Issue #20 June 2006

Mugshot: Get in on the racket


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At the 2006 Red Hat Summit in Nashville, Tennessee, Red Hat announced its sponsorship of a new project called Mugshot. Building on Red Hat's history of developing open source technology for technology enthusiasts and computing professionals, Mugshot has the ambitious goal of expanding the impact of open source software and the open source philosophy to more mainstream audiences.

The focus of Mugshot is to foster the creation of live social experiences around entertainment, all in the context of an open project. This article will explore each of these three elements.

Live social experience

In his book Everything Bad is Good For You, author Stephen Johnson proposed the idea that popular entertainment and media are growing more complex and challenging, and requiring increasing cognitive engagement by consumers. Though the conventional wisdom is that modern culture is deteriorating in a race to appeal to the lowest common denominator, Johnson argues that the increasing complexity of popular media contributes to the development of important skills for a modern world, such as concentration, analytical reasoning, social reasoning, and the ability to keep track of multiple threads of information simultaneously. Johnson terms this phenomenon the "Sleeper Curve," a reference to the classic mock sci-fi Woody Allen film Sleeper where a 20th century citizen is transported 200 years into the future to discover wildly different cultural values and assumptions.

Johnson points to evidence of the Sleeper curve in a variety of media. In the context of video games, he demonstrates the massive increase in complexity from early games like Pong and Pac-Man, which featured an extremely limited field of play and rule system, to games like Grand Theft Auto and Half-Life, which feature virtually unlimited three-dimensional worlds that require exploration to understand not only how to win, but the very rules and objectives of the game. In the context of television, Johnson points out a similar increase in complexity: Dragnet followed a handful of characters through a single self-contained narrative in each episode. 24 and Lost require users to keep track of dozens of characters participating in multiple interlocking threads and sub-plots which span multiple episodes and seasons.

If gaming and television are growing more complex over time, what about personal computing? Thanks to email, instant messaging and the web, most computer users find themselves in a much more complex computing environment today than five or ten years ago. This trend is even more pronounced outside the traditional professional "office worker" setting. New forms of online social interaction have emerged in the past few years, exemplified by social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. At the same time, opportunities for individuals to directly participate in the creation of mainstream media have been spurred by technologies like blogs and wikis, typified by the Wikipedia project. Clearly the mainstream computing experience is more complicated today than ever before. But has the software environment kept pace with this increase in complexity?

One of the goals of the Mugshot project is to explore new ways to organize the consumption of information in this new media-rich environment. Our core approach is to focus on creating live social experiences, focusing on people and their real-time activities as opposed to technological artifacts like files, folders, applications, and protocols. With the launch of the Mugshot project, we have developed two small examples of live social activities--one centered around web browsing and another around music sharing and discovery.

The first of these activities, Web Swarm, adds a live social element to web browsing and discovery. Web Swarm lets users easily share an interesting web page with a group. Recipients of the share receive a subtle live notification on their desktop when the link is shared, when other recipients view the page, or if anyone takes the additional step of joining an instant group chat about the page. In this way, users are drawn into a live conversation in a way that approximates the experience of overhearing a conversation in the hallway or seeing a crowd gather on a city street. Shared links and the accompanying conversation are saved and made available through a blog-like web interface so that users who are offline at the time of a swarm can participate and even form a new live swarm around the topic. In a sense, Web Swarm is way to deal with information overload by collaboratively editing the Internet with your peers.

A second activity, Music Radar, focuses on passive sharing of music preferences. Music Radar allows users to passively track their song play history in a variety of applications and services including Apple's iTunes and Yahoo! Music Engine on Windows, and the open source Rhythmbox application on Linux. Each participant's song history is made available on the Mugshot web site in a variety of contexts, such as "recent songs," "most played songs," "most played songs today," and so on. Aggregated music information is also available for groups, exposing interesting trends such as "the most popular songs at my college today." Finally, Music Radar lets users publish live information about about their current song and previous play history on other web sites, such as a MySpace profile or personal blog.

Web Swarm and Music Radar are two examples of the "live social experience" concept at the heart of the Mugshot project, but we hope that they are just the start. Work is already underway to extend and improve the Web Swarm and Music Radar experiences and to develop new types of live social experiences around other media, beginning with television and video.

Entertainment

To date, the open development and licensing model has been applied mostly to source code and software. This model can yield benefits in other settings as well. The nonprofit organization Creative Commons has pioneered the application of open source concepts beyond software, to media such as writing, music, and video. Lawrence Lessig, a leader in the Creative Commons movement, recently remarked:

"I think of the free culture movement as inspired by the free software movement. I think it's going to be a more significant movement than the free software movement because whatever the importance of the freedom of coders, coders will still be just a tiny proportion of the public, but culture is ... much broader."

With Mugshot, we are experimenting with the idea of opening up both content creation and publishing, as well as the editorial selection process, to individuals organized into active communities. By giving individuals more control over the media they and their peers consume, Mugshot can help level the playing field between content providers, commercial or non-commercial. Ultimately this will result in the promotion of the best content--not necessarily the most heavily marketed.

How does Mugshot level the playing field? An example: Music Radar supports multiple commercial service providers. A music fan listening to commercial music ripped from a CD in his personal collection on Rhythmbox under Linux can seamlessly share his playlist with an acquaintance running iTunes on Windows, and vice versa. Likewise, someone using iTunes under a pay-per-song model can share with a friend who subscribes to Yahoo! Unlimited, which allows unlimited plays from a commercial catalog as long as a monthly subscription is maintained.

Thanks to the open nature of the Mugshot platform, non-commercial music sources--such as the Creative Commons ccMixter project--can be supported with a first-class user experience. Linux users can communicate with those using mobile devices who can share with friends using Windows. Everyone can participate. We believe that all of this will lead to an improved user experience governed more by the passions and interests of individuals than the politics and agendas of corporations.

Open project

Unlike most web sites and services targeting mainstream audiences, Mugshot is developed in the context of an open community project. All of the source code that powers the Mugshot web site and web services is available under an open source license, as is the client software that works in conjunction with the web site. While this is true of a few other mainstream projects like Wikipedia, such an open model is generally the exception, not the rule. You can't download the source code to most of Yahoo! or Google's services.

One benefit of an open project is that all users are empowered to participate in design and development of the service. The Mugshot project emphasizes design thinking in its development process--a method which emphasizes problem definition, research, idea creation, prototyping, and learning as much as it does technology selection and implementation. As a result, there are opportunities for all sorts of contributors to participate in the Mugshot project. In addition to software developers and testers, the Mugshot project actively seeks the participation of ethnographers to conduct user research and observation, interaction designers to define behavior and interfaces, and users to provide ideas and feedback.

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By organizing Mugshot as an open project, we hope to encourage rapid innovation by lowering the barriers to developing new types of live social experiences. In an age where new "Web 2.0" startups launch daily with grand ambitions but modest resources and often incremental user experience improvements at best, we hope to provide an open platform where the best ideas can be prototyped and tested with real users on an accelerated time scale. One current area of research is the design of open web service interfaces that would enable Mugshot users to optionally reuse their Mugshot identity and contact information with other web sites and applications. This would allow developers to prototype new types of social interaction without having to build and populate a new account system from scratch every time.

Participate

Mugshot is an open project with a well-defined focus: to create live social experiences around entertainment. As of June 2006, the Mugshot project is conducting a limited user trial of the initial Web Swarm and Music Radar features. To sign up to participate in the trial or to be notified when Mugshot is generally available, visit the Mugshot web site. For more information on how to participate in the design and development of Mugshot, visit the developer site and the project blog.

More information

About the author

Donald manages the Mugshot project at Red Hat. He joined Red Hat in 2003 and was Product Manager for the Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Red Hat Desktop product lines. Previously Donald was a consulting software engineer at Internet search pioneer Inktomi (now part of Yahoo!). Donald is based at Red Hat's engineering headquarters in Westford, Massachusetts.