tales from the mash pit

(Author’s note: Chris Messina implored us to blog about Mash Pit. I didn’t want to just parrot other excellent posts, so here’s my demented version of the event.)

Four thirty. A.M., as in oh-dark-thirty. Ben and Karen will be asleep for another three hours. Uh huh. Why am I up this early? Because I have to leave for the airport in an hour. Uh huh. Why is that again? It takes me a moment to focus, to remember. Oh yes. It’s because I go into berserker paroxysms of geeky hyperactivity whenever the triggerword API is spoken, and I don’t stop until some kind soul utters the safeword.

In this case the fiend is Chris Messina, and the cause of the utterance is Mash Pit. It’s the latest bud from the BarCamp bush, a one-day test to see if meatspace interaction can produce cyberspace results. If successful, a number of Mash Pits would follow, each building on the the code and content of the last. It’s in San Francisco, of course. I’m in San Diego, of course. “It’s not that far,” I think, glossing over the realities of security checkpoints, delays and AirBART. “The flight is barely as long as my old commute to Encinitas.” Uh huh.

The one lesson that gets hammered in the whole day is these things take time. Setting up the workspace takes time. Travel takes time. Establishing ground rules takes time. Herding cats Coordinating the ideas of a dozen developers takes time. Coming up with ideas takes no time at all, but executing — even just communicating — takes lots of precious time. In a way, that’s the big lie of the mashup: All the pieces are there, just put them together. Some assembly required. Assembling one of these carelessly simple mashups, though, takes real focus. I keep telling myself that I’m creating a mash-up, not just writing an application. (Applications are so Web 1.0.)

Even with all that, all the tired and the cranky and the applications, there is a real thrill to creating a mashup. Part of it comes from collaborating with truly extraordinary people, whether they’re in the room or live via remote. Part comes from that Mr. Potato Head feeling of plugging a few pieces together into something that takes on a personality of its own. With enough pieces to play with, the possibilities are endless. And when it comes right down to it, we need endless possibilities because there are endless problems to solve.

…even if those problems are trivial. Our finished product — complete with logo, domain, and revenue model — is WhuffieTracker, an ego aggregator that combs Web 2.0 sites to answer that age-old question, “Who’s talking about me today?” I kid, but it’s actually a compelling concept. I can totally see working on it further to bring it to fruition. And who knows? Perhaps it really will change the world by freeing up all those ego-surfing hours for employee productivity.

Home again. Eleven thirty. P.M. this time, but the moon’s up just as it was when I left this morning. Ben has been asleep for three hours. I chatter excitedly at Karen for a while, describing the day and our accomplishments, until it’s obvious that I’m wandering around aimlessly and bumping into things. She releases me with the safeword, bless her soul. “Go to bed.”