Friday, November 03, 2006

Programmable Web and mashups for historians

A web mashup, I’ve learned this week, is a web application that operates by combining two or more pre-existing applications. Unless she hacks the parent site’s software, the mashup creator needs to acquire it some other way. Even if the hacker acts as a sort of Robin Hood – providing precious resources for the poor masses – it seems to me there’s still something essentially unfriendly and competitive about the work she does. In contrast, I am so pleased to broach the gaping chasm that’s been my long, conspicuous and tortured silence on this blog by reflecting on as warm and fuzzy a topic as web remixing.

What I’ve learned about Web 2.0 is that it is a friendly, collaborative, social and very human platform. Nardi and O'Day's thoughts on "Information Ecologies"as systems where people help people use technology evoke a sense of human, lively, and intensely organic spaces. It all sounds just lovely, and doesn’t intimidate me nearly as much as did the prospect of reinvigorating this long-inactive blog. The image I've included above reminds me of a third grade lesson on ecosystems (which, in turn, gives me warm fuzzies). It reminds of our friendly Information Ecology: reduce (redundant work) by reusing and recycling (preexisting technology and applications) = a great model for sustainable web growth. As Steve Jurvetson has indicated (and, for how he helped me conceptualize this notion, I grudgingly give another shout-out to Kuhn) this kind of natural growth is marked by evolution - not wasteful revolution - of technologies.

The mashups I browsed through at Programmable Web do correspond, largely, to the prominent genres that Duane Merrill lists in his "Mashups: the New Breed of Web app". Most prominent seem to be those that involve mapping. Remember the Milk combines mapping with task-management, letting users organize their daily tasks by location. Orlando timeshare guide maps properties and matches them with contact details. Also numerous are those mashups that allow searching. The charming and stylish Ms. Dewey helped me learn how to make fantastic chocolate chip cookies, an how to train for running a marathon. She is, I admit, much more engaging than her counterpart, than the slightly-scary "ask Vox" know-it-all. Finally, shopping/sales is another conspicuous genre of mashup. There is, admittedly, a lot of overlap of this genre with that of mapping. For example, MyStoreMaps offers the eBay vendor a real-time map of where she has sold her items.

I must admit that my favourite mashup among those that I came across is The idea behind it is just wonderful: it replicates a physical community in hypertext. At the same time, though, it enhances the physical community. The application aggregates information about a neighborhood, city or area - such information, its creators advertise, as local restaurant reviews and notification of community garage sales and high school benefit concerts - and maps them for its user. As its creators describe, bridges “information space and real-world space”. This really gives me the warm fuzzies, because, by informing individuals about local events, it can enhance community – and the relationships between real people in it. This mashup illlustrates perfectly Nardi and O’Day’s description of Information Ecologies as featuring a spotlight not on technology, but rather on the human activity that the technology serves. reveals the usefulness of mashups as research tools for humanities scholars. Historians should care about mashups because, just like any other piece of material culture, embedded in a mashup are many, many indicators of meaning. Future researchers will be able to use these applications to think on a specific society at a specific moment in time. By virtue of their very social nature, mashups contain innumerable clues to a community's values. What actions, events, spaces or places does a community deem important? Which of their needs have they crafted the mashup to meet? What pre-existing technologies have they deemed successful and appropriate to recombine into new uses? For those interested in how communities construct and reflect social and cultural meaning, mashups can be an invaluable resource.

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