Facebook (Non)Commitment

Last year, I was involved in running an event in Brighton, UK called The Critical Incident. We marketed through the Brighton Fringe Festival, we created paper posters and flyers, we tweeted and we made Linkedin and Facebook event pages. On the Facebook event page, over 150 people said they were coming – not maybes – definitely coming. Of that more than 150 people, eight people showed up. Thankfully, we also got about 140 people from others sources such as, dare I say, the real world?

It led me to wondering what “Facebook Commitment” is really all about. I’ve experienced this phenomenon before, not just on Facebook. I’ve sometimes put out a SMS about an event to a number of friends and colleagues. I get replies such as “See you there!” and “Can’t Wait” only for those people not to show up. Is it my aftershave?

Social media-based commitment is a very different creature from “physical world” commitment, though there are overlaps. But the sheer magnitude of the no-shows for Critical Incident deserves, I think, special attention.

Why do people say they are coming (often some people say they are coming to ALL of my events and never show up!)? I think part of the reason is the unhinged and detached nature of the medium. It is usually  the fingertips (or thumbs) that physically commit but not the rest of the body. Fingertips press down on keys and they are, in themselves, a physical gesture of commitment. But that commitment is fairly light, almost fleeting, both in touch and also in their ability to link the gesture to the will, especially to be recalled and realised later on in time. Fingertip commitment is not a strong commitment that later becomes a kind of promise. It is not a commitment to action, it is a commitment to intention. Commitments to intention often are transitory, momentary, and they weaken over time, even to the point of very quick loss of memory of the commitment in the first place. They have little or no weight in three dimensions. I wonder what would happen if the “Yes, I’m coming” button was actually only activated by human voice. Would that change the probability of commitment to intention, become commitment to action?

Commitment to intention is mostly a cognitive activity, a kind of weak dream. Commitment to action reaches beyond fingertip pressure and reaches down into our feet, getting us up and walking, firing our restlessness, and it sits deeper and more lastingly in our memory.

Commitment to intention is also more ideological. Often we want the other person’s or group’s event to be a success and we know they are advertising it publicly, so, as a friend or loyal colleague, we say we are coming, so that it looks as if the event is gaining in popularity. We lie out of a good motive; but we lie nonetheless. Here commitment to intention, is commitment to the intention of the other, by allying our own commitment to intention with it. Commitment to action doesn’t come into play necessarily at all in this process. It’s a kind of friendly, unspoken collusion.

Another factor is a bit more worrying and it relates to what I have called elsewhere “False revelation”. It’s a kind of collusion with our own mediocrity where the act of committing to intention actually habitually replaces the commitment to action. We lie to ourselves, convincing ourselves we have really committed because we have said so publicly or privately.  I wonder if this would be different if there were an option, say on Facebook events, to report who from the list actually showed up to the event? What if there were a naming and shaming button?

I’ve mostly given up with using social media for promoting events, although, Linkedin events seem to have a little bit more commitment to action about them, if the Critical Incident is anything to go by. More people  showed up in reality  from the Linkedin event page.

Functionally, commitment to intention is better replaced with “support” functionality, where people can like an event or give it a thumbs up. They can openly ally without lying! But the combination of all of the factors mentioned above are creating a high level of disbelief in the effectiveness of social media based events pages, certainly in terms of the reliability of the guest lists. I have some anecdotal evidence that this behaviour outside of work is starting to affect the reliability of in-house use of social media in businesses and public organisations, making meeting planning and coordination harder. Facebook commitment is muddying the waters of what used to be called professional commitment and attitude.

And yet there is also a virtue to be found in all this. Facebook commitment is somehow freeing as well.  Commitment to intention is a form of imagination and positive thinking. But I think it is misplaced. Events pages need better design around people being able to show support for the concept of an event, for its ideology and values, without having to be forced only to say whether they are coming or not. Soon enough we end up with unreliable guest lists in the extreme and, of course, an even more meaningless “Maybe” button as well.

Commitment to intention is a very underdeveloped aspect in my view and needs a deeper look.

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on March 23, 2011, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. A few coments already (thanks to digital sanity and chris):

    Social media tends to be a “yes” culture and it is “cool” to say yes, be upbeat and “on board” with the “in crowd” or among the first to say yes.

    I think this is a type of commitment to intention, adding to diluted or avoided commitment to action.

    And this, from Chris: People know what they are writing is being read publicly, so they lie.

  2. There’s a degree of commitment involved in the invitation as well. It’s like the difference between saying “Richard, please come to my dinner party” and saying “hey Richard, I’m having an open house, why don’t you drop in?”

    For example – when you (Paul) emailed me, specifically, to ask me whether I’d come to Critical Incident, I knew you were expressing a real interest in whether I’d come. Not just for planning purposes, but because you wanted to see me there. Immediately I felt properly connected with the event and, if it turned out I couldn’t come after all, I’d certainly have called to warn you.

    Conversely, when I get one of those little Facebook emails, from someone I know only vaguely, with a completely inappropriate invitation to some event I’d obviously never want to go to in a city I never visit, I always feel a minor twinge of annoyance. It’s not a real invitation because it represents no commitment on their part whatever. In their eyes, I’m not Richard Stamp, I really am just a number.

    Now of course, people really *shouldn’t* say they’re coming when they’re not, and if they change their minds they really *should* let you know. But if you weren’t particularly bothered about inviting them, can you expect them to be particularly bothered about keeping you informed?

  3. Bang on as ever.

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