In the Event of an Event
I often talk to people about the need for net services to be set up in a way that provides a 'downhill stroll' from virtual meetings to real world meetings, rather than an uphill climb, so that online communication becomes a way of facilitating face-to-face relationships, rather than a poor substitute for them. Keeping this in mind, it seems to me that promoting real world events is one of the most socially valuable uses of the Internet.
In my post of quitting FarceBook, I suggested that 'events' are the killer application of FB, the one practically useful thing for which there is no easy open substitute. There are plenty of sites I can add an event to, but in order to promote it beyond the regular users of the site, I need to go back to my email client, instant message client, or some other communications tool and send out a message to everyone in my address book, or to a pre-constructed mailing list. There is no easy way to aggregate and track RSVPs from invitees, they will trickle in as emails or IMs, and no easy way to share their comments with each other. All of these things are provided by FB events.
Such a networked events system is one things I've been envisioning ever since I first came across the Radicalendar, a protest calendar created by programmers associated with Indymedia. Over the years I've been involved with a range of community-based groups, with overlapping areas of interest, each with their own website which may be hosted on a range of different servers, using a range of CMS and other software. Each group could use their own calendar on their own site, and they would make their own choice about who can add events to it (just admins, the whole group, anyone with an account on the site, or anyone at all).
The beauty of a networked events system however, is that groups could subscribe to each other's calendars. For example Indymedia, a site with a broad range of activists contributing, could subscribe to the calendars of a range of other groups with narrower interests that are entirely or at least mostly within their sphere of interest. Events posted to each group calenda could appear automatically on the Indy calendar, with a process to prevent the same event appearing more than once, which could involve some combination of automation and moderation. It would be even better if people could subscribe to calendars, and have events trickle down to personal calendars on their desktop, mobile etc
It's hard to imagine how to construct such an open, distributed alternative, until you remember FB is really a suite of applications, all seamlessly merged into one interface. The 'friends' list is effectively an address book. The 'events' applet is just a chronologically ordered list of events the user plans to attend, may attend, or hasn't yet given an RSVP for. Also there are plenty of things FB could do but doesn't. Before I quit FB, I started to group my friends into lists based on what area of the country (or the world) they live in, but I couldn't figure out how to send event invites to everyone in one list, which would have been brilliant. Also there is no obvious way to integrate FB events with any other calendar software.
At one point it seemed to me that what was missing was a universal standard for exporting and importing calendar data, but actually the iCal standard has been part of the IETF standards for...The missing piece of the puzzle really seems to be a spam-proof subscription system, that ideally includes processes to deal with duplication of event listings. Theoretically this could include binding the calendar with an open database of venues, like Zenbu or Geonames, so that the system as a whole can see that a certain event is taking place in a certain venue, and only list it once in each calendar no matter how many times it appears in other calendars that calendar is subscribed to.
The RSVP function is an optional extra, but it could be incorporated into this protocol also. In fact RSVP is a suitably alphabet soupish name for the protocol itself ;) Each event would have to be added to one of the calendars in the first place, and with a bit of education on the nature of the network, users would seldom bother adding their event to more than one.That means that each event has a 'homepage' on the calendar that it was added to. This homepage could receive RSVPs and comments, which would come from users at the client end, and propogate across the network, being added to the calendar the user is subscribed to, then the calendar it go the event from, and so on until it reaches the homepage.
Obviously there are some privacy implications here. FB IN THEORY allows people to keep their events private, so that only invited friends can RSVP and comment, and see the RSVPs and comments of other users. This could be implemented as a peer-to-peer function, as it does not require public display on the web, with the use of SSL/TLS and encryption to protect user privacy.
Open standards for calendar info exchange:
- iCalendar (or "iCal") is an IETF-supported open standard supported by a broad range of calendar software
- Could RSS be used to exchange calendar data between sites, and users?
- hCalendar (adopted by Google), one of the MicroFormats.org standards for open social
Free code calendar software:
- Mozilla Calendar (SunBird and Lightening)
- List of calendar-related free code web applications
- Another list of "open source calendar" software
- Drupal supports open publishing web calendar modules, eg Aotearoa.Indymedia.org, Permaculture.org.nz, TransitionTowns.org.nz
Instructions for a few different ways of creating an online events calendar
There are various online calendar projects that could be transcended and included in a distributed system:
Online address book sync services like Plaxo could also be integrated.