The Mash-Up: A New Archetype for Communication


In 2007, Gartner, Inc. identified mash-ups as one of the top 10 strategic technologies for 2008 ( The word had only made it to the Oxford English Dictionary the year before ( As I write this in August 2008, “mash-up” on Google returns over 19 million hits. Wikipedia (which I use here intentionally) has 4 different articles for “mash-up,”

  • Mashup (digital), a digital media file containing any or all of text, graphics, audio, video, and animation, which recombines and modifies existing digital works to create a derivative work.
  • Mashup (music), the musical genre encompassing songs which consist entirely of parts of other songs
  • Mashup (video), a video that is edited from more than one source to appear as one
  • Mashup (web application hybrid), a web application that combines data and/or functionality from more than one source (

Mash-ups are communicative forms whose essential character is that they are compositions, combinations, assimilations, and appropriations of things that already exist to create something—and this is crucial—that need show no allegiance or even connection to those original works. Mash-ups are not montages or summaries. They are forms of communication that depend—crucially—on unceasing transformation and accumulation of communication acts and interaction into data.

I use data very specifically here to refer to decontextualized 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 accumulate in databases as independent, discrete records. The growth of these databases is mind-boggling. As I write this essay in the summer of 2008, Youtube takes in 60 hours of video every real-time hour. Google has indexed its one trillionth web page.

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 or computer programs (such as ‘bots or crawlers) attach descriptions, categories, and meanings to a record. Tags are changeable and ephemeral, creating a sense of context as highly configurable. For example, users of Zoho writer (, after signing in, are presented with an introductory message that includes this:

Get the best of both worlds. Tags are the new folders. Not sure whether you want to put a document in the Sales or Marketing folder? That's where tags-as-folders come in. Make the document available in both the folders! Now, isn't that cool?

Locating the meaning of data outside of the data itself (“metadata”), poses interesting challenges for understanding the concept of meaning itself. As communication scholars, how do we make sense of an environment in which meaning is aggregative, cumulative, and easily configured?

In 2007, I suggested that these changes to the architecture of the internet would occasion fundamental changes to our communication environment, creating the potential for new communication forms (Jackson, 2007 DOI 10.1080/03637750701543543). The environment, I argue, makes communication fluid, disconnected from space and time, particularly the space and time of its origin. More deeply, the transformation of communication into data means that events do not have any particular traces of meaning generated from a history or sequence of use.

A data-based infrastructure is an important contrast to the significant developments in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in which the rapid expansion of broadband and high-speed networks made possible the near instantaneous spread of information and communication, particularly through channel-centered applications such as e-mail, discussion lists, chat rooms, and bulletin boards. Online communication certainly propagates from context to context in a fast and unpredictable fashion (often termed “viral”). Yet, it does so in a chain still possessing sequence and history that could be traced and mapped. In any such sequence is a logic that can be unpacked, and that makes questions of origin meaningful. Also, in such a sequence is a sense of information transmitted—blazingly fast, to be sure—yet still moved from place to place. For example, consider this account of viral communication during the first days of the 2008 Olympics:

[M]ore adept reporters are beginning to realize that the Web is not just a way to broadcast news, it is a great way to assemble it as well.

On Saturday, Mr. Stelter's wonderful article in The New York Times on how people were working around the blackout on the Olympic ceremony began as a post on Twitter seeking consumer experiences, then jumped onto his blog, TV Decoder, caught the attention of editors who wanted it expanded for the newspaper, and ended up on Page One, jammed with insight and with plenty of examples from real human experience.

How much more powerful is that networked intelligence than a reporter with a phone, a Rolodex and the space between his or her ears? (

Without a doubt, this networked environment facilitates communication in ways that were unthinkable only a few years ago. The sensibility of “networks” is strong within communication studies, no less because of its affinity to traditional ways of theorizing communication. As communication scholars, it is easy to see here the “communication as transmission” model operating in captivating ways.

However, it is important to be clear that the technology I'm talking about is not about networks and connection. Databases are different. They are about disconnection. Databases remove the interactions/information/resources we view as constituting “communication” from any context (especially the context in which they were produced), and stores them in a contextless state (meaning to be outside of time, space, or relationships), until accessed and appropriated into a configuration that 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).

Mash-ups are the resulting communicative form in this new data-based environment. Mash-ups appropriate data generated in other contexts, without any necessary concern for those contexts. Even further, data are typically decomposed into elements small, discrete elements: a single photo, a paragraph, an image, a sound bite, a phrase. The partitioning may or may not have any discernible logic to it. That is, 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 accumulated experiences are, as Heidegger (1977) would say, present-at-hand.

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 our lives: 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 this decade is toward capturing and recording the stream of lived experience, both the special and the mundane. This started with “life-logging” in the first part of the decade. Life-loggers wore cameras and microphones, recording every moment of their existence. Lightweight versions of life-logging powered by the acceptance of “social networking” applications are now entering the mainstream. Consider Twitter, an emerging internet application gaining momentum in 2008. The Twitter FAQ offers the following description:

What is it?

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and coworkers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing? Bloggers can use it as a miniblogging tool. Developers can use the API to make Twitter tools of their own. Possibilities are endless!

How do I use it?

Tell us what you’re doing in 140 characters or less! Send your thoughts, observations, and goings-on in your day. Whether you’re “eating an apple” or “looking foward [sic] to the weekend” or “Heading out of town” it's twitter-worthy. Join us here. All of your personal information including your phone number is, of course, confidential. (

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. Each of these bits is stored, easily sorted and filtered, entered and accessed by devices that are literally “at-hand” such as cell phones. The experiences of entire lives are captured, retrievable, and reconfigurable.

Effective communication in the data-based environment requires ready access to data from multiple devices, efficient means of identifying relevant data, and applications that configure data seamlessly into a new form. The reference to the “API” in Twitter's FAQ is particularly important here. An API is an “Application Programming Interface,” a tool that allows web applications to interface with one another, sometimes referred to as “widgets.” API's 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:

2007 has been named by BusinessWeek as “the year of the widget.” Widgets are small embeddable components that can seamlessly integrate on third-party sites and can deliver content from beyond the realm of the site. To help users create widgets, a growing number of companies out there are developing mashup building tools. (

For large databases, providing an API has significant implications. Consider Facebook's 2007 decision to provide an API, effectively providing developers access to the data generated (or potentially generated) by 90 million users.

If the raw material for communication is captured, decontextualized, digitized, decomposed interaction and lived experience, the processes of communication are composition and configuration. Communication is, literally, a constitutive process. The possibilities for communication scholarship are exciting. We will need to interrogate our assumptions about the relationship between communication and context. Concepts core to the transmission model—all of which take for granted context as a meaningful backdrop to communication–will need to be rethought, augmented, or replaced as mash-ups disrupt assumptions of channel, source, and accuracy (accountability to an original meaning). Newer questions will emerge, causing us to reflect on and theorize the work that is done to create context, the ways in which time and space are given meaning. How do we live in-the-moment in an environment that gives use the opportunity and the responsibility to configure the moment?

Author Biography

Michele H. Jackson is associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has long ago come to terms with the fact that digital communication technologies tend to not stick around for 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 motivate collaboration, (2) interrogating the social function of determinism in organizations and groups, and (3) theorizing how we socially construct communication within a technologically induced context of indeterminacy and change.