Useful feedback from old friends and new friends

In the last few days I’ve received useful feedback on the elmcity project from an old friend (whom I’ve never met in person), and a new friend (whom I have). The old friend is Jake Ochs, an accomplished technologist who, like John Faughnan, was a valued online correspondent back in the BYTE era. The new friend is Mykel Nahorniak whom I met at Transparency Camp 2009. Mykel is cofounder of the social event listing platform Localist, and has been curating the elmcity project’s Baltimore hub.

Both Mykel and Jake are intrigued by the elmcity project, but are skeptical about the approach and likely outcome. Here’s Mykel, quoted with permission from email:

It’s already a challenge to convince a local venue that they need a Web site, let alone a Twitter presence, let alone an iCal feed. I think the return a lot of businesses are seeing from social media has helped motivate these local businesses, though.

Really, it’s about giving them a tangible return on their efforts. What incentive do these businesses have to curate their calendars in a specific format when, realistically, it’s not going to equal the return they’d get on, say, curating a Twitter account. That’s what needs to be determined on our end. Specific examples that would give a business no excuse to say “no.”

And here’s Jake, writing on his blog:

I can’t help but feel that Jon is missing the bigger picture. Well, he’s “getting” the bigger picture -that calendar-ish data will probably be a “big” thing. His recombinant approach to existing tools and ideas, though, probably isn’t it. The ability to create such mashups is a hallmark of the “Web 2.0” era and Jon, once again, displays his masterful ability to create something powerful from simple, existing substrates. Historically, it’s been the entrepreneurs that somehow grasp a simple concept regarding human behavior -or an evolved human behavior- and bring that concept to bear on a traditionally complex problem that win out in the marketplace. I don’t have any idea what that concept will look like, so don’t ask, but I highly doubt that it will contain the recombinant DNA of existing solutions when it debuts.

Mind you, I said when it debuts. After the magical mystery viral calendar tool of the future gains traction, a clamor will be made for an API that will draw the tool into the prevailing social tapestry. (Facebook and Twitter today, who knows what tomorrow?) I wonder, though, will iCal make it into that mix when the day comes or is iCal’s fundamentally one-way nature not be up to the task of the wonder collaboration of tomorrow?

Lately I’ve been pitching my project to folks who don’t dwell the geek ghetto. And I’ve been telling plain stories that seem to resonate — at least in the old-fashioned way, one-on-one and face-to-face. Here’s one of them:

The Monday night chess club

The chess club in Keene gets together on Monday nights at 6:30. They used to gather at the Best Western hotel. Then they switched to the E.F. Lane hotel. For at least a year after the move, the Keene Sentinel’s community bulletin board continued to list the event at the Best Western. If the chess club had published its own authoritative feed, and communicated the address of that feed to the Sentinel — instead of transmitting a copy of soon-to-be-stale data — there might be a few more chess players showing up on Monday nights.

Why should businesses want to publish information in a syndication-friendly format? Because, like all of us, they want to be the authoritative source for information about themselves. And because they don’t want to have to remember, and refresh, every touchpoint to which they have transmitted data by value rather than by reference.

Is iCal’s “fundamentally one-way nature up to the task of the wonder collaboration of tomorrow?” True, iCalendar is a decade-old standard that has never rocked the Internet, and maybe never will. But one-way? That limitation exists only in the eye of the beholder. The chess club can publish a calendar that the Keene Sentinel can subscribe to.1 The Sentinel, in turn, can aggregate those subscriptions into a combined calendar that members of the chess club — and others in the community — can subscribe to. Those other individuals and organizations can also be publishers and subscribers. The system I am building is not really about iCalendar. It’s about the principles, patterns, and practices that make pub/sub ecosystems such fertile ground for communication and collaboration.

Of coure Mykel and Jake are right, and I value their skepticism. I haven’t yet figured out how to make the chess club anecdote go viral, or tell it in a way that business can’t say no to. But I’m warming to the task, and I’m starting to connect with environmental activists, librarians, civic-minded geeks, and colleagues who can help me advance the story.

1 The infrastructure that I’m building is dedicated to this purpose. If you’re a newspaper, a library, a chamber of commerce, or some other natural attention hub in your community, I want to help you syndicate calendars through your hub.

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5 thoughts on “Useful feedback from old friends and new friends

  1. Jon,

    We definitely need to chat. I love this idea, and we’re doing something that might be quite interesting to you over at Offbeat Guides…

    Let’s reconnect, would love to fill you in more on what we’re dong and hear more about what you’re doing…


  2. Hi Dave,

    Yeah, I’d love to discuss. Offbeat Guides looks very different if you do, say, Philadelphia PA -> Keene NH vs. Keene NH -> Philadelphia PA. Part of my motivation here is to make what there is to see and do in smaller cities and towns more discoverable, and more capable of syndication. Partly for travel and tourism, and partly to attract people who might want to relocate.

  3. I couldn’t agree more – the goal is to make all the neat stuff going on in all of these towns (small AND big), and make them more discoverable. The more events and interesting things that are syndicated, the easier it is for us to consume and hilight for travelers. Imagine, to use your example above, if a chess grandmaster from Philly was traveling to Keene – he could show up at the Chess club and everyone has a good time… :-)

    Check out our guide for the trip you just described – yes, we even have a travel guide for Keene, NH! Of course, if Elmcity is successful, there would be much more great events in the Events chapter

  4. Curious if you’ve heard of the new initiative by Stowe Boyd and Betaworks. It is at I think it might be relevant to your efforts.

    1. I hadn’t but thanks for the pointer. The notion of cataloging and codifying conventions, as they emerge, is spot on.

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