Posted by & filed under IT & the Internet, March 5 2007.

Following on from my post ‘Why I love Google Maps‘, the data from the Google Maps service is also very commonly used to create ‘mashups‘. This is becoming a fashionable term for commentators to bandy about when talking about interesting new websites, in much the same way as the label ‘web 2.0′. Unlike ‘web 2.0 ‘ however, the term mashups has a strict definition, involving combining data from disparate, unconnected sources on the internet, into an original format that adds value in the way that the data is combined and presented (graphically in the case of Google Maps), is something that is new, and is perhaps something that the original generators of the data did not envisage it being used for. Having data that is freely available through internet-based interfaces that are adequately defined is of course a prerequisite for this.

I have seen some people call any interesting new website that has a map on it a mashup but it is the original combination of data that really marks out a mapping website as a mashup. There are examples from my website that fit this definition and use the Google Maps API to create webpages that display GPS data (such as waypoints and tracks) that I have collected, and some of my digital photograph images, onto Google Maps mapping data.

As for ‘web 2.0′, this is a term I’ve come to despise due to its vagueness, emptiness and virus-like ability to infect any discussions about Internet technologies. It’s used by many people to indicate that they somehow have their finger on the pulse when it comes to current trends on the Internet, but if you ask them to define exactly what they mean by categorising a particular web-based application as being ‘web 2.0′, each person will give you a different answer.

Every new website that is talked about in the news, such as Wikipedia, Second Life, MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr are all apparently ‘web 2.0′, even though they employ different technologies and offer entirely different functionality and features (innovative and popular though they may be) from each other. Blogs, podcasts and RSS are often thrown in as well for good measure.

The idea that these websites are offering something so new (because they are interactive and allow users to contribute to the content of these websites and create a virtual ‘community’) that they constitute an entirely new generation of the Web (hence the ’2.0′), is just plain wrong. Web-based discussion forums have been around since 1995, and the previous incarnation of these, the Internet-based bulletin boards, even earlier. Websites allowing users to comment on products that are bought and sold (Amazon and eBay) have been around since the mid-90s also.

These new websites and technologies represent the evolution of the Web, not a new incarnation of it, and giving them a label that somehow marks them out as special or distinct merely adds to misunderstanding.

I have even seen a website referred to as being ‘web 2.0′ merely because the HTML of one the website pages contained a link to an MPEG file. Hyperlinks, URLs and video media files have always been cornerstones of the World Wide Web (which is not the same thing as the ‘Internet‘; more terms that need informed usage), since it was born at CERN in the early 90s, so to regard this as something groundbreaking and ‘web 2.0′ is truly indicative of the empty nature of this term and shows up the folly of its attractiveness to people who have little concept of the technologies underpinning the web but who nonetheless wish to appear trendy and informed when discussing it.

Language and terminology that is a slave to fashion, hides lazy thought and is without definition is a true enemy of software engineering. The term ‘web 2.0′ is from the same stable of business-speak that gives us ‘synergy’ and ‘paradigm’ and cannot be used by project managers to define the goals of a software engineering project; to do so will not only ensure the inevitable failure of that project, but also the derision of any software engineers unfortunate enough to be tasked with converting such drivel into practical reality.

Even terms like ‘portals’ and ‘web services’ which were once touted as the next best thing, the way of the future, and what software engineers should be spending their time on, are now considered passé, despite these terms having much more meaning, coherence and universally-agreed technical definitions than ‘web 2.0′

Recently JISC produced a report on this subject entitled ‘What is Web 2.0′, which hopefully may inform matters somewhat; at least it may generate some common ground for UK academia when it comes to discussing the latest technical developments on the Internet, even if the rest of the world will argue about ‘web 2.0′ until the next media-friendly buzzword comes along.

If that isn’t enough for you, then this quote from Tim Berners-Lee might be:

“…I think Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means.”
Full interview transcript here.

3 Responses to “What ‘mashups’ are exactly, and why I hate the term ‘web 2.0?”

  1. Lesley

    Oh aye. This is just another of the “management speak” examples that fills my daily life, and the lives of my friends. One friend just emailed me to tell me that her work now refers to work that needs done as ‘stories’, the time it takes to do that work as ‘velocity’ and “now they have started banging on about looking at the high-level ‘smells’ to ensure that they are concentrating on the right ‘smells’.”



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