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What That “Maybe” Facebook RSVP Really Means

Users have conscripted RSVPs to serve as something else entirely–a tribute to the resilience of human communication.

What That “Maybe” Facebook RSVP Really Means

I haven’t used Facebook in some time; I left because of a gnawing intuition that it was warping my mind (and everyone else’s). So it was with a Lisa Simpson-style self-satisfied smirk that I started reading this fascinating article about how you can’t actually use RSVPs for Facebook invites anymore–at least, not for their intended purpose, which is to let the host know whether the f*ck you’re really coming or not.

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As writer Taylor Lorenz vividly puts it, everyone on Facebook just “immediately smashe[s] the RSVP ‘yes’ button” whether they plan to attend or not, rendering the whole exercise meaningless. See what I mean? Warped, I tell you!

Sadly, as I read on, I realized that there are two very good reasons that Facebook users would collectively decide to render a simple RSVP interface null and void on purpose. The first reason, unsurprisingly, is a social one; the second has to do with how people manipulate the algorithms that Facebook has designed to manipulate them.

[Photo: Daniil Kuželev/Unsplash]
The first reason is based around a concept I’d learned about from this very publication: “phatic communication.” The term describes communications or gestures that are, in terms of their literal content, meaningless–but are richly, even crucially meaningful in terms of real-time social lubrication. “What’s up?” is a classic phatic expression; so is saying (or texting) “later” when you end a conversation on your phone. These expressions aren’t meant to convey information–you’re not requesting a status update regarding what is currently up. Instead, you’re indicating that a conversational channel is now open (or closed), so that actual information-conveying can begin (or cease).

Phatic communication is contentless massaging and managing of the medium of communication–whether it’s in-person conversation or pushed through some technology. Chin nods are phatic. So are the three little dots in iMessage that indicate someone is typing something back. In fact, as more of our real-time communication happens through low-bandwidth channels like texting, phatic expression is probably becoming even more important than it is in real life. You want to know whether the connection is still “live,” whether you’re being acknowledged, whether you’re in the loop–and it’s not always obvious.

Lorenz’s article gives ample anecdotal evidence that Facebook’s RSVP user interface, with its three buttons for “Interested,” “Going,” and (ouch) “Ignore,” has been co-opted as a phatic expression channel. Everyone smashes “Going” because they simply feel compelled to acknowledge that they’ve seen the invitation. It doesn’t mean “I’m coming!” It means “link established” or “transmission received.” The invitees are reassuring the inviter that they haven’t just blasted their event out into the digital void. The “Going”s are just a bunch of read-receipts. But those read-receipts, as anyone who’s used technology in the past five years knows, have become freighted with real social meaning.

In order for phatic communication to work, you have to know it’s phatic in the first place. Before I read this article (and if I were still on Facebook), I’d probably still be obliviously using RSVPs on Facebook as actual RSVPs–and salting the earth of all my under-30 social relationships with every “Ignore” or “No.”

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Meanwhile, everyone else who knows how Facebook RSVPs “work” has actually leveled up to a kind of meta-phatic expression with Facebook’s own algorithms. Those algorithms, as everyone now knows, treat every button push as input for determining what information to surface in another person’s feed. So if you know this, you’re doubly incentivized to press the “Going” button every time: not only are you just being polite by digitally acknowledging the other person’s presence, you’re also making sure that Facebook doesn’t hide the invitation from everyone else. This kind of “AI nudging” is a totally weird, but also a totally sensible, response to the fact that software now mediates so much of our socializing.

It also demonstrates how robust and resilient the urge to communicate phatically is. If the system we’re talking through doesn’t include a phatic channel, we’ll just collectively conscript some piece of its user interface into doing the job instead. Which isn’t warped, if you come to think of it–it’s just human.

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.

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