Admittedly, I’m one of the techcrunch crowd, I have accounts on all the new calendars, rich web mail, video sharing sites and social networks. I’ve been watching this stuff before it was THE web… in the 80s Intermedia allowed multiple “webs” of links to overlay documents and way before that, in the 60s, Doug Engelbart’s Augment system enabled dynamic outlining and references to anywhere in the document. It’s good to remember that our ideas stand on the shoulders of our predecessors. Tim Berners-Lee’s ideas about the “semantic web” are a great new twist on Ted Nelson’s Xanadu and Vannevar Bush’s Memex.
In the Web 2.0 era, we keep chasing after this dream of a web that is more than just a sea of static documents. Let’s create some APIs or dynamic document snippets and mash ’em up together. Until now, I’ve felt that this was only theoretically useful and had yet to be useful to the folks who don’t have several email addresses that they need to sync up to their Blackberry.
Last year I volunteered to make a website for my son’s school. It’s not that I need one more project to do, but I felt that it was just not right for a school in San Francisco to lack an on-line presence. It’s a relatively new school, just ten years old, and there are surprisingly few parents who are also web-geeks (or maybe I just haven’t found them yet). I had a vision for the web site that included a blog, so that content could be updated by non-techie volunteers, but that hasn’t yet appeared in my first implementation. It’s a basic web site with a number of pages that describe the school and its various programs. I’ve got a number of perpetual drafts of stuff that needs to go up, but I felt it more important that there be a website, than there be a complete website. All good websites are a work-in-progress, no?
The remarkable web 2.0-y tech that I ended up including was Google calendar. The most important part of the website that absolutely must be kept fresh is the dates of upcoming events. I had this vision of a calendar with a human interface that could be kept up by any volunteer. This implementation is a compromise. It doesn’t look exactly how I’d like it to look and there is no obvious link to the full calendar as I would like. I’m one of the rare folks who could actually code that up in not too much time using Google’s public APIs, but the point is, I’d rather spend that hour doing something else on my infinitely long to-do list.
So, one Saturday afternoon, after the summer Kindergarten playdate when I’d found a dad to volunteer to enter calendar data, I invited my alter-ego, the school webmaster, to create a google account, and added the published calendar to the website. I had created a classic “inclusion” by Doug Engelbart’s definition — innovative in the 1960s, still ground-breaking today. By the end of the weekend, James had entered every date in our school calendar, and the website was automatically updated (and would continue to be throughout the year.) Now, James is a little more technical than the average parent, he used to use Yahoo calendar and works in medicine where you need to be fairly techno-savvy; however, he is pretty far from the web 2.0 in-crowd.
Two things are happening: 1) technology is getting easier to use and more useful; and therefore 2) more people are using technology in their work and in their lives. The result: a website that doesn’t need to be updated till next year, but more importantly, the few hours that I have to devote to it can go towards making it better, not simply maintatining it.