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    Digital mache

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    On mention of the word “mashup”, approximately half of you will immediately and unselfconsciously think of boiled spuds. This is a given.

    The hipper among you will perhaps reflect on the common practice of sampling/mixing together elements from different and often disparate music tracks – a technique that dates back to the folk songs of antiquity and has evolved into the technology-driven mainstream mashup genre of today.

    Now, mashups are the latest boom trend at the cutting edge of Web 2.0. In short, they are hybrid web-based applications combining taken from more than one source. In the brave new world of Web 2.0, linear is boring. Mono is tres uncool. You’re all invited to the mashup jamboree … as long as you know how to share.

    For an overview of today’s swelling mashup melange, pay a visit to mashupfeed.com. Here you will find up-to-date listings for all things mashup, including the most recent and most popular mashups, the most common mashup tags (the cornerstone of Web 2.0 contextualisation), a counter tracking the average number of new mashups added per day (2.81 at the time of writing), and the most utilised API’s.

    The free availability of APIs, or Applications Programming Interfaces, is what enabled mashups in the first place. Put simply, an API provides an interface and rules to facilitate the extraction of data from a website. Web mashups took off a couple of years ago following the release of Google Maps, which digitised the entire globe with satellite imagery, much of it in extremely high resolution. After everyone had used the site to locate their house, some bright sparks began to figure out that it provided a wonderful canvas on which to organise online information geographically. When Google released the site’s API, map mashups began popping up like mushrooms on a sodden forest floor.

    NOT JUST A PRETTY VIEW

    Take www.ChicagoCrime.org, one of the original mashups with enduring popularity. Police data from reported crimes in the Chicago metropolitan area is plotted at street level using Google Maps. If you are visiting the ‘Windy City’, you can use the site to assess, from your hotel room, which neighbourhoods are unsafe.

    Another evergreen mashup is housingmaps.com, a site that plots property listings from popular online classifieds site craigslist on maps from Google. The simplicity and obviousness of this idea is staggering.

    If you have a taste for the vicarious, then celebrity-maps.com is right down your alley. Click on any of the scores of celebrity names running down the right hand side of the page and the map zooms to the location of their house(s) in the United States. The celebs are sure to be thrilled with this one (though it must be said that a few on the list deserve nothing less for foisting themselves on an unsuspecting world in the first place).

    As you may have noticed by now, maps dominate the mashup smorgasboard, whether sourced from Google, Yahoo or Microsoft. This is because digital maps are a bit like the base of a p1zza, with the combinations of toppings as limitless as the imagination of the chef assembling them.

    But mashups aren’t confined to maps. Amazon’s API has been used to create the mashup liveplasma.com, where information on movies and music can be explored through proximity and context. There is the Greasemonkey script for Mozilla’s popular open source web browser, Firefox. This enables anyone to write a script extension that customises the appearance and function of a web page within the individual’s browser. And then there are the mashup gumbos, which use the APIs from several sites – Amazon, Google, craigslist, del.icio.us, Flickr, Yahoo traffic, eBay, technorati and many others – all tossed around in the one pot. Some of these are like more conventional home pages/portals (see dailymashup.com). But others are bewilderingly … full.

    Left to right: George Michael’s hideaway in Los Angeles, as seen on celebritymaps.com. An unsolved homicide near central Chicago is pinpointed for all to see on ChicagoCrime.org. A multimedia mashup guide to mob hits on HBO’s Sopranos website.

    JUST BEYOND THE VIDIOT BOX

    For TV addicts, there is an ever-growing list of mashups dedicated to popular shows. JackTracker traces the movements of Special Agent Jack Bauer in the fast paced show, “24”. You can locate Jerry’s apartment on Manhattan’s upper west side or the real Soup Nazi on Geography of Seinfeld. Locate where fictitious New Jersey mafia goons were wacked in The Sopranos on HBO’s Crime Organised site. Other shows to inspire dedicated online mashups include American Idol, The Apprentice and that quintessential globe trotter, The Amazing Race.

    The astonishing thing about the TV mashups is that the networks (save exceptions such as HBO and the BBC) are not only not driving this compelling cross-media publicity vehicle, in some cases they are fighting the use of their by those creating the mashups. In one reported case, NBC is scrutinising The Apprentice mashup website for unauthorised use of logos and copyright violations. It all sounds wearily reminiscent of the way the major players in the music industry reacted to the uptake of digital music.

    And then there are video mashups, two or more mainstream videos (and images) edited together for ironic effect, which are being distributed virally across the web. There is a mountain of “Brokeback” parodies, including Brokeback Squadron (a Top Gun spoof), Brokeback to the Future, The Empire Brokeback, and so on. Like music mashups, video mashups are usually unauthorised, so end up being disseminated on video sharing sites like youtube.com. One popular video mashup shows Tom Cruise’s outlandish appearance on Oprah cut with Oprah’s recent castigation of ‘creative’ autobiographer, James Frey.

    BEFORE YOUR VERY EYES

    In the bump and grind of the resurgent online sector, it’s not enough to simply host your own on a snazzily designed website. That’s like a banjo trying to be heard over the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

    Music mashups may not strike the sweetest chord with you. (Perhaps you wince at the thought of a smug virtual DJ splicing the vitriolic vocals of a gangsta rapper over the top of, say, your favourite Leo Sayer track), But it is clear that the internet is an unfolding epoch as profound as the industrial revolution, and today’s web mashups are a good indication of how online information will be presented in the future. Google and Yahoo, the corporate vanguard, are building the web into a superplatform, where every individual can mix and mash according to their interests and tastes. It’s about building the whole virtual edifice into something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

    Like most of the Web 2.0 innovations (blogs, podcasts, wikis, social media, internet TV, etc.), mashup producers have yet to figure out how to make money from their labours. What’s clear is that the online superplatform has altered the playing field. Old business models just don’t work here, just as old thought paradigms are commercial poison (just ask Kodak, or perhaps even Mr Gates in five years time).

    In late February, Palo Alto, California played host to the first official Mashup Camp. Several hundred mashup enthusiasts attended this free-form forum dubbed an “unconference” by its organisers. But the strongest indication that this mashup phenomenon is gaining significant traction was the list of big brand attendees – representatives from Amazon, Google, Yahoo, eBay and Microsoft. Discussions didn’t just focus on cool websites, but on future business models and partnerships. Top mashup honours at the gathering went to podbop.org, a mashup that lists upcoming live bands by geographic region and associates available podcasts, tickets and other relevant information.

    Alas, web mashups are yet to take off in Australia. But the internet has made the world smaller than ever before. And like it or not, that world is coming soon to a mashup near you.


    STALKING BY GPS

    One mashup creating quite a stir is Gawker Stalker, a site that plots celebrity sightings in Manhattan in real time. Well, not quite real time. The site claims that it takes 15 minutes from the time someone SMS’s a sighting until it is posted online. This caveat hasn’t done much to quell criticism that the site encourages stalking activity. An example post: “Just saw Al Pacino coming out of City Hall – sporting a great Armani Jacket with a long cowboy looking moustache a la Tommy Lee Jones. He was with Bob Duvall. Overheard them saying they were going to meet a friend at Hudson Hotel right now!”

    I wonder what John Lennon would think of all this…

    Paul Ryan is an editor and senior writer at Australian Anthill.


    Other articles in this series:

    Deafening whispers

    Digital Mache

    Cory Doctorow’s big tent

    Follow the music

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