First thoughts on Google Wave

The geek community have been all a-fluster since the launch of Google’s latest big project, Google Wave, to a select group of 100,000 testers.

Google Wave is probably best described as a collaboration platform, bringing together the key functionality from email, instant messaging, shared documents and multi-media content. Google themselves say it’s ‘what email would be like if it had been invented now’.

After a long week wondering if Google Wave invites would be retro by the time I got one, mine finally arrived. At last I was one of the chosen few. My initial enthusiasm for it was tempered a bit when I realised the only other person I knew with an invite was Dave Briggs, and he wasn’t even logged on.

Things took a turn for the better, though, when I was invited into a SocITM09 Conference Wave, with Alan Coulson waving live from the SOCITM conference. This coverage really showed the potential of the platform. Alan live-blogged from the event in detail, adding links in where he could to slideshows posted online. This really helped those of us who were interested but not at the event to get a feel for what was going on (especially when combined with the live Twitter stream on the #socitim09 hastag).

At the same time, Sarah Lay and I had a bit of a chat within the broader Wave conversation (this is what Google call a ‘wavelet’).

Right now Wave is mostly a live chat type of system, like a souped-up MSN Messenger, where you can watch people type in real-time, replete with typos and corrections. But beneath the bonnet, it’s no Halfords Hero. It’s packed full of top-notch features and has bags of potential.

Things I learned:

  • Wave looks great. It does some cool stuff, which are better explained by Mashable than by me.
  • As you’d expect from a product that isn’t even in Beta, it’s a bit buggy (I’ve crashed out a few times), but the interface generally works well, is easy to understand and has some interesting features. Search isn’t integrated with proper Google Search yet, so the results are a bit iffy, but no doubt this will be fixed in time.
  • Wave is considerably more interesting once you know a handful of people with logons. Like anything else on the interwebs, unless you’ve got someone to talk to you’re just belming into the void.

Things I didn’t learn:

  • What Google Wave is actually for. For many years now I’ve had the principles of SMART objective-setting drilled into me, where one considers what one wants to achieve before working out how to get there. I’d imagine this applies as much to product development as communications strategy, and I wonder if somehow this missed the key step of identifying the problem before developing a solution.

On the other hand, a lack of clear purpose isn’t always a problem. I mean, Twitter isn’t really for anything, yet it’s clearly successful. I can’t help liking Wave. I’m a massive geek, and I love geeky things.

I’m not sure what use it has right now for council communications. Apart from anything else, you need a decent browser and good connectivity to make the most of it – we often lack both in the public sector, and in many areas of the country (particularly rural ones) our residents do too. The potential is there, but we need the technology to catch up.

Nonetheless, I can see plenty of applications for it in other areas of online life. In our ‘wavelet’, Sarah Lay and I discussed how the interface reminds us in many ways of journalists’ newswires, with rapid and quick-fire updates adding to an ongoing, fast-developing narrative produced by collective intelligence and effort.

I’ve seen this in action a few times; first, on September 11 2001, and second, on July 7 2005. On the former, working in a newsroom I watched the story unfold via successive text and picture updates (from a small number of sources like AP, Reuters and AFP). Four years later, we saw the collective intelligence of hundreds of Londoners quickly produce a summary of events on Wikipedia using a variety of sources and reports.

I can see Wave taking this to its next logical step, with collective effort producing a collaborative document including text, photo, video, maps, links, etc. It has the added bonus that it can be played back, so you can see how the narrative developed.

Now clearly you can’t sustain or develop a platform just so it can come into its own in the case of a huge but fortunately rare event. But the principle – of harnessing collective effort and intelligence to produce a single multi-media document – applies in all sorts of areas.

You could, for instance, use Wave for an online debate, adding different streams to the discussion and enhancing this with text, video, maps, and so on. This can be played back to show the evolution of the conversation.

Michele Ide-Smith posits a scenario where technology like Google Wave could really enhance citizen consultation. Online consultation on a housing development, she suggests, could begin with a short video and interactive maps, followed by discussion and debate on the issue facilitated online. Discussions can be replayed and key points responded to during or after the live event.

Eventually Google Apps and Docs will be integrated with Wave, giving it bags more potential (especially so for organisations that move to cloud computing).

Will it replace email? Maybe. Outside of work, where I drown in the stuff, I use email less and less, increasingly favouring things like Twitter, Facebook and IM, so a product which brings together the best of all of these could be just the thing we need.

I’m still thinking about what, if anything, Wave could do for us internal communicators specifically. There’s now a handful of us with Wave accounts, so I’m hoping to organise an Internal Comms Wave later this week to check out the features and think about how it can enhance our own work. If you’re on Wave and you’re interested in taking part, drop me a line or leave me a comment and I’ll invite you in.

One final thing: I can’t log on to Google Wave without getting the Pixies’ Wave of Mutilation as an earworm. I suspect this is just me. Is it?

One thought on “First thoughts on Google Wave

  1. Similarly, I’m a public servant and excited to see what Wave has to offer in re: internal comms. I’ve a wave account so drop a line sometime.

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