Google Wave: Early Impressions
I received my Google Wave invite early Thursday morning and basically decided to chuck my work for the day and play with it, which was easy to do because fortunately I don’t have any pressing deadlines at the moment. So here are some of my initial thoughts on GWave, based on several hours of fiddling. Bear in mind these are first impressions, which may or may not change over time; also bear in mind Google is still fiddling with GWave, and some things about it will almost certainly change before it’s opened up to the general public.
Google Wave basically strikes me as an innovative small business collaboration tool somewhat amusingly miscast as ZOMG THE THING WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE FOREVER, AMEN. Well, no. Google Wave will not replace your e-mail, paint your house, give you a kidney or push us all headlong into the singularity, to be translated into the vasty holds of Google’s data servers, where our virtual lives will be as in Azeroth, when we’re all leveled up and the griefers have been banished forever into a Atari 2600 Adventure cartridge. If you have a (preferably modest-sized) group of people you want to collaborate with on a project or document or online event, Google Wave could be a good and useful environment to do that work in. If you’re looking for it to do anything else, there are probably other things out there that do the job better, at least for the near-term future.
For example, e-mail. One of the things we’re told about Google Wave is that the people working on it tried to imagine what e-mail would be like if were being invented today rather than 30 or so years ago. Their answer seems to be that it would be like being in a room where everyone was talking all at once and you were supposed to be able to pay attention to everyone equally and give each person your full attention — a nice trick if you can manage it, which I’m not sure I can. GWave does this by generating a “wave”: An online space where anyone you allow to participate can start contributing at the same time as everyone else — everyone starts typing and you can see what they’re typing even as they’re backspacing to erase the typos.
Anyone of a certain technological age will watch a Wave in action and recognize what they’re seeing: It’s a chat room or an IRC channel, with substantially improved media-embedding capabilities. Google Wave hybridizes this by having the Wave exist as a standing document, so ostensibly you can walk away from it, come back later and not worry about having something vital scroll off the screen forever (you can even “playback” the Wave creation back to the time you left to see what you’ve missed). In practice (at least so far), the conversation still becomes rapidly unwieldy, and shuttling back and forth to find out what you’ve missed is a hassle, even with the discovery tools at your disposal.
As I was using the “playback” tool I was asking myself what material benefit it offered over, say, discrete e-mail responses organized in a thread, a la GMail. The putative answer is that all the conversation is in one discrete document (the “Wave”), so you don’t have to go looking for anything new. But a) at this point a GMail conversation thread effectively works as a single entity informationally, b) the nature of responding to e-mail already documents the position and time of responses, giving one a timeline, and c) searching e-mail for information is at this point a procedurally trivial task. A Wave certainly does get rid of redundancy (every bit of information from previous e-mails is often in a response e-mail, with only a bit of new information at the top), but the question is whether this efficiency advantage is substantial enough recommend tossing e-mail over the side for Wave-based communication. Let’s just say I’m not entirely convinced at this point.
I’m also pretty sure this won’t replace social media as it exists today either, which is another suggestion I’ve seen bandied about. Google Wave allows one to create a Wave and then publish it to a blog, whilst still allowing people to collaborate on the Wave (with the results ported to the blog). This is kind of a cool idea, especially if a blog has multiple authors — I can see multiple authors of a political blog embedding a Wave and then having each of the author collaborate on real-time commentary of a presidential debate or address, for example.
But the current design of Google Wave isn’t notably well-tuned to do what, say, Facebook and Twitter do so well, which is to efficiently ping a large group of people (one’s friends and followers) with a bite-sized status report about one’s life. Google Wave is good at helping assemble a contextually-relevant sub-set of people out of a larger pool of contacts and giving them a space to discuss something, but the question here is whether it’s better than, say, just sending out a Facebook private message (or an e-mail) with multiple recipients and letting them all have a discussion in the response thread.
Those are both “big picture” issues about Google Wave, but there are some “small picture” issues that annoy me as well. For example, one thing I really don’t like at the moment is that anyone in a Wave can edit anyone else’s comments; if you to write “I love cats,” in a Wave we’re both part of, I can go in and change it to “I murder cats” but it would still have your name on the words. And then I could take a screenshot of that Wave and post it up on my blog as an example of your evil, cat-slaughtering ways. Hey, it has your name on it! While I get that this sort of general editing ability is meant to foster collaboration, etc, in a “wiki” sort of way, there’s a difference between being able to collaboratively edit a document, and being able to go in and change around words that are being directly attributed to a person.
There might already be a way for someone to specify that his/her own personal replies aren’t editable by others, but if it’s there it’s not obvious (there’s a settings area, but it’s still under construction), and more to the point I think the default should be that personally-attributed comments are NOT editable rather than are. Since personal settings are being worked on this isn’t something I’m too worried about yet, but if GWave gets to public release without the ability to keep others from editing your comments, that’s going to be something that would keep me from using the service except in the most controlled and circumscribed way.
Another thing I find annoying: right now, when you type a response, the other people in the Wave can watch as you type. Two problems here. First, it’s distracting as hell and very much like trying to talk when someone else is talking in your ear. Second, philosophically speaking I don’t know that I want to let everyone see what I’m typing until I’m actually done thinking about it. When I type I do a lot of backtracking as I think of better ways to say what I want to say and/or I keep myself from sending a comment I know I’ll regret later. Also, I make a fair share of typos and other screw-ups as I type and I’d rather just fix those without other people looking.
Now, maybe that sounds silly, but I think there is an underlying issue that in some real way, the substance of what someone types (the content of the statement) could be undermined by the process and presentation of what someone types (typos, reconsidered statements, typing speed, etc). People certainly do let process/presentation get in the way of other types of communication; ask someone with a “hick” accent whether or not people make assumptions about them from the way they speak. All things being equal I’d prefer people focus on the words I intend to present, not manner in which those words are composed.
Again, we’re early in the GWave set-up and I really do expect we’ll get the option not to let others see us type, so this isn’t a big deal yet. But it’s something that would incline me against GWave if it’s not addressed.
This entry as been generally critical of Google Wave, so I feel like I should point out that I am having fun with it so far, and that I do think the more I play with it the more I expect to find myself able to do with it, so despite these early comments and criticisms I’m looking forward to digging into the tool more and seeing what it can do.
Just be aware this useful and potentially nifty tool will probably not, in fact, change life on the planet as we know it. And if by some chance it will, it’s going to change it in a bland and practical way. In short: perspective would be nice.