What Mashups Mean?

I’ve been thinking a lot about mashups recently. I’ve been asking myself the question: as a user-experience designer, what happens when the experience I’ve designed gets usurped, or disintermediated, by people taking what they want of it and leaving the rest behind? What does that mean to me as a designer: i.e. what is it, then, that I should be designing??

I’ve half-started several blog posts about this, and then stopped when some distraction came up.

And then today, a day or two after everybody else, I hear about this:

O’Reilly Radar > Pipes and Filters for the Internet

Yahoo!’s new Pipes service is a milestone in the history of the internet. It’s a service that generalizes the idea of the mashup, providing a drag and drop editor that allows you to connect internet data sources, process them, and redirect the output. Yahoo! describes it as “an interactive feed aggregator and manipulator” that allows you to “create feeds that are more powerful, useful and relevant.” While it’s still a bit rough around the edges, it has enormous promise in turning the web into a programmable environment for everyone.

Yeah. Yahoo’s new service called Pipes.

I know there’s tons of buzz about this, and I feel silly jumping on the Internet obsession of the week. But this really is big. I agree with Tim O’Reilly: it’s a milestone. It may not be the mashup service that ends up leader of the pack, just like Mosaic (or even Netscape) didn’t end up being the de facto browser.

But it underlines a key truth that’s becoming more and more clear. And it’s a bit of a paradox: in order to keep your audience’s interest, you have to relinquish control of that interest.

Are you “somebody?”
Let me start at 1997: I remember getting out of grad school and how it dawned on me in my first web-related job, that in the post-web world, not having a website was like not having your name in the phonebook. Remember Steve Martin in The Jerk? When he saw his name in the phonebook, he ran around screaming, “I’m somebody!” It wasn’t far from the truth: if you were a business, especially, the Yellow Pages essentially had an extortion scheme — if you weren’t paying to be in there, you might as well not exist. And as a private individual, you were essentially a hermit if you had no phone book listing. Why? Because it was how people found you… your phone number, address, everything.

So, by the late 90s, the web was turning into the same thing. Everybody knew, by about 1999 at the latest, that if they didn’t have a significant presence online, they were out of the conversation. The marketplace would just move along without them.

Staying in the Conversation

Another similar thing has happened with open standards and APIs. Now it’s not enough to just have a web site. If you want to have a part in the larger conversation, you need to open up your content and even your tools, whatever they may be, to be syndicated and reconstituted in other contexts. When Google first saw someone doing a mashup with their maps API, they considered suing them. But, being the new-paradigm-aware folks they often are, they realized they were much better off helping mashup makers create fabulous things with their tools and content.

It only increased their prominence and value in the marketplace — and with a viral swiftness, they’re everywhere, not just at their own domain. You literally can’t get away from Google. I know it’s more complicated than that: they have to make money with advertising, and if someone uses their API without directing traffic that sees Google’s ads, then they lose money… but look at the most successful Google API mashups, and you’ll see Google adwords right there. Why? Because Google made it super easy to use adwords, just as easy as their other APIs, and if I made a mashup that gets millions of hits a day, I want to make money on it… so I up Adwords, and Google and I both share the spoils. (Yeah, if only! Why didn’t I stick with learning XML back in 2000?)

Designing for Survival of the Species

As Dick Hardt said a year or more ago: “Simple and open wins, always.” I suggest we call it Hardt’s Law. The idea is that, just like in the natural selection of organic species, the ecosystem of the Web rewards openness and simplicity. Object-oriented, elegant, universally pluggable… all qualities that help one species thrive over another.

So, what happens when, in 10-15 years (I may be overshooting that; lately, stuff that I thought was going to take a decade happens in the next week… ) Yahoo! Pipes isn’t the exception, but the rule? When everyone (or most people actively engaged in the ‘net) has not only the tools available, but the language — the literacy — of programming their own info-aggregation? If you don’t have something out there for them to aggregate, structured in such a way that they can filter it and parse it however they please, you might as well not exist.

That’s not even touching on the fact that you have to have content or value that they give a damn about. But that’s a whole other challenge.

As a designer, I now see my job as not only to create the best self-contained user experience I can. Now it’s also to think in terms of objects — modular components — and how well they break apart. How well do they carry their own context with them? How might they be useful in other contexts I haven’t thought of? Will that even be OK? (Gut reaction: it had better be — every tool or paragraph that isn’t remixable by someone I’ve never even met is one more chance lost to ‘infect’ the global conversation.)

It’s no longer about whether something is open or not, or if it has a feed or not. Assuming the content is something people want, it’s also about understanding how my users may want to filter or mash what I’m making available. Or how well it might fit into another format that doesn’t even exist in the original context. For example, my blog has an RSS feed, so other people can read it in things like Bloglines. Luckily, the software I use already puts things like comments and such in an open standard so that Bloglines can also syndicate how many comments were made on any given post. It also picks up on category metadata. But what else, in the near future, might readers want to be able to filter for? I don’t have any metadata that says if my post contains a photograph or not, or if it’s an “article” versus just a “check out this link” post. Those are just the first things that come to mind.

For me, and my modest little blog here, it’s not that big of a deal. But if I’m the New York Times, or Forrester Research, or even some low-cost provider of mutual funds that’s wanting to get market information out to millions of financial advisors — it might be very very important.

Design is as much about the remixability of what we make as it is the primary intended experience. Even beyond just content, if I design a tool that helps people count their calories, or keep up with their checking account, the old-school thinking would be: make it great so they’ll come to you and stick with you as long as possible. But the new thinking is going to have to be: make it so elegant and self-contained, and openly compatible with everything else, that people can use it on their MySpace pages and their cell phones.

Simple, open, and letting go. It’s starting to sound downright spiritual.

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at andrewhinton.com.

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