As a "guest expert" last week in Writing for Digital Media, an online course at Chatham College Online, I had a lot of fun interacting with students in back and forth writing. I thought that I'd capture (in a slightly edited form), what I wrote. (It's probably even more interesting to write down what the students asked me, but for now, I'll record one side of a conversation.) Here goes:
In my introduction I wrote:
- I'm currently writing a book on "web mashups." If you look up mashups on the Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mashup_(web_application_hybrid)), you'll find the following definition: "A mashup is a website or application that combines content from more than one source into an integrated experience." I also teach a course about mashups at the Information School at UC Berkeley. Why should you care about web mashups? With mashups, you are able to easily recombine content and applications to make powerful new creations without much work. We can talk more about mashups if you'd like. Perhaps you'd be interested in discussing the topic of electronic publishing. I've been a weblogger for over 7 years and plan to publish my book on my website in a variety of forms: PDF, Microsoft Word, HTML, a Wiki.
How did I get started with writing on the Web?
- I got interesting in writing for the web when I laid eyes on Dave Winer's Scripting News in early 2000. I remember thinking that what it was that I was looking at. It had a personal voice, sometime obnoxious but mostly engaging. Dave W. was also pioneering an online writing environment (Manila) that involved one-click editing (that is, you see the page and you could hit the edit button). That close feedback loop between reading and writing was addictive. Moreover, the fact that the online writing environment was programmable hooked me for life. (I know I'm writing like a true geek here — I don't know whether you find a programmable writing environment cool, but I do!) I should say that I love blogging because writing helps to clarify my own thinking. There's nothing like having to explain stuff to others to work out what's really going on in my head. I also want to give back to the Web. I've learned so much from the Web that it's a great experience to share what I know online.
In terms of starting out, in many ways, I'm not the best person to give advice. I say this because I can't say that I'm a model blogger. I write sporadically. I probably try to write to too varied an audience. However, I will recommend two articles written by my colleague Chris Ashley that convey some of the spirit of the new writing world: http://istpub.berkeley.edu:4201/bcc/Fall2001/feat.weblogging.html and http://istpub.berkeley.edu:4201/bcc/Winter2002/feat.weblogging2.html
Chris has done an amazing job of actively and continually writing. See, for instance, http://chrisashley.net/weblog/
When asked for more details about mashups, specifically how difficult it is to write them and what are some specific examples, I answered:
- Mashups are becoming easier to create by non-programmers — and the term mashups applies whether the new combination of content is created by a programmer or non-programmer. A good example to look at is http://housingmaps.com — which is a cross between craigslist and Google map. That is, you can look at real estate listings from craigslist on a map. Note that housingmaps.com was created by neither Google nor craigslist but by Paul Rademacher (http://www.technologyreview.com/tr35/Profile.aspx?Cand=T&TRID=437). When Paul R. made housingmaps.com in 2005, it was a really creative act. Google made it easier by releasing an API (an application programmer interface) –http://www.google.com/apis/maps/ — and you can follow the instructions, and it's not super hard but it does help to be techie. Later, people started building tools (such as http://mapbuilder.net) to help people make maps without any programming background. Finally, Google decided to add features for making maps back into its own product (the new "My Maps" feature in http://maps.google.com) Still, the most powerful mashups will need programming skill to create at this point.
http://www.programmableweb.com/popular is a good list of mashups. The easiest ones to understand are map-based ones. Chicagocrimes.org is another one in that genre.
I was asked to clarify the difference between mashups and a Google search:
- In most cases, web mashing is about making a web site that pulls data from different source together. When you do a google search, you find things that Google has brought together under a search term. But you are not really joining them together as in a web mashup.
My advice on how to get started with writing on the Web:
- A good start in writing for the Web is to find other people who are writing to the same audience and start engaging those folks in dialog. Link to those people. Comment on their work. There's a good chance that they will link back if you are constructively engaging. Reflect on the websites (especially weblogs) that you currently like and read. What is it about them that you like? Is the implicit or explicit audience that you are trying to reach similar to those sites?
How new of an operating system is needed?
- Many of the mashups we talk about — things involving Google maps — require relatively new web browsers (http://maps.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answer=16532) So, newish operating systems are needed.
What's an integrated experience in a mashup?
- An integrated experience can be either transitory or durable. I often write programs that are "throw-away", meaning I made them to do this one act of integration and then I use the product and don't really keep the program around. Other times, I want to create something that lasts and that can be used by others.
How about copyright?
- In terms of copyright, which is a broad and complex topic, (and for which I have little expertise — IANAL ("I am not a lawyer."), what specifically are you interested in? For DRM, take a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Rights_Management: "Digital Rights Management (DRM) is an umbrella term referring to technologies used by publishers or copyright owners to control access to or usage of digital data or hardware, and to restrictions associated with a specific instance of a digital work or device." (e.g., copy protection on DVDs or on iTunes songs.) Yes, copyright is always a concern. But there are important provisions of fair use to keep in mind. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use)
Can you do web production all alone or should you work with others?
- In terms of collaboration: I would have to agree that there are very, very few people who are good at all the skills needed. I will have to say that I've found it difficult to pull together a team with all the skills at a very deep level. But often, you have to do with good-enough and move on.
Do you find other people's comments useful on your blog?
- I do find people's comments on my blog as I think aloud helpful. All my new blogs have comments turned on. Unfortunately, I have a bunch of older blogs that I have yet to upgrade — and I turned the comments off there because the spammers were overrunning the blogs!
When to write for online? How about online novels?
- Lot of the references for my book are URLs.
- I have a lot of examples which are displayed on the web.
- My book comes in chunks that can be roughly aligned with a web page.
- There's lots of inter-linking of materials.
- My examples are in danger of going out of date hours after I commit stuff to paper.
- And yet my publisher Apress and I are still producing a paperback book because we believe that people will want to read a lot of the narrative in book form — even if they are allowed to print the whole thing out on their own printers. I myself own a lot of computer books and used online books at the same time — they serve complementary purposes.
You have to consider the genre of what you want to publish in deciding whether to go for electronic (or specifically, web-based) publishing. My book is about web mashups, a subject that is naturally tied to the web. Let me list some reasons why I will publish my book on the web in a variety of forms:
- Novels are different entities. A lot of the reasons I list for publishing computer books online don't apply to novels (unless you are writing nonlinear novels embedded in the web!) Paper is an amazing medium, especially for novels. I can imagine that I'd like a novel in electronic format if I wanted to interact with it in new ways (for instance, searching for certain texts, being to annotate the novel and share those annotations with others, participate in online discussions and communities around the novel.) — but I don't know of much work on that front. I'd love to hear of such work — I just don't know that field. You asked about keeping the traditional audience while gaining a broader audience receptive to e-reading: maybe excerpting your work and putting it out on a blog as one idea?