That word “events”: It does not mean what you think it means

In of one of my favorite scenes from one my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) has been repeatedly exclaiming: “Inconceivable!” Finally Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) responds:

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I’ve already riffed on that classic bit in the titles of two other items. Now I’m compelled to do it again because when I talk about events, vis-a-vis the elmcity project, I think the word means something different from you probably think it means.

Here’s one common meaning: major public events. These include things like artistic performances, festivals, fairs, and sporting events. They dominate the “Things to See and Do” section of every newspaper and online community guide, and are usually well publicized.

Here’s another common meaning: minor events that are often (but not aways) private. These include birthday parties, house concerts, and outdoor excursions. They are, nowadays, often publicized very well in Facebook.

Although I’m happy to see major public events showing up in an elmcity hub, that isn’t my main goal. And private events, of course, don’t belong in an elmcity hub, they belong in Facebook, or in other private networks.

There’s a third kind of event that interests me most of all. It occupies a space between the other two. It’s public, but minor: a book discussion, a roadside cleanup, a support group, a squaredance. These events typically don’t show up in “Things To See And Do” guides because they’re considered too niche, and because it’s too much work — for both the publisher and the contributor — to get them included. They might show up in Facebook, but if so they will be visible there only within a closed social network.

There are tons of events in this minor-but-public category. Here’s one of my favorite examples. We were having dinner with our friends Lin and Tom recently, and Lin mentioned that Tom had just won the New Hampshire state archery tournament.

Me: “Really? Congratulations! Where was that held?”

Lin: “At the Keene Recreation Center, last Saturday.”

The Rec Center is a ten-minute walk from my house. I’d have loved to have seen those precision archers ply their trade. And it was open to the public. Anybody could have gone. But nobody knew.

Everyone I talk to has similar stories. Everyone says they find out about such things — if they find out at all — only after the fact. Everyone acknowledges that there should be a better way to inform one another about the goings-on that implicitly form much of the social capital of the community. If we can make more of it explicit, we will lead richer lives. And here I mean richer in two senses of that word. There’s the Robert Putnam sense of social well-being. And there’s the Richard Florida sense of economic well-being. If we can make more of our implicit social capital explicit, we’ll profit in both ways.

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11 thoughts on “That word “events”: It does not mean what you think it means

  1. I agree completely. When “Eventful” came out for the iPhone, I subscribed immediately but have deleted every single update since. The problem, is that there is no way I know to communicate what I’m looking for (as opposed to what the other parties are interested in). Just like I can pick up the RSS feeds of things I’m interested in, there should be some way of defining in a granular way, location, genre, time of day/week and perhaps some relation to a social graph (what are the people I communicate with subscribing to). Thanks for thinking about this (and the great podcast !)


  2. > The problem, is that there is no way I know
    > to communicate what I’m looking for

    I think that problem is dwarfed by the problem that there is no good way to communicate what could be looked for.

    That’s the problem I want to solve.

  3. Are you planning on doing more with categorization and filtering by category on

    1. > Are you planning on doing more with
      > categorization and filtering by
      > category on


      First, though, I need to bootstrap some real usage of the system. A band of geeky curators operating in various cities is ultimately, I’m afraid, just a band of geeky curators. We won’t convince very many people to publish calendar feeds. People will need to know that the feeds they produce will be consumed and republished in ways that matter to them. I.e., in newspapers (print and online), and in whatever other online places are the real attention hubs in their communities.

      It’s a challenge because online editions of newspapers, and web city guides, think in terms of publishing feeds that their audiences subscribe to. I’m asking them to also think in terms of inviting their audiences to publish feeds that they subscribe to — in order then to aggregate and republish.

      I’m hoping that once I can get a few such organizations to embrace and demonstrate this idea, we’ll have a reference model for others to follow.

      If anyone who reads this knows of a local newspaper that wants to try the experiment, please do put me in touch with them.

  4. Another way to look at events is in terms of impact, which can only be determined -and perhaps augmented- in retrospect. From this perspective, the plan (forward-looking) view is only half the game, if not less; event-fulness is a function of impact rippling out from the event across time: who participated in the event (even after the fact, in its wake), and (i’m thinking now of educational events) what learnings have been derived?

    Two use-cases in particular concern me of late:

    1. Group events that i have hosted, to which considerable numbers of people may have contributed and/or derived knowledge, from which an even larger number of people might stand to learn more, if only it were easy enough to share observations/ reflections/ analysis after the fact (much as people share event-related pics thru Flickr, only with a bit more structure).

    2. As a paraglider pilot, i’m used to keeping a log-book, but frustrated that it is doesn’t go far or wide enough, i.e.
    – Beyond the structured fields (for date, launch time & location, landing time & location etc.), there’s precious little room for comment, and no room at all for rich media (i.e. pictures, we usually take, even video for the geeks among us w/ helmetcam 8^)
    – Why not share log entries with anyone else who might have been flying at same site/day-time? As with some other sports (e.g. surfing), the most eventful days in the sport are usually not planned, but develop spontaneously once local enthusiasts get a whiff of some epic conditions.

    None of these problems are any hairier than the one you’ve been wrestling in Elmcity, Jon; just a slightly different focus, more about adding long-tail value than reducing cost of missed-opportunities (if that is indeed your aim). These aims are not only non-contradictory, but actually symbiotic, now that i think about it. Your broad-minded approach is appreciated!

  5. > just a slightly different focus, more about
    > adding long-tail value than reducing cost
    > of missed-opportunities

    I love your example of finding out, after the fact, who else was flying on the same day, at roughly the same time and place.

    As usual, we have all the ingredients in place to solve this problem, but we lack awareness of them, and so have not developed the cultural habit of using them.

    The first ingredient follows from the principle of keystroke conservation ( If there’s nothing proprietary or confidential about your flight logs, then why not just maintain them in a public online service by default? They’re as useful to you there, individually, as they would be on your local disk — arguably more so, for reasons of backup and anywhere/anytime access. And although others likely won’t ever care to read them, it’s also possible that they will. Why foreclose that possibility?

    The second ingredient is tagging. It only takes a few public flight loggers to begin to develop a tag convention for their flight logs. I don’t know just what that should be. Maybe ‘flightlog’ plus some combination of date and airport code? Anyway the syntax doesn’t matter, only the agreement matters. If there’s an agreement on this naming convention, anyone can very easily find matching log entries from all participating contributors.

  6. Oh, i’d be happy to share flight log data publicly, if it were easy enough for all to do and enjoy some synergy There is of course some complexity about it (else it would be no problem). For one thing, PG/HG pilots fly not out of airports (w/ canonical 3-letter code) but off mountains and ridge-tops, which we may or may not call by the same name, tho in most cases we do. This problem can be neatly solved by sharing .GPX files that are generated by the “comp” device that some of us fly with (derived from simple “vario” that records just altitude & rate-of-change) which records lat/long of your points of takeoff and landing and every point in between at whatever interval you decide (my default is 10 secs); these can be represented graphically as a (3d) flight track, that can even be plotted on Google Earth (2d) if you like — which i have done a few times, but then the thrill wears off a bit when it’s just you reviewing your own flight data (kinda like the sound of one hand clapping!). There are some forums for cross-country pilots to share such files, as it is quite a competitive game w/ some (not me -not yet ;-), but they are kinda clunky, and not so oriented to cooperation as competition.

    ANYhoo: This is but one subtype of the “event” archetype that i think would benefit greatly from standard ways of defining and sharing event-related data, both before and/OR after the fact; the adventure sporting event that i have described will typically be unplanned, but just as rich in opportunities for constructive data-sharing as the planned one, if not more so.
    In fact, yesterday at local beach-bluffs (Cordoama, W.Algarve Portugal) was an EVENT for both surfers and paragliders, as it turned out. Too bad i took off w/o my camera! did anyone there take pics, i wonder…?

  7. I love the Princess bride reference. I, like you, quote that line regularly. You need to have a category/tag for these posts. You are building your own dictionary of terms.

  8. Jon,

    I’ve found quite useful and functional for that “third kind of event”. It’s got groups, tagging, and microformats support (hCalendar events, hCard venues).

    Is there a specific use case that you’ve found that doesn’t support well?


  9. Upcoming and Eventful are great for this class of events. That’s why I include events from both of those sources, plus a curated list of iCalendar feeds, in the aggregation produced by an elmcity location.

    My point here is that city guides (Things To See And Do) tend not to capture this class of events very well.

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