The Mash-Up: A New Archetype for Communication

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<ul><li><p>Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication</p><p>Special Section</p><p>The Mash-Up: A New Archetype forCommunication</p><p>Michele H. JacksonUniversity of Colorado, Department of Communication</p><p>doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2009.01463.x</p><p>In 2007, Gartner, Inc. identified mash-ups as one of the top 10 strategic technolo-gies for 2008 ( The word had onlymade it to the Oxford English Dictionary the year before ( As I write this in August 2008, mash-up onGoogle returns over 19 million hits. Wikipedia (which I use here intentionally) has 4different articles for mash-up,</p><p> Mashup (digital), a digital media file containing any or all of text, graphics, audio,video, and animation, which recombines and modifies existing digital works tocreate a derivative work.</p><p> Mashup (music), the musical genre encompassing songs which consist entirelyof parts of other songs</p><p> Mashup (video), a video that is edited frommore than one source to appear as one Mashup (web application hybrid), a web application that combines data and/or</p><p>functionality frommore than one source (</p><p>Mash-ups are communicative forms whose essential character is that they arecompositions, combinations, assimilations, and appropriations of things that alreadyexist to create somethingand this is crucial that need show no allegiance or evenconnection to those original works. Mash-ups are not montages or summaries. Theyare forms of communication that dependcruciallyon unceasing transformationand accumulation of communication acts and interaction into data.</p><p>I usedata very specifically here to refer todecontextualized communication events;that is, communication removed from any connection to a particular space and time.First, it is captured and (if not originally so) converted to a digital form. These accu-mulate in databases as independent, discrete records. The growth of these databases ismind-boggling. As I write this essay in the summer of 2008, Youtube takes in 60 hoursof video every real-time hour. Google has indexed its one trillionth web page.</p><p>730 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 14 (2009) 730734 2009 International Communication Association</p></li><li><p>Not only can records in a database be shuffled, arranged, and otherwise sorted,they can be further articulated through metadata, or tagging, in which people orcomputer programs (such as bots or crawlers) attach descriptions, categories, andmeanings to a record. Tags are changeable and ephemeral, creating a sense of contextas highly configurable. For example, users of Zoho writer (,after signing in, are presented with an introductory message that includes this:</p><p>Get the best of both worlds. Tags are the new folders. Not sure whether you wantto put a document in the Sales or Marketing folder? Thats where tags-as-folderscome in. Make the document available in both the folders! Now, isnt that cool?</p><p>Locating themeaning of data outside of the data itself (metadata), poses interestingchallenges for understanding the concept of meaning itself. As communicationscholars, how do we make sense of an environment in which meaning is aggregative,cumulative, and easily configured?</p><p>In 2007, I suggested that these changes to the architecture of the internetwould occasion fundamental changes to our communication environment,creating the potential for new communication forms (Jackson, 2007 DOI10.1080/03637750701543543). The environment, I argue, makes communicationfluid, disconnected from space and time, particularly the space and time of its origin.More deeply, the transformation of communication into data means that events donot have any particular traces ofmeaning generated from a history or sequence of use.</p><p>A data-based infrastructure is an important contrast to the significantdevelopments in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in which the rapid expansionof broadband and high-speed networks made possible the near instantaneousspread of information and communication, particularly through channel-centeredapplications such as e-mail, discussion lists, chat rooms, and bulletin boards.Online communication certainly propagates from context to context in a fast andunpredictable fashion (often termed viral). Yet, it does so in a chain still possessingsequence and history that could be traced and mapped. In any such sequence is alogic that can be unpacked, and that makes questions of origin meaningful. Also,in such a sequence is a sense of information transmittedblazingly fast, to besureyet still moved from place to place. For example, consider this account of viralcommunication during the first days of the 2008 Olympics:</p><p>[M]ore adept reporters are beginning to realize that the Web is not just a way tobroadcast news, it is a great way to assemble it as well.On Saturday, Mr. Stelters wonderful article in The New York Times on howpeople were working around the blackout on the Olympic ceremony began as apost on Twitter seeking consumer experiences, then jumped onto his blog, TVDecoder, caught the attention of editors who wanted it expanded for thenewspaper, and ended up on Page One, jammed with insight and with plenty ofexamples from real human experience.</p><p>Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 14 (2009) 730734 2009 International Communication Association 731</p></li><li><p>How much more powerful is that networked intelligence than a reporter with aphone, a Rolodex and the space between his or her ears? (;oref=slogin)</p><p>Without a doubt, this networked environment facilitates communication in waysthat were unthinkable only a few years ago. The sensibility of networks is strongwithin communication studies, no less because of its affinity to traditional ways oftheorizing communication. As communication scholars, it is easy to see here thecommunication as transmission model operating in captivating ways.</p><p>However, it is important to be clear that the technology Im talking aboutis not about networks and connection. Databases are different. They are aboutdisconnection. Databases remove the interactions/information/resources we view asconstituting communication from any context (especially the context in whichthey were produced), and stores them in a contextless state (meaning to be outside oftime, space, or relationships), until accessed and appropriated into a configurationthat need not have any connection whatsoever to their original use. Communication,I argue, takes on a new kind of mobility, one in which it is protean and promiscuous(Jackson, 2007).</p><p>Mash-ups are the resulting communicative form in this new data-basedenvironment. Mash-ups appropriate data generated in other contexts, without anynecessary concern for those contexts. Even further, data are typically decomposedinto elements small, discrete elements: a single photo, a paragraph, an image, a soundbite, a phrase. The partitioning may or may not have any discernible logic to it. Thatis, digitization enables communication to be sliced into smaller and smaller pieces,each of these then decontextualized, stored, and reappropriated as a new need arises.Mash-ups reflect a flattened sense of communication, in which all of our accumulatedexperiences are, as Heidegger (1977) would say, present-at-hand.</p><p>Our devices enable the capturing and accumulation of communication as data.For years, we have moved great stores of information online in every aspect of ourlives: memos, letters, and other correspondence, news stories, medical information,government forms, political elections. Google groups interact, bloggers self-disclose.An interesting and, I argue, tremendously important turn in the latter part of thisdecade is toward capturing and recording the stream of lived experience, both thespecial and the mundane. This started with life-logging in the first part of thedecade. Life-loggers wore cameras and microphones, recording every moment oftheir existence. Lightweight versions of life-logging powered by the acceptance ofsocial networking applications are now entering themainstream. Consider Twitter,an emerging internet application gainingmomentum in 2008. TheTwitter FAQoffersthe following description:</p><p>What is it?Twitter is a service for friends, family, and coworkers to communicate and stayconnected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simplequestion:What are you doing? Bloggers can use it as a miniblogging tool.</p><p>732 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 14 (2009) 730734 2009 International Communication Association</p></li><li><p>Developers can use the API to make Twitter tools of their own. Possibilities areendless!How do I use it?Tell us what youre doing in 140 characters or less! Send your thoughts,observations, and goings-on in your day. Whether youre eating an apple orlooking foward [sic] to the weekend or Heading out of town itstwitter-worthy. Join us here. All of your personal information including yourphone number is, of course, confidential. (;id=26)</p><p>Twitter is the lightweight, text-based version of life-logging. Bit by mundane bit,experience is captured, and accumulated into data, into 140-character records. Eachof these bits is stored, easily sorted and filtered, entered and accessed by devicesthat are literally at-hand such as cell phones. The experiences of entire lives arecaptured, retrievable, and reconfigurable.</p><p>Effective communication in the data-based environment requires ready accessto data from multiple devices, efficient means of identifying relevant data, andapplications that configure data seamlessly into a new form. The reference to theAPI in Twitters FAQ is particularly important here. An API is an ApplicationProgramming Interface, a tool that allows web applications to interface with oneanother, sometimes referred to as widgets. APIs are the gateways into databases,and the building block for mash-ups, enabling a developer to access, add, retrieve,and configure database records someone else has accumulated, for new purposes.One blogger describes the situation aptly:</p><p>2007 has been named by BusinessWeek as the year of the widget. Widgets aresmall embeddable components that can seamlessly integrate on third-party sitesand can deliver content from beyond the realm of the site. To help users createwidgets, a growing number of companies out there are developing mashupbuilding tools. (</p><p>For large databases, providing an API has significant implications. ConsiderFacebooks 2007 decision to provide an API, effectively providing developers accessto the data generated (or potentially generated) by 90 million users.</p><p>If the raw material for communication is captured, decontextualized, digitized,decomposed interaction and lived experience, the processes of communication arecomposition and configuration. Communication is, literally, a constitutive process.The possibilities for communication scholarship are exciting. We will need tointerrogate our assumptions about the relationship between communication andcontext. Concepts core to the transmission modelall of which take for grantedcontext as a meaningful backdrop to communicationwill need to be rethought,augmented, or replaced as mash-ups disrupt assumptions of channel, source, andaccuracy (accountability to an original meaning). Newer questions will emerge,</p><p>Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 14 (2009) 730734 2009 International Communication Association 733</p></li><li><p>causing us to reflect on and theorize the work that is done to create context, the waysin which time and space are given meaning. How do we live in-the-moment in anenvironment that gives use the opportunity and the responsibility to configure themoment?</p><p>References</p><p>Heidegger, M. (1977). The question concerning technology and other essays. New York: Harper</p><p>&amp; Row.</p><p>Jackson, M. H. (2007). Fluidity, promiscuity, and mash-ups: New concepts for the study of</p><p>mobility and communication. Communication Monographs, 74, 408413.</p><p>Author Biography</p><p>Michele H. Jackson is associate professor and chair of the Department ofCommunication at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has long ago come toterms with the fact that digital communication technologies tend to not stick aroundfor very long in any one form, even when they seemed like good ideas at the time.For the past several years, she has focused on (1) design of applications to motivatecollaboration, (2) interrogating the social function of determinism in organizationsand groups, and (3) theorizing how we socially construct communication within atechnologically induced context of indeterminacy and change.</p><p>734 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 14 (2009) 730734 2009 International Communication Association</p></li></ul>