www.punchbowl.com/ the times I've used it. I just used Facebook for my recent one because it's a little bit less work. Punchbowl is definitely better in every other respect, though.
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