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.

OmniShrine Wiki

Using the wonderful tools available over at WetPaint, I have now set up the OmniShrine Wiki
For years I’ve had a post here about Omni Magazine, something I used to love to read when I was growing up. Over those years, many people have added comments on that post, explaining particular stories or art they had enjoyed, asking if people remembered or had available particular issues or excerpts, and even offering back-issues for sale. Since then I nicknamed it the Omni Magazine Shrine.
But nobody ever answers those comments because it’s not set up for discussion or sharing, just commenting. So I figured I’d make a community spot for people to share. Who knows, it could turn into something?
Do you have a personal remembrance about the magazine in general? A question? A topic to discuss? Maybe you have a favorite story, article or illustration you want to share with others or ask about? Go for it.

Second Life hype

I just posted another bit about Second Life a little while ago, and though to myself, “Why are you posting so much about it? You hardly even go there!”

It’s true. I really don’t actually use SL much. I love thinking about it, reading about it, and checking out the occasional amazing build there, but I haven’t found it consistently engaging enough to really spend a lot of time there.

There are several reasons for this, in my case:

1. I don’t especially like socializing there, because I don’t want to go into that sinkhole. I’ve had experiences in my past where a virtual community of one kind or another has drawn me in, and it keeps me disconnected from my present life. Some people are better at balancing this, but not me. And it’s even worse in some ways than an IRC channel or a MOO/MUD situation, because it’s so highly visual. There’s so much to keep track of visually that you can’t take your eyes from the screen, while on IRC or a MOO you can do other things online while ‘hanging’ out with your chat friends. But I don’t even do that anymore. I’ve tried hanging in some friendly spots like the Elbow Room in SL, but after a while it just gets to be so repetitive.

2. I honestly prefer *building* things in virtual places like this. When I messed around more in MUSH and MOO environments, the biggest draw for me was designing stuff, figuring out the kludgy but learnable code, and creating interactive objects, or even just lushly described environments. But even if you didn’t know the code, you could modify others’ objects or make really cool stuff mainly by just describing it in text. It was a collaborative storytelling tool, with real-time “third-place” community as the other killer ingredient. But in Second Life, you can’t just write up something cool and put a bit of code with it and make an enveloping, narrative experience. To do something that effective in SL, you have to understand 3D motion geometry, have a gift for 3D CAD work, and be willing to learn a full fledged programming language (LSL). It’s frustrating to not be able to just create great stuff without having to become a full-time craftsperson. Even the thrill of describing your character (writing your description in a MUSH) is ruined in SL, because you either have to know how to create your own clothes (using very advanced Photoshop techniques, hard to find textures, and 3D modeling skills) or you have to buy the stuff other people make. Which essentially makes it so much like real life, I figure, what’s the point? I learned just enough to make some tattoos and t-shirts, so that I could at least feel like I had a hand in my avatar’s sartorial expression, then I stopped, because it’s not like somebody’s paying me to do this stuff.

3. Which leads me to the last issue. Money. SL has been hyped like mad as all about the money. Which makes it very different from the Web, in many ways… because the Web is about openness, which it has in its DNA, to make a web page, you’ve always been able to just look at someone else’s source. Even now, with AJAX and other technologies making it more complex, the leaders in these techniques (Yahoo, Google) are publishing their source code openly, in the spirit of the Web. Second Life, however, encourages people to keep everything a secret, to lock their source code because they may be able to sell something for a few hundred Lindens. True, on MUDs and such people can lock their objects as well, trying to make some virtual cash in whatever MUD they’re on, and hide the source. But if they really want bragging rights, they know they should make something that works really well and share it with others, because that currency is actually worth more in the long run — social currency. With SL, however, the virtual money is *real* money — because it’s exchangeable with US dollars. Nothing wrong with capitalism, of course, but it’s caused hundreds of people to glom onto SL and turn it into a giant, ugly shopping mall — not a nice one, but one of those nearly-third-world bazaars where you think you’re driving by a giant junk pile but it’s actually stuff for sale. The worst part of this, to me, is that it makes so many people in SL protective and closed, and paranoid, about the stuff they made… and every little bauble someone comes up with is something they think they’re going to get rich by selling.

So… there you go. Does that mean I hate Second Life, like (otherwise very pleasant friend of the IA community) Matt “Blackbelt” Jones and cohorts at http://www.ihatesecondlife.blogspot.com/ ? Well, no. I actually still think it’s fascinating. But only as a sort of initial foray or experiment. I don’t see that SL is the ‘future of the web’ — I believe the real future of the web is in simple, basic interfaces that connect us more easily and cheaply and ubiquitously wherever we happen to be. This is quite the opposite of having to be glued to my desk chair in front of a computer powerful enough to push the software and content streaming from Linden’s servers.

That said, I think SL is a fascinating *archetype* for what that future of ubiquitous, simple, cheap computing is going to be. (As I’ve said in “We Live Here” and other places.) I don’t think it’s taking over the web, but it could very well infect our imaginations. That’s really its key power… that it’s opening thoughts, conversations and possibilities about what else we could do with technology, how richly it can connect us, and what it might feel like to walk around in a world where every object has a unique id and talks to every other object, including us.

It’s also useful in more concentrated, planned ways, as a place where distantly connected people can meet “in the flesh” — there’s an interesting psychological effect that’s different in SL that you don’t get in text chat. The corporeal presence of the other person, even though they may be dressed like a fairy or a robot — it’s just a more exaggerated version of wearing a particular cologne or cool sunglasses, things we do all the time to express ourselves. I’ve been in meetings with people from organizations I’m part of, people whom I rarely or never meet in person, and there’s an intimacy to the conversation when looking around at their avatars and talking that you just don’t get in a text-only experience. Also there’s a sense of “place” that feels more substantial than a mere website — having a presence in Second Life, a company or organization can provide something that expresses “if we had a building you could come and visit to get to know us, this is what it’d be like” and that’s pretty powerful.

That’s why I think Clay Shirkey’s post is kind of missing the point. Shirkey will have plenty of people jumping in to agree or disagree with him, so I won’t go to great lengths.

I’ll just say I think he’s dead right about the hype: Linden is overplaying it. Philip Rosedale has gone on record saying SL is like the new Web, and that it’s like Burning Man… a utopia of which he is the visionary and lord. That’s fun for him, but not so much squared with reality. Linden Labs is a business, and SL is proprietary and limited to a giant warehouse of servers in California. Not quite the open Web of Tim Berners-Lee. And corporate America is having its field day for now, but it’ll wind down soon enough. At this point everyone feels obligated to have at least a kiosk there, just so they don’t look like squares.

But SL or something like it will continue to be there, and will grow, and will likely morph into something much less literal and (as Shirkey puts it) “conceptually simple” and much more a hybrid of walking around in real space + walking around in virtual space + using more efficient interfaces when appropriate for all the things that the virtual/real merged layers present us.

Bruce Sterling on the Pew/Internet "Future"

Bruce Sterling’s blog at Wired has a post summing up and riffing on the most recent “Future of the Internet” whitepaper at Pew:

The future of the Internet lies not with institutions but with individuals. Low-cost connections will proliferate, encouraging creativity, collaboration, and telecommuting. The Net itself will recede into the background. If you’re under 21, you likely don’t care much about any supposed difference between virtual and actual, online and off. That’s because the two realms are penetrating each other; Google Earth mingles with Google Maps, and daily life shows up on Flickr. Like the real world, the Net will be increasingly international and decreasingly reliant on English. It will be wrapped in a Chinese kung fu outfit, intoned in an Indian accent, oozing Brazilian sex appeal.

Danah Boyd on First Monday: What "friending" means online

I haven’t made my way through this yet, but Boyd’s the go-to-person for social network thinking these days:

Friends, friendsters, and top 8: Writing community into being on social network sites

Friending is deeply affected by both social processes and technological affordances. I will argue that the established Friending norms evolved out of a need to resolve the social tensions that emerged due to technological limitations. At the same time, I will argue that Friending supports pre-existing social norms yet because the architecture of social network sites is fundamentally different than the architecture of unmediated social spaces, these sites introduce an environment that is quite unlike that with which we are accustomed.