Mashup Camp

Today I attended Mashup Camp in Cambridge, just around the corner from MIT. I went not expecting too much. I came away thoroughly impressed.

What is it? Mashup Camp = mashup + camp. Both parts are worth a digression. So:

1. What is a mashup? A mashup happens when you add new and sometimes startling value to someone else’s work. Because of this, doing mashups can get you in trouble with the authorities. Marcel Duchamp, who decorated the Mona Lisa’s face, was a champion masher-upper and troublemaker. Mashups are inherently derivative, but they can also be exceptionally inventive. If you spend much time thinking about it, you realize that mashing up is what all of us, farmers and artists alike, are doing all the time. Moaning about originality and the sins of derivation is a waste a breath. The marvelous thing that’s happening right now on the web is that mashups are finally getting the admiration and respect they have deserved all along. This is not small matter of internet culture. This is a fact of great significance for human culture.

2. Why the word “camp”? Camp in this context implies that this is an unconference. The salient feature of an unconference is that there is no pre-planned schedule. The attendees make it up during the opening session by signing up for hour-long slots in the master schedule. The final schedule that emerges in a few improvised minutes is every bit as good as one that went through hours of tedious revision in the yearlong run-up to a typical conference. The canonical observation about a typical conference is that the most interesting parts happen outside of, and often in spite of, the official schedule. This exposes a remarkable asymmetry: much of the tedium associated with planning a conference adds no value. An improvised schedule has a number of benefits (accuracy, currency, adaptiveness), but by far the most important is the energizing nature of active participation. Nothing is fixed in fatalistic preprinted timetables. If you don’t stand up and speak right now, you won’t be heard. Speak!

I let myself dwell on the abstract benefits of Mashup Camp, but the particulars were excellent. The Hotel@MIT was a good location, and the steady hand of seasoned conference leaders David Berlind and Kaliya Hamlin was much appreciated. Finally, if you’ve read all this way and you’re still wondering what the hell a real web mashup actually looks like, the best place to go is John Musser’s Programmable Web, a web site devoted to mashups. Take a look at HousingMaps, a site that famously mashes together Craigslist and Google Maps. Also see John Musser’s coverage of the particulars of Mashup Camp on his blog.