Mixtapes and Mashups

Remembering Analogue

 “I’ll make you a mixtape that’s a blueprint of my soul” – Mixtape by Jamie Cullum from the album The Pursuit

For people of a certain age (i.e. mine)  the mixtape brings back fond memories of afternoons and evenings of teenage ennui banished by curating the perfect combination of songs and getting them to fit exactly onto a side of audio tape then neatly lettering the track names onto the case’s cardboard insert.  Even if you didn’t create music you could now curate it thanks to cassette recorders and mass produced audiotape (and only a vague appreciation of copyright). As Jamie Cullum sings, by combining songs together into your perfect playlist ordinary people could sit in their homes and use music to tell their story or express their message and it was great.  No longer just a passive consumer of music there was the opportunity to participate in the reordering of songs.  For my generation it will always be mixtape not the playlist even as they moved to CDs and then the web.

Remixing the Web

A similar shift from a static, published model to a participatory, dynamic model emerged on the web about ten years into the popular adoption of the Web around 2004/2005.  This is now commonly referred to as Web 2.0 after the versioning conventions usually applied to software releases.  This is rather ironic as the whole point about Web 2.0 is it wasn’t a top-down, packaged product but an emergent web culture that favoured user participation, dynamic applications over static web sites, spreadable and shareable content, openness and engagement.  It encouraged the shift from web sites as published document to web sites as  interactive applications assembled  by combining content with functionality.  Furthermore both this content and functionality were exposed via web services.  Hybrid applications can then be created that combine content and functionality from more than one web site using web services.  These remixed applications are often called ‘mashups‘.

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One common type of web service are application programming interfaces (APIs) that give external users and developers an exposed view of the pieces of data and function used to build a web application.  This deliberately, intentionally and securely allows others to take any of that exposed content and use any of the provided functions and reuse it in another application as long as the reuse meets any licence restrictions of terms of use.  These tend to require some programming knowledge to use and provide content in two common formats: Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Javascript Object Notation (JSON).

There are many great examples of APIs and mashups.  There is a huge directory at the Programmable Web featuring examples such as this health map which is being used to track Ebola.  There are plenty of APIs in the library world.  OCLC provide access to much of their data via several services and there are more library related APIs at Library Hacked along with examples of applications.  The image for the above presentation was created by stripping the structure of my personal website using RSS and then representing that structure as human DNA at the Web2DNA Art Project.  The possibilities are endless limited as much by our imagination and ethics as technology.


Another form of reuse is embedding.  This requires less technical knowledge than an API and is where a web application provides users with code they can easily copy and paste into another web site, for example a blog post, to embed content that is then provided via the originating web application’s API when the published page is viewed.

WordPress.com, the platform used for this blog, provides a further layer of mashup support through it’s library of shortcodes.  As they describe it

A shortcode is a WordPress-specific code that lets you do nifty things with very little effort. Shortcodes can embed files or create objects that would normally require lots of complicated, ugly code in just one line. Shortcode = shortcut.

Embedding code and shortcode have been used to provide insert the various embedded media in this post from: Spotify, Presentations, Google Docs, TED Talks and Twitter.  Creating this post has been like creating a mixtape only by using multimedia not just audio and pulling it from all over the web.  This is a diagram showing how I can do this thanks to open data, freed and protected by reuse licensing, and interoperable web services:

Possibly The Best Mixtape Ever

As I digested all this on the train home I decided to listen to a Ted Talk.  Flipping through my podcasts I found an old one on my phone I hadn’t got around to watching.  It was clearly waiting for this day because it fit perfectly.

Rives is a performance artist who has been described as a Web 2.0 poet.  In this talk he described the mystery and serendipity of four in the morning.  How it spoke to him through a poem, how he began seeing it everywhere, how he ended up with a crowdsourced hobby he didn’t know he had, how he “got my curator on” and started collecting and archiving references to four in the morning and turned it into a digital mashup for cultural magpies called the museum of four in the morning.

Best of all if you watch the talk to the end you will find the key to it all lies with a mixtape.  Not just any mixtape but a mixtape by a graduate student in a library science department.  Possibly one of the best mixtapes ever.

And so, the old connects to the new and as the web opens up its content for reuse via web services and open data we can keep exploring, collecting, curating and remixing.  And yes I made a playlist mixtape.

[spotify spotify:user:culturion:playlist:0izjY5w8oYfwosB15eZH5Z]

Update 25.10.2014: After writing this post I saw this retweet from James Clay in my Twitter feed.  Putting a Raspberry Pi, (a credit card sized computer for electronics projects), into a cassette player so that Spotify playlists are played and controlled by playing tapes.  Now that is a mashup!

Image Credits

Featured Image:
MiXED TAPE by Tyler Burrus. Source Flickr. CC BY

Presentation Image:
Is the web structure of my personal website depicted as human DNA using a mashup by the Web2DNA Art Project CC BY


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