Friday, May 29, 2009

Google Wave and The Future of Social Computing

Once again, Google has innovated its way into the future. No, it's not flying cars, or cars that drive themselves, or tiny computer screens that sit in our retinas. It's much less sexy. It's a rejuvenation to online communications. It's "Google Wave."

Wave is a web-based communication interface that combines texting, emailing, sharing media, and social networking. Essentially, it's a long conversation between users (think twitter meets gmail) graphically united in a simple list view in which users can embed images, maps, or polls, chat with friends in real time, or leave messages for offline contacts. The application groups conversations together making it easy to jump in later and not embarrass yourself by repeating someone else (a difficult feat in gmail's 'cc land). Google is also opening Wave's API, so new, innovative uses and applications will quickly arise. (Check out Tim O'Reilly's wonderful overview here).

Wave is still early in development stage, but its release will have an interesting effect on the state of social computing.

Google foresees Wave not only mimicking existing communications, but erasing the distinctions between them. In other words, email conversations, text messages, Twitter comments, and photo sharing will all take place in the same stream-of-consciousness interface rather than having unique websites with singular functions. We will no longer decide if a thought or picture is for our Facebook audience or our Twitter audience. We will no longer be forced to choose between the Flickr community, and the Picasa community. They will all be syphoned into Wave, and we will have one identity within it. I know I have a different voice for email, Twitter, Flickr, and in text messages...would this variation be erased? What will real-time Web communicating (seeing other users' comments as they type, letter by letter) do to these voices? On Wave, our user profiles will be a more singular portrayal of our web identities rather than a piece of the whole scattered over different Web applications.

Personal aggregation has serious implications for online privacy. What happens when all this data is housed on Google's server farm? Thus far, Google has acted in the best interest of its users, but what would happen if it fell in the hands of some future social media conglomerate with dicey incentives or a savvy network hacker? Rather than having different information on different sites, it would all be confined to one space and easily connected to real life users. Will people be concerned with this risk, or will the benefits outweigh the risks? What will Google put in their Terms of Service to protect our privacy?

Wave also lets users edit their own and others' posts. This means that collaboration will become a more significant aspect to online dialogue and sharing. Perhaps this would turn Wiki-style content and participation into the norm rather than an esoteric Web concept.

I'm also interested to see how Wave will be integrated into mobile computing and location-aware applications. The Web is constantly integrating itself with physical space, and housing all our communications data under one roof will open up many possibilities as we get more comfortable with locative social networking. Again, will privacy be a concern?

So what do you think? Will Google Wave be just another social broadcaster that people love to hate but join anyway? Or will this usher in new, new communication revolution?

Images compliments of "O'Reilly Radar." Sign up for Wave updates here.

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