dConstructing the network

One of the sponsors of this year’s d.Construct is a local company called Madgex. Glenn Jones works there.

At the Clearleft office warming party, I chatted with Glenn about what form the sponsorship might take. Rather than go down the usual schwag-based route, Glenn was determined to do something useful, like build an app. He started telling me what he had in mind. The more he told me, the more excited I got.

Glenn has been working feverishly on the project and it’s now ready for unveiling. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…

The d.Construct06 Backnetwork

You know the way that a backchannel develops at most conferences? IRC, iChat, and all that. Well, this is a backnetwork.

It’s a social network app, but a genuinely useful one. For a start, it’s all based around a single focal point: the d.Construct conference. Everyone using the backnetwork has something in common. They are all attendees of the conference. This network is closed to the outside world.

I’ve seen some other events attempt a kind of pre-conference network. The South by Southwest website last year had a section for maintaining a profile and connecting with other attendees. But these connections were very simple. As with most social network sites on the Web, either someone is your friend or you have no connection to them whatsoever. That isn’t a very accurate reflection of reality.

Instead of inventing some new proprietary schema for representing the connections between people, the d.Construct backnetwork uses XFN — XHTML Friends Network. The relationships represented in XFN map remarkably well to an event like this.

Here’s my profile. You can see all the people that I’ve connected with (friends, acquaintances, colleagues) and all the people who have a connected with me. Based on these connections, I even get a cloud of names with the sizes indicating the strength and reciprocity of that relationship.

But here’s the best bit. I can take this information with me. Instead of being yet another roach motel or data silo, the backnetwork actively encourages me take my data with me. There’s a pre-formatted XFN list that I can cut and paste into my own site. Or, if I want, there’s an OPML file of all the feeds from people in my network.

As with most social network sites, you have to go through the process of filling out your details before you can start using it. But here again, you are actively encouraged to then take this information with you. I can cut and paste my hCard or simply download a vCard via Brian Suda’s hCard converter on Technorati.

You can specify how you want sensitive data like emails and telephone numbers to be treated. You can make them public, you can not reveal them at all, or you can allow only your friends to view them.

There’s a lot of microformatted goodness throughout the backnetwork and constant encouragement not just to put data into the system, but also to take it away with you. The result is something that’s fun and useful before, during and after the conference.

Before

In the run-up to d.Construct, you can find out who else is coming. If you know any of the people, you can connect with them. There’s even a Google Maps mashup so you can see where people are coming from. You might even find people coming from the same town as you and make travel plans with them.

There’s an aggregator that pulls in any relevant blog posts written by attendees. You can subscribe to the aggregate feed or take away an OPML file with a list of all the sites.

During

The aggregator is going to be very handy during the conference as a way of following any liveblogging. There’s also a really nice photo page that pulls in Flickr pics and displays them in a lightbox.

There will even be an Ajax chat room opened up on the day.

After

Once the conference is over, you’ll probably want to revisit the attendee list. You will undoubtedly want to mark a lot of people as “met”. Heck, you may even make some friends. You’ll certainly have made lots of connections. And if you didn’t manage to exchange business cards, you can grab each other’s hCard or vCard instead.

There’ll probably be plenty of post-conference blog chatter to track through the backnetwork. If you want to add your own impressions of the panels, you can post straight to your blog or you can add a review through the backnetwork. You can fill out a form and submit your review. This is formatted in the hReview microformat so that, once again, you can take it with you. Just copy and paste the review into your own site. You can even specify a creative commons license while you’re at it.

Microformats

The backnetwork is using microformats all over the place: XFN, hCard, hReview, rel-license and rel-tag. It’s quite remarkable how useful this turns out to be. It makes it so, so easy to take your data with you. Your contact details, relationships, and reviews are yours for the taking.

This is something you can see on a lesser scale on the d.Construct website. The list of speakers has been marked up with hCards. The schedule for the day is an hCalendar. There’s a link off to Brian Suda’s converter on Technorati so that you can subscribe to the calendar, put it on your iPod, your mobile phone, whatever you want. If there are any changes to the schedule, the page will be updated and the change will be reflected in the subscribed calendar. There’s no need to maintain a separate file like Michael had to do for Reboot or Jon did for @media.

If you’re coming to d.Construct, you should have already received an email with an activation code for the backnetwork. I suggest you use it. If haven’t received your activation code, you’d better let Andy and Richard know.

If you aren’t coming to d.Construct, you can still browse the backnetwork and track the blog posts, reviews and photos as they come in. You just won’t be able to add your own profile or define any relationships with the attendees.

If you want to know more about the technologies driving the backnetwork, check out the “about” page. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m really excited about this application. I’m like a kid with a new toy and I’m loving it.

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