By David Sarno
Times Staff Writer
June 24, 2007
Although underground DJs are still making hybrid tracks of Blondie and Iron Maiden, and college kids do not seem to tire of posting irreverent movie trailer spoofs on YouTube (see "Ocean's 9/11" in which Clooney and company connive to actually, don't see it), the idea of "mashing up" has moved on from music and video to become a catchall term for just about every kind of digital alchemy.
The folks at dudewheresmyusedcar.com have overlaid pre-owned vehicle data from EBay onto Google Maps to help you easily find all the jalopies for sale in your neighborhood. The more civic-minded Unfluence (unfluence.net) uses information from a campaign finance database to diagram the web of crisscrossing donations between candidates and various industries. And if you go to whoissick.org, one glance at the map reveals that numerous people in the Los Angeles area are reporting runny noses.
David Berlind, executive editor of the tech news magazine ZDNet, said the mashup zeitgeist owed a lot to the availability of free online design tools that were increasingly powerful and easy to use.
Until recently, if a layperson had an idea for a useful computer program, there wasn't much he could do about it. "You needed a rocket scientist to help you," Berlind said. But as industry leaders like Google, EBay, Amazon and Yahoo release toolkits that allow for quick access to (some of) their hard-won data, "you have developers building useful applications in hours."
At the same time, online social centers like Facebook and up-and-comer Ning are inviting in the masher hordes too, hoping to end the days when your profile page was just a list of your friends and your friends' friends. Unlike MySpace, which keeps a tight grip on the kinds of software it allows on its site, Facebook is essentially offering the software engineering car keys to anyone who wants them. For developers, this means whoever can invent the next killer Facebook mashup will get a lot of attention — fast.
It already happened to iLike, a social music mashup that draws on iTunes, Ticketmaster and YouTube to let users share music recommendations, coordinate concert trips and find videos of their favorite bands. ILike went live on Facebook less than a month ago and got so hot that it almost self-immolated.
From an entry on iLike's blog shortly after the launch: "Facebook's rabid userbase chewed up our 2 servers almost instantly. We doubled our capacity to catch up. And then we doubled it again. And again. And again. Oh crap — we ran out of servers!!"
Now that iLike appears to have solved its server problems, it boasts growth of 3 million users since late May (yes, about three weeks ago) "and another million every few days." Its blog entries are now more sanguine. "Could iLike on Facebook actually be the most rapidly-adopted technology launch in history?" they muse.
Ning has tried to make customization its hallmark too. Rather than being a monolithic social network like MySpace or Friendster, Ning allows users to create their own specialty subnetworks. A librarian network enjoys a membership of nearly 200 library employees worldwide. A Ning site for the United Notary Assn. of America ("There will be no non-productive bantering") has 190 members.
It's still early days in the mashosphere, and diversity is not a strong suit. ProgrammableWeb, a site that tracks new mashups, says more than 50% of its applications somehow integrate Google Maps. So you can find the locations of plenty of used cars, concerts, apartments and secret fishing holes — but if you have an idea for an app that can't be mapped, chances are you'll have to wait.
Which is not to underestimate the value of online mapping. Tom Owad at applefritter.com used a map and some publicly available data from Amazon user profiles to identify and locate customers with possibly "subversive" attitudes — those with too many Michael Moore DVDs or books about Greenpeace on their Wish List are hereby warned: Someone might be watching.
ChicagoCrime.org, one of the more established mashups, has logged and plotted three years' worth of crime data from the Chicago Police Department, broken down into hundreds of categories, from homicide to obscene phone calls.
On the more frivolous side, a map mashup at mibazaar.com plots the hometowns of one-hit wonders. Hover your cursor above the flag near Miami Lakes, Fla., and up pops a YouTube video of Vanilla Ice performing the timeless "Ice Ice Baby." It's not clear what the precise utility of this application might be other than to bring shame on the artists' families and neighbors.
As for old-fashioned song mashups, Art Wickson, the editor of Mashuptown, says the scene is still thriving, thanks to artists like DJ Lobsterdust and Cheekyboy, whose oeuvre includes Ludacris versus Peter Gabriel, the Doors versus Deee-Lite, and, most recently, Eminem versus '80s jazz-funk fusion band Level 42.
Wickson, an orthodontist in Louisville, Ky., by day, conceded that when it came to the distribution of copyrighted property, he was "dealing in a really gray area."
But when asked if mashup culture could've come this far without the Internet, gray areas and all, he did not hesitate. "There's no way," said Wickson.
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