Cafe 227

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Evite Drama Makes Front Page of the Wall Street Journal

Looks like I'm not the only one who has experienced evite drama. In this crazy digital age of ours, it's more prevalent than I thought - as evidenced by Jessica Vascellaro's front-page story in today's Wall Street Journal. Because the WSJ protects its content more ardently than Jack Bauer's dad protects family secrets, you can't access it without a subscription. So I copied it in full below for your reading pleasure (which I'm pretty sure is illegal. But since the unintentional comedy of this piece is unparalleled, I'm willing to deal with the ramifications). Pay particular attention to Mr. Strackany's move of creating fictional invitees to drum up buzz for his party. Classy.

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On the Internet, Everyone Knows Your RSVP List

Online Invitations Spur New Tactics for Guests; 'Eggblower' Is Perplexed
By JESSICA E. VASCELLARO
February 6, 2007; Page A1

Ben Strackany had an old-fashioned social emergency: Not enough of his friends were responding to his New Year's Eve party invitation. So he deployed a new high-tech tactic: salting his Internet party site with fake RSVPs.

Hosts used to draft their invitations by hand and drop them in a mailbox. Today they can blast them out over email and send guests to a Web page with the details of their party, along with the names of other attendees, whether they plan to attend, and a little RSVP message to the host.

Mr. Strackany's page, using the Evite online service, listed the names of all 30 or so of his invited guests and tallied the responses of those who had replied for all to see. Mr. Strackany, 33 years old, created some bogus guests, including two named "Craig" and "Kara" who responded with messages he made up himself saying "Can't wait" and "bringing two roommates."

"It got the momentum started," says Mr. Strackany, a Web developer from Portland, Ore. His cover was blown when some guests arriving at the party asked after some of the fake guests, hoping to be introduced. He fessed up. Everybody seemed to be amused, he says.

Hosts often appreciate the efficiency and convenience of the new services. But that isn't always true of guests. Some hate receiving Evites because they feel under pressure to reply immediately and with something considerate or clever. "There's a lot of anxiety over how to reply to one of these things," says Jared Osborn, 40, a visual artist from Haverstraw, N.Y. He says he usually sticks to a yes or no reply or else ignores the invitation altogether. "Sometimes the reason is just, 'Eh, it is too much trouble to go.' And you don't want to put that."

As online invitations grow more popular, hosts and guests are also playing new games. Invitees are looking carefully at guest lists posted online before deciding whether to attend. Some guests are helping themselves to other people's guest lists for their own parties.

Last year, two big players, IAC/InterActiveCorp's Evite and Facebook Inc., sent out about 500 million event invitations. "I would have sent my wedding invitation online, if my fiancée would have let me," says Joel Fuernsinn, 31, a database consultant from Atlanta who sends out lots of party invitations over the Web for events like crock-pot parties or to line up friends to help him move from one apartment to another.

For guests and hosts, the invitation page can function like a constantly fluctuating stock price showing the desirability of a party. Last summer, Howard Wu, 33, got a Fourth of July invitation over Evite and was trying to decide whether to attend. The decision got easier when he saw that of the 75 people invited, only a few had responded. "I figured three or four yeses probably wasn't a good sign," says Mr. Wu, a transportation planner from Seattle, who decided not to go.

Some Evite recipients are turning their backs on etiquette experts' RSVP advice (reply within a day or two of receiving the invitation, and only rarely change your answer, according to the Emily Post Institute) -- and are resisting the RSVP process altogether. Last December, Topher Larkin, an administrative coordinator from Los Angeles, went on Evite to ask friends to his 25th birthday party. Days before the party, he was caught off-guard by a bunch of "yes" phone-call replies from guests who shunned the Web site because they didn't want others to know they planned to attend.

"As a host, it is very annoying," says Mr. Larkin, who didn't appreciate having to keep track of the tardy replies. Because his count was off he had to go out and buy more champagne and cheese. "If I were doing it again, I would resort to handwritten invitations," he says.

After emailing an invite to 15 friends for her birthday party last spring, Kara Silverstein noticed that one of them was planning his own party a month later. On his Evite RSVP list, she saw the names of all the women she had invited to her party. "I was pretty angry about it," says Ms. Silverstein of Washington, D.C., a government attorney. "He stole those email addresses."

On email invitations, the blind carbon copy, or BCC, feature is helping hosts avoid faux pas. Sam Mankiewicz, a software engineer from San Francisco, invited friends to a game of Hoover Ball (volleyball played with a medicine ball) but didn't want them to know about one guest many of them didn't get along with. He finessed the situation by putting all the guests on the BCC line of his email, so nobody could see the names of others invited.

Online invitation services generally let hosts change the default settings so as to hide their guest lists. But many hosts don't bother to do that. Some party sites go out of their way to promise RSVP privacy. But that can become a problem, too.

Both hosts and guests ended up embarrassed when Jonathan Bender, a free-lance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., and his wife, Kate, recently sent online invitations for a Manhattan loft party. They gave each guest a cheeky nickname -- like "the instigator" or "no veggies." The Benders assumed that guests would scan the guest list when they went to reply and see that everyone had received a nickname.

But they used a new online invitation service, Punchbowl Software Inc.'s MyPunchBowl.com, that keeps the guest list hidden from other guests. Its site promises "RSVP is not a public exhibition." The result: some highly perplexed guests, like Abigail "Eggblower" Rabinowitz, who wondered why she had been given a nickname. Ms. Rabinowitz, a 28-year-old Columbia University graduate writing student, earned her name for her failed attempt at a silly trick -- blowing an egg out of its shell after poking two small holes in each end. She didn't know everyone else had a nickname and wondered why she had been singled out.

"I thought, oh my god, what are the others going to think?" she recalls.

After a New Year's party was overwhelmed when 80 friends forwarded her electronic invitation to other people, about 150 altogether, Valery Joseph decided not to let that happen again. So for her most recent New Year's bash, she spent several hours and $150 at Kinkos printing up paper invitations, hoping her guests would be more considerate with their RSVPs.

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