Friday, November 6, 2009

Google Wave/Human Wave

So I got on Google Wave last week. It’s clunky, unstable, confusing, and I love it. Or at least I will love it, once I can start actually “Waving” with people who aren’t totally lost in the interface (for a great overview, see Gina Trapani and Adam Pash’s “The Complete Guide to Google Wave” along with these goofy videos).

The initial usability of Wave is, well, a bit disorienting. It combines several modes of Web interaction that people haven’t yet seen mashed together. I like to think of it as a real-time wiki combined with email and instant messaging. Like email, you can send messages (called “blips”) to one person or multiple people (I somehow don’t think this word, “blip” will stick...but I’ll use it for now). Each of these participants can respond within the blip like a typical email chain. However, if any of the users are on Wave simultaneously, they can actually watch each other type, letter for letter, into the blip. Additionally, participants of the wave can edit any blip, even those created by others. Each change is notated by a yellow highlight and the addition of the editor’s icon in the blip (the edit feature is a bit rudimentary right now, but it will surely be improved in the full release, as will many other bugs).

You can also make a wave public, which means it is open to every Google Wave member to view and comment on. Many early members are making special interest public waves about integrating it into college courses or other emerging uses of the product. However, jumping into the public Waves is extremely confusing, and makes the browser lag like crazy, probably due to the live-type feature happening all at once from each contributor (which you cannot turn off as of right now).

Yet I think these two features- the poor interface for public Waves and view-as-you-type blips- mixed with the editable nature of each blip, are Wave’s strongest features.

Editing Blips
The innovation of the wiki-style editing is pretty obvious. If anyone can edit anyone’s blip, the nature of Wave conversation is totally different than what’s come before in mainstream social networking. Mostly, this popularizes the idea of wiki editing and lowers the transaction costs for collaboration, making it easy for users to do things together like brainstorm, make lists, and edit documents. The editing is straight forward, and you can use the “Playback” feature to see previous versions of the blips as a history archive.

Small Groups
I do not think the poor interface for public waves is a flaw; instead, it’s what separates Google Wave from all other popular social networking tools so far. The structure of a wave begs for conversation between small-ish, more close-knit groups so that the wave stays manageable. When it gets too big, it is impossible to participate meaningfully. This limitation encourages real, multi-directional conversation between known participants with a sender, one or more receivers, and a responder. This is directly opposite from the culture that has developed around Facebook statuses and Twitter updates, where most utterances do not require either a receiver or a responder. Like email, each wave is useless without a corresponding blip, inducing a two-sided conversation. When I asked my friend Zach how the Waving was going, he replied (via Wave), “Its no fun without people to wave to.” This is entirely different from Facebook and Twitter where you can expound your thoughts or send out links with the illusion that people are paying attention. With Wave, people have to pay attention, otherwise, it's no fun.

Live-Type Idiosyncrasies & Conversational Substance
Lastly, if the live-type feature is smoothed out and catches on as a norm for Web chatting, I think we will see interesting new ways of emulating human speech develop. Blips, for example, will be populated by more “umms” and “ahhs” to signify thinking. More importantly, though, it will create real-time consequences to the style and substance of our language familiar to face-to-face communication. Instead of the passive nature of comments left on a post, or a re-Tweeted message on Twitter, participants can actually watch each typer’s thought process unfold as they type their response into the blip. This fundamentally changes the substance of our Web communications, and makes text-based interaction, in a way, more “real” (or if you are as uncomfortable with that word as I am, it makes it more “similar to physical interactions”). With the added social pressure of the live-type feature, where each person can see the other type their thoughts out live like how a sentence flows from one’s mouth, people will be held responsible for their utterances more similarly to conversations that take place in close proximity.

While it has tons of bugs that need to be worked out, I am really looking forward to Wave becoming a large part of our Web presence. Combining all the best features of email, chat, and wikis that make a whole new Frankenstein-like creature, I don’t see it replacing all other Web identities. Yet it is creating a Web presence more similar to our physical identities, which is perhaps exactly what the “Web 2.0” world needs right now to eliminate the clutter.

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