A giant global cocktail party

2009-08-05 00:00

GOOGLE unveiled its latest project this week, the somewhat ominously named Google Wave. Now before all you surfer dudes get excited, it’s not going to let you Google “six-foot swell Jeffries”. Instead, it’s an attempt to revolutionise the way we communicate online.

The idea is to combine the best features of e-mail, instant messaging, blogging and collaborative formats (like wikis) into a single “wave” of communication.

A user starts a conversation (or “wave”) with someone, like starting a chat or sending an e-mail. The other person can respond either instantly or later, and both of them can add other people to the conversation.

All the people in a conversation can simultaneously add text, pictures, videos, sound and links to the conversation and — here’s the kicker — they can also simultaneously edit any part of the conversation. Then, at any point you can “replay” a conversation to see how it grew and who added and edited what.

A wave can evolve over seconds or over weeks. So, in theory, it is useful for everything from arranging a night out with friends to collaborating on a yearly marketing plan with your Australian business partner.

Wave is a passion project by Lars and Jens Rasmussen, the brothers who brought the world Google Maps. That product changed the game in online mapping, and they must be fairly confident Wave will do the same for communication.

What bothers me is that the Rasmussens assume our current communication paradigm is fundamentally broken, or at least needs drastic improvement.

In their blog post about Wave, Lars asks: “Why do we have to live with divides between different types of communication — e-mail versus chat, or conversations versus documents?” He complains that e-mail and

instant messaging ape real world equivalents (post and the telephone) and that communication has moved on since then.

While there may be some truth in the idea that the divides between mediums are somewhat artificial, they are also perfectly natural. Human beings are inherently comfortable with different paces of communication, and use them for different purposes.

How many times have you sent an angry e-mail rather than confront someone on the telephone? And do you really want your annoying colleague to be able to edit your carefully worded e-mail 10 seconds after you have sent it? And who, exactly, thinks chatting to the CEO via instant messaging is a universally good idea?

The Rasmussens are missing two points here. Firstly, the telephone and snail mail aren’t simply outdated “technology platforms” — they work because they fit into our natural human patterns of interaction. If they did not, they would have been discarded. Essentially, the technology fits the people, not the other way around.

Secondly, they assume that because their technology is so much more powerful and feature-rich that people will automatically gravitate towards it. Human beings, notoriously, are much slower to change than technology and will stubbornly cling to old comfortable standards long after they should have been replaced.

Let’s look at another Google product as an example: the excellent Google Docs. This service gives you features that are similar to Microsoft’s Word, but instead of costing you hundreds of dollars it’s completely free. What’s more, you can collaboratively edit, in real time, any document (sound familiar?).

So has the whole world moved to Google Docs? Nope. Most of us are still feathering Bill Gate’s nest, or using free software like Open Office, which lack most of the collaboration features that Google offers.

And besides, the real-time, shared-conversation game is already dominated by Twitter, whose service in many ways resembles a stripped-down version of what Wave is trying to achieve. But instead of starting simple, as Twitter have done, Google has opted to go feature crazy. I’m just not sure I need the choice to add sound, videos and geo-tags to my every thought and feeling.

I’m being quite unfair in my criticism — the Rasmussens are in fact quite humble about the project and haven’t labelled it a game changer at all. And in practise their model may just prove successful.

But whether or not Wave succeeds, its birth says more about where the Internet is going than the product in particular. We’ve got so used to thinking of the Internet as a kind of fancy electronic magazine — now it’s becoming a giant global cocktail party — and everyone’s invited.

— News24.com

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