For nearly four years, CircleAnywhere’s online events, subscriptions, and payment systems have run on an eclectic combination of open source software and custom software designed by me. Within the last several weeks it’s become clear to me that continuing to maintain this custom system is not viable, therefore I’ve made the decision to ‘retire’ it.
This post is meant to provide some clarity and context around the decision, and will cover:
- Why the system was built in the first place
- Why the decision was made to retire it
- What’s next
- Create/manage/attend events via the calendar
- Meet in live online events
- Collect payments, including subscriptions, and control access to member events
- Maintain the circleanywhere.com website
Why we built CircleAnywhere’s software
In January of 2015, Jordan approached me with the idea of creating an online Circling community. He had hit a snag, in that he couldn’t find any software that had the necessary functionality to support that goal, and was wondering if I could help.
Back then, there was nothing that provided the ability to ‘break out’ into separate groups with video, which was a critical component to making it work. With MIT’s open-source Unhangout project as a starting point, I began crafting a solution to solve the fundamental technical challenges of Circling online.
Along the way, it became apparent that there was no good online vehicle for any kind of experiential event online that involved moving between larger and smaller groups of people.
If you’ve ever been to an Authentic Relating Games night, or almost any kind of experiential workshop, you’re probably familiar with the flow of:
- Starting in the full group
- Breaking out into smaller groups (e.g. pair exercises) for some activity
- Re-joining the full group to share about the exercise
Providing an online vehicle for this kind of flow became the larger purpose of the solutions that are currently running on CircleAnywhere, and this is an important point to note: the vision was larger than just Circling online — we hoped to provide a path for other kinds of experiential communities to have an online presence, to be a force for leveraging technology to support human connection, instead of the disconnecting/isolating effect it’s so often accused of having.
To date (and I try to keep an eye on this particular industry), I’ve still seen no better attempt at solving the challenge of creating experiential events online than the very product we’ve built, and this is the thing I’m most sad about as it approaches retirement — the vision still remains to be fulfilled.
Deciding on retirement
There are quite a few advantages to maintaining a custom, open-source technology:
- Much of the software is freely available
- It allows ultimate control of the experience
- It can allow a very smooth user experience, with tight integration between systems (sign up, pay, hit the calendar, join a Circle, all in a few minutes)
- There’s no danger of a third party provider jacking up the prices or otherwise changing the behavior of the system in a way you don’t want
We benefited from from all those advantages for sure. Unfortunately, the disadvantages have begun to outweigh the advantages:
- It can require a large investment of time/energy to maintain
- The system is very complex (especially doing real-time audio/video), and when problems happen, they can be extremely difficult to find and fix
- The community depends on a small group (in this case, one) for the system to function properly
On a personal note, for whatever reason, maintaining this complex system has resulted in me largely withdrawing from my investment in Circling as a practice, both as a participant and as a leader — I’ve never been able to comfortably hold both roles at the same time. Perhaps they are naturally in conflict, or perhaps it’s a growth edge I’ve not yet surmounted. In either case, it’s important to me to re-engage in the practice, and setting down this responsibility will go a long way towards that end.
It will take some time to handle this transition responsibly, as there’s a lot that we need to replace, and finding a way to replace enough of it may not be a small task.
The goal will be to find standard tools that we can weave together to handle all the common activities in the community (scheduling/attending events, maintaining subscriptions and access, etc). The most likely outcome is that some processes will improve, and others may get a little clunkier — giving up total control of the software usually results in having to deal with tradeoffs.
I do feel pretty confident that we’ll pull something solid together, especially because there are better options available now than when we started (e.g. Zoom has breakouts now, and did not when we started CircleAnywhere).
Our target date for the complete switchover is October 28th, 2019 — which is, in a bittersweet conscious arrangement, the four year anniversary of the official launch of CircleAnywhere — we’ll be sure to have a final funeral/celebration Circle in memory 😉