The everyday exchange of virtual objects

A recent Twitter exchange reminded me of a 2005 blog post that included this Ray Ozzie quote:

Each fall, as I manually enter the entire Celtics season schedule, my company’s holidays and my childrens’ school calendars into my own personal calendar, I am again reminded how ridiculous it is that The Net has not yet ubiquitously embraced the everyday exchange of virtual objects so basic as calendars and as vCards – which can also likewise be subscribed-to, aggregated into Contact Lists and auto-updated via personal RSS feeds. Bizarre.

We are, of course, still in that ridiculous situation. Dan Brickley asks:

@judell @rozzie any thoughts on why? Technicalities of iCalendar format or something larger?

I can’t answer in 140 characters so I’ll try to answer here. Although I can’t really answer here either. A while ago I concluded that writing prose, at any length, wouldn’t help. I needed to write code, so that’s what I’ve mainly been up to. But from time to time it’s good to pause and reflect.

So, are “technicalities of the iCalendar format” the problem? No. And by no I mean NO, NO, A THOUSAND TIMES NO! Members of the geek tribe really want that to be the problem. We look at the spec, crafted in 1998, with its antique pre-XML format and its quaint line-folding, and we think: Seriously?

But that’s really not the problem. To put this in Chomskyan terms, there’s deep structure and surface structure. iCalendar’s deep structure comprehends dates, times, timezones, recurrence, and a wealth of related things necessary for reliable exchange of time-ordered information. Mapping that deep structure onto other surface structures is something you can do, and people have done, but that hardly matters. Today’s calendar software can convey the deep structure perfectly well using the original format. But for the most part it doesn’t get used that way, and that’s the larger issue.

If you are an ordinary person living in one of the places where the system I’m working on is up and running, and you want to post an event to the newspaper’s community calendar, you will be invited to consider a possibility that you did not even know existed. Don’t email us a copy of your event info, the newspaper will say. And don’t input a copy of it into our database either. Instead manage your public schedule of events using your own calendar program, whatever that may be, then publish it to the web and give us the URL of that calendar feed. You’ll be the authoritative source of the information. You’ll type it in once, it’ll show up on your website, your audience can get it directly onto their personal calendars, and we’ll get it into the newspaper automatically too. If you change a time or location, the change is reflected automatically in all those contexts.

Editors tell me that people are delighted to learn that things can work this way. Deep down people have always felt that computers and networks ought to enable this kind of thing, and always felt vaguely disgruntled that they didn’t.

The change I envision happens when you see your church’s supper or your restaurant’s open mic or your school’s fundraiser or your city’s hazardous waste disposal schedule flowing automatically from your own calendar into other contexts. Then, and only then, the light bulb flicks on. You’ve often wondered why this doesn’t happen everywhere, all the time, for all kinds of information. Now you’ll know how it can.

I’m trying to create that transformative experience for as many people as I can. Writing more prose won’t move the needle so I mostly don’t these days, but below the fold are some of the essays I’ve written on this topic.


Why Johnny can’t syndicate

Indie theaters and open data

We bought the wrong kind of software?

A great disturbance in the force

Calendars in the cloud: No more copy and paste

Ann Arbor’s public schools are thinking like the web

Calendar feeds are a best practice for bookstores

A civic scorecard for public calendars

The long tail of the iCalendar ecosystem

Seven ways to think like the web

AOL’s Patch enshrines the event anti-pattern

2 thoughts on “The everyday exchange of virtual objects

  1. autorecycling

    Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point.
    You obviously know what youre talking about, why throw away your intelligence on
    just posting videos to your site when you could
    be giving us something informative to read?

    Reply

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