Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2018/ Wishful Thinking 005: Local Calendars

Wishful Thinking 005: Local Calendars

Last year I wrote some scripts to pull events from the Google Calendar API. I originally put together these scripts to generate RSS feeds for Watcamp, but I soon extended the scripts to generate an email newsletter as well (which you can subscribe to).

I adapted the scripts to generate an events email for the Spectrum clearinghouse of LGBTQ+ events (which you can receive if you sign up on the rainbow mailing list). Now Hive Waterloo may be interested in a similar events calendar for STEM and digital diversity-related events (which you cannot subscribe to yet, but which I hope is coming soon).

On the surface these newsletters are not exciting. In practice they are really convenient.

Now that I have this hammer I see a lot of nails.

Calendars/Newsletters I Wish Existed

These are only a few of the interesting calendars that could exist. There are no doubt many more.

Calendar Infrastructure

Andrew Cant is maintaining a fantastic list of local resources here: . There are lots of potential event sources here.

I wish I had access to a domain name (and the money to pay for it indefinitely) so that we could host a domain with links to calendars and signups for curated event emails. IndieServe Networks may be willing to host such a domain and provide mailing lists (but this is not guaranteed).

I don't like to admit this, but probably these event listings will need a bunch of "Share this!" buttons to drive new traffic to the events lists.

Being able to pull events from Google calendars is fine (and I am glad that this functionality exists) but there should be scripts that pull from arbitrary iCal feeds and turn them into newsletters too. In an ideal world we would be able to pull/scrape from many different sources and aggregate them into a unified calendar easily. But being able to pull well-formed iCal feeds would be a good start.

There are two big bottlenecks to making this wishlist come true. The first is people power. Watcamp works because Chris Craig and Bob Jonkman spend a few hours a week selecting events from various sources and consolidating them into one calendar. I feel that some human curation is unavoidable. As computer nerds we want to automate everything, but building software to automate aggregation and curation takes people power too. I feel that there is some low-hanging fruit that can be automated away, and then there needs to be teams of human curators to put together the final product. Where do those people come from? What makes them stick around?

One principle of sustainability I have learned the hard way is that easy and fast matters much more than perfect. It does not take that much time to keep Watcamp updated, so it stays updated. If it takes a lot of work to publish events on these new calendars then the calendars will wither away quickly. Similarly, if the people looking at the calendar need to do a lot of work to keep up with listings, then nobody will look at the calendars (which is why I feel iCal/RSS/newsletters are such a win).

The second big bottleneck is developing audiences for these calendars. Watcamp is fantastic, but few people use it. There are currently 17 people subscribed to the email newsletter of Watcamp, which is pathetic. I believe some social media promotion could get that number up to hundreds of voluntary subscribers, but I am not the person to lead such a social media campaign. Other calendars will face the same issue.

There is already a lot of fragmentation in this space (look at how many aggregators there are already!). There is a real danger that this resource will make the fragmentation worse, not better.

Fiefdoms and Walled Gardens

But what about Facebook?

There are a few large players in this space. Facebook is the gorilla, but locally and Eventbrite and Ticketfi are players as well. Most people publish events to these behemoths. Why is that not good enough?

I want to live in a world where you do not need a membership to some walled garden in order to find out what events are happening locally.

I also want to avoid filter bubble effects. I have a Meetup account, and Meetup is okay for sending me notifications for meetups I have joined. But it is sketchy about telling me about other meetups that might interest me. I don't know why it promotes certain groups to me. I don't know how much those groups paid Meetup so that it would let me know about them. I don't know what groups Meetup is hiding from me because it thinks (correctly or not) that I would not be interested in them.

All of these problems are amplified on Facebook. There is no way for me to subscribe to events listings that are published on Facebook unless I am a member of Facebook. Why should I have to be a member of a social network in order to find out about and attend events in my local community? There is no good reason for this.

The bad reason is that this is all part of the surveillance economy. I don't love depending on Google calendar for events listings (and I like the surveillance link-shortener URLs in those newsletters even less, even though I set them up!) but I really like the fact that people can find out about events via the RSS feeds or email newsletters without needing a Google account at all.

Some events that are currently advertised on Facebook are intended to be member-only affairs. That's fine; such events should not appear in these public calendars or these email newsletters. But there are many other events which are intended to be public, and to me it seems wrong that these are locked up behind Facebook's walled garden.