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February 07 2011

17:00

YouTube and basketball memories: FreeDarko’s Pasha Malla on fandom, curation, and democratized media

Editor’s Note: Last week, I read The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, the second NBA book produced by the people behind the NBA blog FreeDarko. (The first, The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, was really good too.) If you’re not familiar with FreeDarko, Deadspin founder Will Leitch described its writers as like “overcaffeinated, overeducated philosophy grad students who decided they could learn a lot more from NBA LeaguePass than from their professors. They saw Nietzsche in Zach Randolph, John Coltrane in the triangle offense, Moses in Moses Malone.”

It was the book’s final chapter that got me thinking beyond basketball and to more Lab-like matters. In it, writer Pasha Malla describes how YouTube’s endless seas of NBA clips, old and new, allow fans to recontextualize basketball history, challenging established narratives and creating a space for fans to push their own impressions of events and personalities. That sort of democratizing force has impacts across all media, including for news organizations.

I’m very pleased that the folks behind FreeDarko and the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury USA, have let me reprint that final chapter here. —Josh

As its name suggests, the Shot — Michael Jordan’s series-winning buzzer-beater against the Cavs during the 1989 playoffs — is iconic: “As the ball nestled through the net,” confirms NBA.com, describing an image we all can easily visualize, “Jordan pumped his fists in jubilation, completing a video highlight for the ages.” In time, the endlessly replayed Shot became representative of MJ’s transformation from showman to champion and a metonym for the very idea of legacy — it’s not just how dominantly you play the game, but how you’re remembered.

Yet this version of the Shot is also, to some extent, a fabrication. The original CBS telecast cut immediately (and in retrospect, bafflingly) to the reaction of then Bulls coach Doug Collins; Jordan’s celebratory histrionics only surfaced later, in archival footage. If the NBA is to be believed, the popularized version ranks with the moon landing and JFK assassination among the great live moments in American television history; this redux has become our memory of something most of us, watching Coach Collins tear around our TV screens, never saw.

The Shot was featured among the NBA’s “Where Will Amazing Happen This Year?” spots during the 2009 playoffs — as was a LeBron James dunk, a Manu Ginobili layup, and an alley-oop to Andrei Kirilenko, each slowed down, flipped to black-and-white, and soundtracked like the sad parts from Amélie.

The spots were solemn, bursting with meaning, somehow both stark and expansive, saying nothing and everything about these players and the sport they played. To call the clips highlights would be misleading; apart from Dr. J’s staggering reverse layup, few were aesthetically or athletically “amazing.” Rather, taking the Shot as a blueprint, they served as shorthand for larger narratives — of teams, of individuals, of the game itself. The goal of the campaign was to station these moments firmly, proprietarily, as commercials for an NBA product. As the Association has manipulated the import of Jordan’s ‘89 game winner, so was this a perversion of nostalgia, wrenching moments out of context and playing them back as advertisements — effectively co-opting the personal experience of players and fans to reaffirm and sustain the NBA product. They also presented the potential for posterity as incentive to stay focused for all two and a half months of the playoffs: Don’t change that dial, the ads suggested; you might miss out on what we later decide is history.

Since the whole business self-referentially recognized the league as the locus of “Where Amazing Happens,” subsumed into this corporate agenda was the individual. Consider what the less blatantly commercial focus would have been had the choice of interrogatives been not “where” but “who.” Not only would celebrating the people who made these moments happen have rescued poor Manu and Andrei from the generic, stuff-of-history, NBA-sanctioned Jordan model, but it would have also acknowledged that the Association’s true organ of experience is much more human than what can be captured by a branding strategy.

The WWAHTY? campaign suggested that having experienced these scenes for yourself, awash in your own set of feelings, was secondary to the teleological packaging. But any fan’s enjoyment (or misery, or bafflement, or envy) is always colored by his or her own subjectivity. We bring to professional basketball, and project upon its athletes, our own hopes, desires, fears, anxieties, and (sure, failed) dreams. For the league to try and tell us which moments are definitive and epochal seems not only counterintuitive but ignorant of the two-part engine, far beyond the NBA executive, that drives the game in the first place: players and fans.

But there’s hope, a place where we find individualism — the “who” ignored by the league — rekindled, a place that reemphasizes the relationship between the great (and, occasionally, not-so-great) athletes of the NBA and those who obsess over them, a place that puts the power back in the hands of the people: YouTube.

It’s on YouTube that WWAHTY? has spawned a legion of imitators. In the same style and with the same background music, these homemade approximations reclaim the subjectivity ignored by that thoughtless campaign. Take, for example, DWade3TV’s version, which ends with “Where Will Amazing Happens [sic] This Year?” superimposed in Arial bold italics over Dwyane Wade celebrating a regular-season game winner. Similar DIY spots have been created for Vince Carter, Derrick Rose, Joe Johnson, Allen Iverson, and countless others who didn’t make the “official” cut but who do have legions of slighted fans who in turn have done something about it.

Much like the knock-off “Abibas” high-tops you might find in a Chennai market stall, there’s something wonderfully fallible and defiant about these clips when contrasted with the NBA’s slick production. And while it’s sometimes hard to tell when the irony is intentional and the defiance inadvertent, it mostly doesn’t matter. What’s most important is that YouTube affords fans a venue to curate what they, not the league, consider “Amazing.” Rather than having history defined from on high, this unauthorized alternative of who and what (and where) might be the only venue for this sort of agency. Most important, it serves as an archive of collective memory, a much more comprehensive document of what professional basketball means to its fans than the league’s various CliffsNotes versions.

Basketball is a sport of continuous motion, or unbroken action, of games that must be seen from the start for that final buzzer-beater to make you leap screaming off the couch or hang your head in disgrace and shame. But the era of the highlight, as with all similar packaging of real-world content, forever changed the way the NBA was consumed. SportsCenter, as a convenient example, has since its advent in 1980 made the summary of games a project of fragmentation, and viewers have come to accept this as a means of understanding what happened around the league on any given night. What summarizing games in snippets misses, of course, is all the tension and nuance of the original: We get the final score and the big plays but, regardless how hysterical the accompanying narration, none of the feeling of the game itself. That feeling is, of course, always subjective, and nothing that can be transmitted without the totality of all forty-eight minutes (and all those off-the-clock minutes in between). While it was surely just as emotionally riveting at the time, who besides the odd nostalgic Cavs fan remembers Craig Ehlo’s apparently series-clinching layup only seconds before Michael Jordan made the Shot? (Check it out on YouTube!)

But if fragmentation has become the process by which basketball is replayed, and so remembered, at least on YouTube what the game means to actual human beings, as opposed to the league or the networks, is being restored. Beyond the WWAHTY? rips, here fans celebrate and share not only the amazing, the remarkable, and the sublime, but also the banal and the ridiculous. It’s a long, long season, and maintaining engagement often means having to nerd-out on the details; what’s “Amazing” about the NBA, to many of us, certainly isn’t limited to its career-defining moments. There aren’t many of those, anyway, and the crystal-ball project of trying to identify them as they happen, without the value of hindsight, can be spurious, if not impossible. The Shot, after all, didn’t become the Shot until Michael Jordan the guard became Michael Jordan the ultimate triumphant megastar and the NBA decided it was the birth of a legend.

“Amazing,” for YouTube user marik1234, is “Nate Robinson breaks Jose Calderon’s ankles.” In this seventy-nine-second clip, Robinson sends poor, hapless Calderon flopping to the floor with a ruthless crossover, is fouled on the ensuing drive, and has his shot swatted away. It’s a dead play, without any of the narrative weight we associate with the Shot — and never the stuff, for myriad reasons, of a WWAHTY? commercial. Fifteen years ago it would have been forgotten, lost and deleted from the league’s official record. But marik1234 has ensured that the moment will live on — if not for eternity, at least long enough that a staggering 1.5 million viewers have watched the clip since its posting.

If that number is any indication, YouTube represents a new kind of communal mythmaking, one that resists the great dictatorial hegemony of the NBA administration in favor of something approaching democracy. Like any democracy, it’s flawed (unfettered access can make the site something of a crazy train), but taken as an archive, hoops-on-YouTube offers a much more comprehensive understanding of how the game is played, watched, and remembered than those limited moments sanctioned by the league. And, fittingly, each post mirrors the remarkable self-expression so prevalent in professional basketball: Think what we learn or can at least speculate about marik1234 from his post — every portrait is a portrait of the artist, after all.

There’s an assertion of autobiography, of stamping one’s existence onto the world, in any creative gesture — be it a Nate Robinson crossover or curating (appreciating, recording, editing, posting, sharing) that crossover for mass consumption. YouTube is about fans appreciating the game on their terms: It allows the masses to contribute to the larger narrative of the NBA beyond the league’s savvy marketing and even the players’ own attempts at self-definition. YouTube renders meaningless the whole “this broadcast may not be retransmitted” legalese, a fitting demonstration of the limits of the league’s jurisdiction over personalized experience, as well as how backward it is for a corporation to claim our game as their property. In a culture with increasingly fewer opportunities for the individual to trump the institution, YouTube has become a platform for fans to assert themselves and what they feel to be their personal relationships with the game and its players.

On one hand, YouTube represents an even more radical descent into pastiche, with seemingly random moments and insignificant games elevated to the same level as the ones that really made a difference. But if any official record of NBA games (or careers) is a fall from the paradise of fan subjectivity, then these bits and pieces become — however unwittingly — an attempt to restore the notion of individualized experience. After all, one fan’s insignificance is another’s “Nate Robinson breaks Jose Calderon’s ankles” — or “Nate Robinson breaks Steve Blake’s ankles,” or “Nate Robinson breaks ankles of a boy in an exhibition in Málaga.”

Who knows if YouTube will ever succeed in overthrowing its own ontology — there are scores of old games sitting on there, and none are as often viewed as the so-called mix tapes that abbreviate the careers of Clyde Drexler or Dominique Wilkins into a sequence of money shots, most of them dunks. However, what’s key isn’t that the wholeness of game-as-text be restored, but that the complexity and totality of the game’s emotional truths are creeping back into fandom, and that fans now have a venue to share them.

While, if the Shot is any indication, the NBA’s branding engine seems content to feed us an image we never saw as a way of remembering a moment that only gained significance in retrospect, at least the curations of marik1234 and his thousands of fellow archivists are helping create an alternate, potentially more honest record of the sport as it has always been played and consumed. And if fans continue to corrupt the league’s attempts at memorializing professional basketball — as they have with the WWAHTY? rips — YouTube will not only challenge, but possibly even replace, the “official” document of what moves, frustrates, confuses, and amazes us about the NBA.

Pasha Malla is the author of The Withdrawal Method (stories) and All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts (poems, sort of). His first novel, People Park, will be published in late 2011.

Reprinted from FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, published by Bloomsbury USA.

November 23 2010

17:00

Why spreadable doesn’t equal viral: A conversation with Henry Jenkins

For years, academic Henry Jenkins has been talking about the connections between mainstream content and user-produced content. From his post as the founder and former co-director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, Jenkins published Convergence Culture, which is about what happens when, as the book puts it, “old and new media collide.” It’s a tale of fan mashups and corporate reactions.

And now he’s back with a new catchphrase. If convergence culture was 2006, spreadable media is now. The argument: If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead. For things to live online, people have to share it socially. They also have to make it their own — which can be as participatory as just passing a YouTube clip on as a link or making a copycat video themselves.

But what does this mean for news? If news is growing more social, how does Jenkins’ notion of spreadability work for traditional media? And how can traditional media harness user energy to make content not just meaningful but also profitable?

These were some of the questions I had when I first heard the concept, which Jenkins and his collaborators first put out in a white paper in 2009. But I’ve had a chance to read the first few chapters of the book, due out in late 2011. Spreadable Media (coauthored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green) doesn’t mention traditional journalism. But as I’ve had a chance to work with Jenkins, who’s now a professor at USC, I wanted to see what spreadable media might mean for news. Here’s how Jenkins explained the idea’s implications for journalism in an email interview. Among the topics: why all journalists are citizen journalists, journalists and their possible conversations with audiences, paywalls, and most-emailed lists.

NU: What is spreadable media?

HJ: The concept of spreadable media rests on the distinction between distribution (the top-down spread of media content as captured in the broadcast paradigm) and circulation (a hybrid system where content spreads as a result of a series of informal transactions between commercial and noncommercial participants.) Spreadable media is media which travels across media platforms at least in part because the people take it in their own hands and share it with their social networks.

This kind of informal circulation may be solicited or at least accepted by media producers as part of the normal way of doing business or it may take forms which get labeled piracy. Either way, the widespread circulation of media content through the conscious actions of dispersed networks of consumer/participants tends to create greater visibility and awareness as the content travels in unpredicted directions and encounters people who are potentially interested in further engagements with the people who produced it.

So, at its heart, our book is interested in the value being generated through this grassroots circulation and how various sectors of the media industry are being reconfigured in order to accept the help of grassroots intermediaries who help expand their reach to the public. Along the way, we dissect many of the myths about how media circulates and how value gets generated in the digital era.

NU: How does spreadable media relate to your term convergence culture?

HJ: Convergence culture starts by rejection of the technologically focused definition of convergence as the integration of media functions within a single media device — the magic black box — in favor of one which stresses the flow of media content across multiple media channels. Certainly the rise of the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, have made the magical black box much closer to reality now than it was when I wrote Convergence Culture, but I would say we’ve had much more experiencing living in a convergence culture than living with convergence devices. We live at a moment where every story, image, or bit of information will travel across every available media platform either through decisions made in corporate bedrooms or decisions made in consumers’ living rooms.

The book outlined what this means for entertainment, branding, education, politics, and religion, placing a strong emphasis on what I call participatory culture. Citizen journalism is the application of participatory culture to the news sector but similar kinds of trends are impacting each of these other spaces where media gets produced and distributed. The emphasis in that book though is on participation in the form of cultural production — people creating videos, writing fan fiction, and otherwise generating their own media.

Spreadable Media takes the convergence culture context as given. We are now half a decade deeper into the trends the first book describes. Since the book was published, we’ve seen the expansion of mobile communication, social network sites, Web 2.0, and the rise and fall of Second Life, all extending our understanding of participatory culture and transmedia communication. So, what are the consequences of those shifts to how information, brands, and media content circulates? We certainly are still interested in participatory models of cultural production but we are now much more interested in acts of curration and circulation, which on both an individual and aggregated level, are impacting the communication environment.

NU: Let’s talk specifically about what spreadable media might mean for news. What are your thoughts on the way the news industry might make sense of this concept?

HJ: A central idea animating the book is “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” There is a constant tension at this moment of media transition between wanting to lock down content and meter access on the one hand (a model based on “stickiness”) and wanting to empower consumers to help spread the word (a model based on “spreadability.”) We can see that tension in terms of the desire to gate access to news content and the mechanisms of spreading which characterize Twitter and blogs. Journalists have long embraced a central idea in this book — that content represents a resource which community use to talk amongst themselves. Journalists need to know how they fit into those circuits.

In the book’s opening chapter, I reflect on the role of Twitter in the aftermath of the Iranian elections. I argue that its central role was not in helping to organize the protests but rather in getting information about what was happening to the outside world and to increase people’s emotional engagement with it. Twitter stepped in to bring what was happening in the streets of Tehran closer to people in the west — with key roles played by the Iranian diaspora in the United States and Europe who helped to facilitate the circulation of this information. The general American public felt greater closeness to the people in Iran because they were learning about these events through the same tools as they used to share cute cat pictures with their friends. And they felt a greater investment in what was happening because they were actively helping to alert others about the events.

As this unfiltered information was flowing through Twitter, those on the social networks started putting pressure on news agencies to provide more cover. You could imagine Twitter as a self-contained news system, but the opposite happened: they used #cnnfail because they wanted the skills and resources that professional journalists could bring to the process. They were signaling how much they still relied on legacy media to sort through the pieces and help provide a context for the information being circulated. While it was framed as a critique of journalism, it was actually a call for help. News organizations need to be more alert in registering these signs of public interests and more nimble in responding to them.

NU: Are bloggers an example of people experimenting with media spreadability? What do we do for news organizations who want to bring all of that user engagement and monetize it?

HJ: We’ve long known that news stories generate conversations that people cut out news articles to put on bulletin boards and refrigerators, that we clip news stories and send them to friends. This happened in a pre-digital world and it happens now with more speed and scope thanks to the affordances of digital networking tools.

Blogs originated as a tool for sharing links; Twitter is now used extensively to share links with other consumers. News sites which prevent the sharing of such content amongst readers may look like ways to protect the commercial interest of that content, but in fact, they kill it, destroying its value as a cultural resource within networked communities, and insuring that the public will look elsewhere for news that can be spread.

In the book, we use the example of how the Susan Boyle video moved through the blog community, being situated into a range of different ongoing conversations wherever she was relevant — with science blogs talking about her vocal cords, church blogs organizing prayer groups, mommy blogs dealing with her role as a caretaker for her elderly mother, music blogs discussing her song choices, and fashion blogs talking about her make-over for the show. Every news story today spreads through these grassroots intermediaries and gets inserted into various conversations across a range of different communities. The better journalists understand how value gets created through this process, the more effective they will be both at serving their ever more diverse constituencies and at developing a business model which allows them to capture value through circulation.

NU: You say in your white paper and current drafts of the book that content that users can’t manipulate and whose intellectual property is controlled by organizations will be the least likely to spread. That seems to describe a typical news article, and maybe a typical news organization. How can news organizations make their content more spreadable?

HJ: Spreadability is partially about technical affordances. YouTube videos spread well because they allow users to embed them on their blogs and Facebook profiles. At the same time, the embedded video’s interface makes it easy for us to follow it back to its original context on YouTube. It is content which is designed to be spread.

Spreadability is also about social relations with consumers. Many of those who create spreadable content actively encourage readers to spread their materials, often directly courting them as participants in the process of distribution. We are certainly seeing news sites right now — Slashdot comes to mind — which encourage readers to gather and appraise content, but far fewer are encouraging us to help create awareness through actively circulating their content.

It is interesting to think about groups which have a strong investment in seeing content spread and a lower investment in controlling its distribution. Think about political campaigns with low budgets who want to maximize their reach to voters. Think about religious media who place a higher value on spreading the gospel than monetizing the circulation of information. Think of activist groups who want to reach beyond their core group of supporters. In each case, they build in direct appeals to their fans to help them spread the content rather than constructing prohibitions on grassroots circulation.

Right now, news organizations are caught between their civic mission — to meet the information needs of their communities and their economic needs — to stay in business long enough to serve their publics.

NU: What does spreadable media mean to the conversations journalists need to have with their audiences?

HJ: As information spreads, it gets inserted into a range of conversations which help people to process the information and understand its value for them as members of a community. In the book, Sam Ford, my co-author, draws on his experience in the PR world to talk about companies who actively listen to and respond to what their consumers say about them. He argues that the conversations seeded by spreadable media are much richer ways to monitor public response than narrowly structured focus groups. And he cites some examples of companies which identified problems in their customer relations and rectified them as a result of listening closely to what consumers said about them.

Newspapers have historically relied on letters to the editor to perform some of these functions, but this focuses only on those groups who seek to influence directly their editorial decisions, while there are other things a news organization might learn by actively listening to conversation people are having around and through the circulation of their content.

NU: Spreadable media seems to be a reaction to the idea that things are viral and that people have no agency. But doesn’t the whole idea of viral mean that people are actually taking action to share something? Don’t we want our news stories to be most-emailed and our videos to be viral?

HJ: Very much so. Viral media asks some of the same questions we are asking, having to do with how media content circulates through grassroots communities outside the direct control of the people who originates it. But the language of viral media mystifies how this process works. Many talk as if things just happened to “go viral” when they have no way to explain how or why the content has grabbed the public imagination. Other framings of “viral media” strip away the agency of the very communities whose circulation of the content they want to explain. It is a kind of smallpox-soaked blanket theory of media circulation, in which people become unknowing carriers of powerful and contagious ideas which they bring back to their homes and work place, infecting their friends and family.

Our work starts from the idea that people are making conscious decisions to aid the circulation of certain content because they see it as a meaningful contribution to their ongoing conversations, a gift which they can share with people they care about. As they circulate this content, they first are playing key roles in appraising its value at a time of exploding media options; they also help to frame the content, helping it to fit better into the ongoing social interactions; they may also build upon, appropriate, transform, and remix the content further extending its shelf life and enabling its broader circulation.

NU: One of the things I found most fascinating about your current exploration was your distinction between ordinary Internet users, who operate according to the gift economy, and media companies that operate according to market logic. Can you explain?

HJ: Basically, spreadable media moves between commercial and noncommercial economies. For the producer, the content may be a commodity or a promotion; for the consumer, it is a resource or a gift. The producer is appraising the transaction based on its economic value. While the consumer makes a decision about whether the price is too high for the value of the content, they are also making decisions based on the social or sentimental value of the content. When they pass that content along to their friends, they do so because they value their friends far more than because they want to promote the economic interests of producers. When they consume media, they often do so so that they have currency they need in the social interactions we have around media.

Media producers need to understand the set of values and transactions which shape how their media flows in order to understand when and how it is appropriate to monetize the activities of their consumers. We are used to transforming commodities into gifts. We do it every time we go to a store to buy a bottle of wine to a dinner party. We bought it as a commodity, we give it as a gift, and the moment of transformation comes when we remove the price tag. We need to better understand the same transformation as consumers take content from commercial sites and circulate it via Twitter or Facebook to their communities.

NU: If you had to project, what might this mean for user-generated content? And what happens when we start putting paywalls up on sites?

HJ: In the case of news, we might think about many different types of user-generated content. Often, we are talking about the citizen as reporter (especially in the case of hyperlocal news), producing content which can be uploaded to news sites. We might also think about the citizen as editor, determining which news matters to their community and passing it along in a more targeted way to their friends. We might think about the citizen as commentator, who responds to the news through what they write on their blogs or updates. We might think of these media as amplifying their role as consumers, allowing them to more fully express demands for what should get more coverage, as occurred in the #cnnfail debates after the Iranian elections.

Right now, we dump all of this into a box called “citizen journalism,” which is in its own way as misleading as categories like “viral media.” We might start from the fact that journalists are themselves citizens, or that these groups are doing many things through their sharing of news, only some of which should be understood as producing journalism. Focusing on citizen journalism results in an oppositional framing of blogging as competing with professional news production. Spreadable media would push us to think about journalists and bloggers as each making a range of contributions through their participation in a larger civic ecology.

NU: And finally: How many people do you expect to actually engage in making media mashups? I see more people watching Auto-Tune the News mashup videos on YouTube than making their own media out of existing media.

HJ: Our book makes the point that there are many different forms of participation, some requiring more skills, more technical access, more community engagement than others. Spectacular forms of grassroots cultural production rest on one end of a continuum of different forms of community participation. So some people certainly will be mashing up the news, just as they are remixing songs, films, and television shows. And we can point to many exciting examples of political remix videos which emerge from people’s engagement with news and commentary — think about the recent mashup of Donald Duck and Glenn Beck.

But many more people will help to shape their news by appraising its value and passing it along to specific people or groups who they think will be interested in it. We all probably have friends or relatives who mostly communicate through forwarding things. They may or may not be exerting great selectivity in their curatorial roles, but they are helping to insure the circulation of that information. More people in the future will be engaging with news on that level and their acts of circulation will play a larger role in shaping the flow of information across the culture.

Photo by Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

May 04 2010

08:36

Data journalism pt5: Mashing data (comments wanted)

This is a draft from a book chapter on data journalism (part 1 looks at finding data; part 2 at interrogating datapart 3 at visualisation, and 4 at visualisation tools). I’d really appreciate any additions or comments you can make – particularly around tips and tools.

Mashing data

Wikipedia defines a mashup particularly succinctly, as “a web page or application that uses or combines data or functionality from two or many more external sources to create a new service.” Those sources may be online spreadsheets or tables; maps; RSS feeds (which could be anything from Twitter tweets, blog posts or news articles to images, video, audio or search results); or anything else which is structured enough to ‘match’ against another source.

This ‘match’ is typically what makes a mashup. It might be matching a city mentioned in a news article against the same city in a map; or it may be matching the name of an author with that same name in the tags of a photo; or matching the search results for ‘earthquake’ from a number of different sources. The results can be useful to you as a journalist, to the user, or both.

Why make a mashup?

Mashups can be particularly useful in providing live coverage of a particular event or ongoing issue – mashing images from a protest march, for example, against a map. Creating a mashup online is not too dissimilar from how, in broadcast journalism, you might set up cameras at key points around a physical location in anticipation of an event from which you will later ‘pull’ live feeds: in a mashup you are effectively doing exactly the same thing – only in a virtual space rather than a physical one. So, instead of setting up a feed at the corner of an important junction, you might decide to pull a feed from Flickr of any images that are tagged with the words ‘protest’ and ‘anti-fascist’.

Some web developers have built entire sites that are mashups. Twazzup (twazzup.com) for example, will show you a mix of Twitter tweets, images from Flickr, news updates and websites – all based on the search term you enter. And Friendfeed (friendfeed.com) pulls in data that you and your social circle post to a range of social networking sites, and displays them in one place.

Mashups also provide a different way for users to interact with content – either by choosing how to navigate (for instance by using a map), or by inviting them to input something (for instance, a search term, or selecting a point on a slider). The Super Tuesday YouTube/Google Maps mashup, for instance, provided an at-a-glance overview of what election-related videos were being uploaded where across the US.

Finally, mashups offer an opportunity for juxtaposing different datasets to provide fresh, sometimes ongoing, insights. The MySociety/Channel 4 project Mapumental, for example, combines house price data with travel information and data on the ’scenicness’ of different locations to provide an interactive map of a location which the user can interrogate based on their individual preferences.

Mashup tools

Like so many aspects of online journalism, the ease with which you can create a mashup has increased significantly in recent years. An increase in the number and power of online tools, combined with the increasing ‘mashability’ of websites and data, mean that journalists can now create a basic mashup through the simple procedures of drag-and-drop or copy-and-paste.

A simple RSS mashup, which combines the feeds from a number of different sources into one, for example, can now be created using an RSS aggregator such as xFruits (xfruits.com) or Jumbra (jumbra.com).

Likewise, you can mix two maps together using the website MapTube (maptube.org) which also contains a number of maps for you to play with.

And if you want to mix two sources of data into one visualisation the site DataMasher (datamasher.org) will let you do that – although you’ll have to make do with the US data that the site provides. Google Public Data Explorer (google.com/publicdata) is a similar tool which allows you to play with global data.

But perhaps the most useful tool for news mashups is Yahoo! Pipes (pipes.yahoo.com).

Yahoo! Pipes allows you to choose a source of data – it might be an RSS feed, an online spreadsheet or something that the user will input – and do a variety of things with it. Here are just some of the basic things you might do:

  • Add it to other sources
  • Combine it with other sources – for instance, matching images to text
  • Filter it
  • Count it
  • Annotate it
  • Translate it
  • Create a gallery from the results
  • Place results on a map

You could write a whole book on how to use Yahoo! Pipes – indeed, people have – so we will not cover the practicalities of using all of those features here. There are also dozens of websites and help files devoted to the site (which you should explore). Below, however, is a short tutorial to introduce you to the website and how it works – this is a good way to understand how basic mashups work, and how easily they can be created.

Mashups and APIs

Although there are a number of easy-to-use mashup creators listed above, really impressive mashups tend to be written by people with knowledge of programming languages, and use APIs. APIs (Application Programming Interface) allow websites to interact with other websites. The launch of the Google Maps API in 2005, for example, has been described as a ‘huge tipping point’ in mashup history (Duvander, 2008) as it allowed web developers to ‘mash’ countless other sources of data with maps. Since then it has become commonplace for new websites, particularly in the social media arena, to launch their own APIs in order to allow web developers to do interesting things with their feeds and data – not just mashups, but applications and services too.

If you want to develop a particularly ambitious mashup it is likely that you will need to teach yourself some programming skills, and familiarise yourself with some APIs (the APIs of Twitter, Google Maps and Flickr are good places to start).

Box-out: Anatomy of a feed

The image below from ReadWriteWeb shows the code behind a simple Twitter update. It includes information about the author, their location, whether the update was a reply to someone else, what time and where it was created, and lots more besides. Each of these values can be used by a mashup in various ways – for example, you might match the author of this tweet with the author of a blog or image; you might match its time against other things being published at that moment; or you might use their location to plot this update on a map.

While the code can be intimidating, you do not need to understand programming in order to be able to do things with it. Of course, it will help if you do…

Anatomy of a Twitter feed

March 12 2010

07:53

Online Journalism lesson #10: RSS and mashups

This was the final session in my undergraduate Online Journalism module (the other classes can be found here), taught last May. It’s a relatively brief presentation, just covering some of the possibilities of mashups and RSS, and some tools. The majority of the class is taken up with students using Yahoo! Pipes to aggregate a number of feeds.

I didn’t know how students would cope with Yahoo! Pipes but, surprisingly, every one completed the task.

As a side note, this year I kicked off the module with students setting up Twitter, Delicious and Google Reader – and synchronising them, so the RSS feed from one could update another (e.g. bookmarks being published to Twitter). This seems to have built a stronger understanding of RSS in the group, which they are able to apply elsewhere (they also have widgets on their blogs pulling the RSS feeds from Twitter & Delicious; and their profile page on the news website – built by Kasper Sorensen – pulls the latest updates from their Twitter, Delicious and blog feeds).

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