Last night I popped up a quick post relaying the announcement of impending closure of Yahoo Pipes, recalling my first post on Yahoo Pipes, and rediscovering a manifesto I put together around the rallying cry We Ignore RSS at OUr Peril.
When Yahoo Pipes first came out, the web was full of the spirit of Web2.0 mashup goodness. At the time, the big web companies were opening all all manner of “open” web APIs – Amazon, Google, and perhaps more than any other, Yahoo – with Google and Yahoo particularly seeming to invest in developer evangelism events.
One of the reasons I became sos evangelical about Yahoo Pipes, particularly in working with library communities, was that it enabled non-coders to engage in programming the web. And more than that. It allowed non-coders to use web based programming tools to build out additional functionality for the web.
looking back, it seems to me now that the whole mashup thing arose from the idea of the web as a creative medium, and one which the core developers (the coders) were keen to make accessible to a wider community. Folk wanted to share, and folk wanted other folk to build on their services in interoperation with other services. It was an optimistic time for the tinkerers among us.
The web companies produced APIs that did useful things, used simple, standard representations (RSS, and then Atom, as simple protocols for communicating lists of content items, for example, then, later, JSON as a friendlier, more lightweight alternative to scary XML, which also reduced the need for casual web tinkerers to try to make sense of XMLHttpRequests), and seemed happy enough to support interoperability.
When Yahoo Pipes came online (and for a brief time, Microsoft’s Popfly mashup tool), the graphical drag-and-drop, wire it together, flow based programming model allowed non-coders to start trying developing, publishing, sharing and building on top of each others real web applications. You could inspect the internals of other peoples pipes, and clone those pipes so you could extend or modify them yourself, and put pipes inside pipes, fostering reuse and the notion of building stuff on top of and out of stuff you’ve learned how to do do before.
And it all seemed so hopeful…
And then the web companies started locking things down a bit more. First my Amazon Pipes started to break, and then my Twitter Pipes, as authentication was introduced to access the feeds published by those companies. It started to seem as if those companies didn’t want their content flows rewired, reflowed and repurposed. And so Yahoo Pipes started to become less useful to me. And a little bit of the spirit of a web as a place where the web companies allowed whosoever, coders and non-coders alike, to build a better web using their stuff started to die.
And perhaps with it, the openness and engagement of the core web developers – the coders – started to close off a little too. True, there are repeated initiatives about learning to code, but whilst I’ve fallen into that camp myself over the last few years, and especially over the last two years, having discovered IPython notebooks and the notion of coding, one line at a time, I think we are complicit in closing off opportunities that help people build out the web using bits of the web.
Perhaps the web is too complicated now. Perhaps the vested interests are too vested. Perhaps the barrage of content of and peck, peck, click, click, Like, addiction feeding, pigeon rat, behaviourist conditioning, screen based crack-Like business model has blinded us to the idea that we can use the web to build our own useful tools.
(I also posted yesterday about a planning application map I helped my local hyperlocal – OnTheWight – publish yesterday. If The Isle of Wight Council published current applications as an RSS feed, it would have been trivial to use the Yahoo Pipes to construct the map. It would have been a five minute hack. As it is, the process we used required building a scraper (in code) and hacking a some code to generate the map.)
There still are tools out there that help you build stuff on the web for the web. CartoDB makes map creation relatively straightforward, and things like Mozilla Popcorn allow you to build your own apps around content containers (I think? It’s been a long time since I looked at it).
Taking time out to reflect on this, it seems as if the web cos have become too inward looking. Rather than engaging wider communities to engage in building out the web, the companies get to a size where their systems become ever more complex, yet have to maintain their own coherence, and a cell wall goes up to contain that activity, and authentication starts to be used to limit access further.
At the time as the data flows become more controlled, the only way to access them comes through code. Non-coders are disenfranchised and the lightweight, open protocols that non-coding programming tools can work most effectively with become harder to justify.
When Pipes first appeared, it seemed as if the geeks were interested in building tools that increased opportunities to engage in programming the web, using the web.
And now we have Facebook. Tap, tap, peck, peck, click, click, Like. Ooh shiny… Tap, tap, peck, peck…