Over the last decade, wikis, blogs, social networks, social messaging, social sharing apps, google docs and other tools have been providing lighter weight, faster vehicles for collaboration and communication that the old lumbering battleships, office documents and email. Now Google’s Wave is a depth charge aimed at the battleships. Google Wave is based on a powerful technical concept, using a realtime chat protocol and stream model as the foundation for communication and collaboration applications. For these reasons, Google deserves a lot of credit for pushing innovation, rather than simply cloning the old models using servers in different closets.
Fundamentally, Google Wave is technology-driven innovation. And Google Wave raises some pretty large questions about the cognitive and social models that people will need to understand and use Wave-based tools.
The first big set of questions relate to the conceptual model. Wave attempts to mash up email threads, documents, and streaming communication. Each of these is familiar and not that hard to understand. The combination seems a bit mind-bending.
Email and forums are clunky in many ways, but they mirror conversational exchanges in an understandable way. Albert says something, and Betty replies. However, when replies are interspersed between paragraphs, and the conversation digresses, it can get difficult to follow. Wave uses a collaborative document-like model to make the changes visible in real time. This is cool and clever. It also needs a rich combination of social conventions and features to not get completely incomprehensible. Communities using wikis rely on rich social conventions and gardening tools to dispense with the need for inflexible pre-defined workflows. Wave is a toolset with even more flexibility than a wiki, with even more interactive content. This poses even greater challenges to help people understand how to use it and be productive.
The model of time has perhaps the greatest potential for confusion. In an email or forum thread, the latest contribution appears at the top of the thread. In a document, including a collaboratively edited document, there is a “face” to the document that appears as a working model of a final version. In a chat room, the latest comments appear at the bottom of the screen. In a rich “Wave”, it’s harder to tell which items in the wave are newer, older, more or less definitive, without scrolling through the whole process from the beginning. It is easy to imagine getting seasick.
Another conceptual innovation is “replaying” a wave. In the conventional model, there are known techniques to reflect the current state of understanding. When there are comments interspersed between paragraphs in email/forum threads, it can be difficult for newcomers get the gist of what has occurred. But there is a time-honored way to bring people up to speed – summarize the conversation to date. The summary has a social purpose, too, it steers the discussion toward a state of current understanding. A document or PowerPoint presentation can look deceptively finished, and close off potentially warranted conversation. A document is an artifact that reflects the end of a collaborative process. But a document can also be summarized and skimmed.
The presenters kvelled, and the audience cheered, when the demonstration showed new participants using “playback” to recap a wave to date. But this seems like world’s most inefficient way to get up to speed – to understand the end result of a conversation, you need to spend nearly as much time as the initial participants did in getting to that point. A streaming audio/video/screencast presentation, or a realtime chat, can be quite rich, and can be played back, but it isn’t skimmable or summarizable. It’s not clear that introducing that model to summarizeable documents and threads is a great thing.
My biggest areas of doubt about the Google demo in particular is that in some ways the hybrid combines the worst traits of its parents. Does the result have hybrid vigor or mutant weakness? What mental models are needed to understand this psychedelic blend of realtime, threaded, and document content?
Missing social model
The second set of questions relates to the social model. The Google Wave demo truly begged a large number of questions about social models for wave-based tools. The demo seemed to use a fairly primitive concept – an individual’s address book that lets that person add a new person to an email thread.
As someone involved in designing social models for tools used by organizations, this model is an intuitive way to start, but does not go very far. First of all, who has the ability to add people to the conversation? Is it everyone, or only the person who created it? Can invitation be delegated? Can a person add himself or herself? Do these permissions vary by wave? What about existing group and networks? In social sharing tools like Facebook, sharing a message or object shares it with one’s social network (or a defined subset). Twitter, sharing is easly visible to followers, and visible with a little more effort by everyone. In organizations, there are pre-defined groups (say, the marketing team) that one might want to share with. The differences between these models make a vast difference between how the tools are used and what they are good for.
Another issue is social scale. Adding people and making interspersed comments could be intuitive in small groups, but could easily get confusing or chaotic in large groups. Long ago, Roberts Rules of Order were invented to facilitate orderly conversations with large groups of people to debate contentious topics. Group blogs and forums have developed reputation and rating tools to address the signal to noise ratio on large groups. What sorts of rules, tools, and processes will be needed to have socially effective communication and collaboration in larger groups when Wave is used in the world?
What the world saw in May was merely a demo. The Google team was up front about the state of affairs. They weren’t doing FUD-style theater claiming to have already created a completed application to scare competitors and stop other developers in their tracks. They were describing a prototype application built on a new platform, and encouraging developers to explore and extend the concepts they demonstrated.
Next exploratory steps
The reality of open-ness has not yet lived up to the promise. In order to join the developer program, you need to tell Google exactly what you plan to build with their new platform. Which is rather hard to say when you haven’t had the chance to play with it yet. Google is also promising to open source the technology. Open source works well when there’s a community engaged with the technology and contributing. It will be interesting to see if Google can be successful in turning its as-yet-private code and process into something that others participate in.
In order for the social practices and designs to be worked out, people need to be using the technology. Google needs to get this technology out of the lab and into the hands of users and developers so people can start to figure out how and whether the conceptual and social model issues can be addressed.
But it’s early days. As someone wisely observed on Jerry Michalski’s Yi-Tan call, an audio online salon that addresses emerging technology topics, it took three years for Twitter to get to critical mass, and Twitter has an extremely simple usage model and a trivially easy model for extensibility. Google Wave isn’t even out in the world yet, and is a lot harder to grok for users and developers. One of my favorite quotes is from Paul Saffo, “never mistake a clear view for a short distance.” Like hypertext did, the concepts embedded in Google Wave could take decades to make their way into common usage. As with hypertext, there may be many years of tools that instantiate concepts of real-time blending before achieving mainstream adoption. Google’s tools and apps may or may not be the catalyst that gets us there.
In the mean time, this is pretty deep food for thought about how and where to integrate real-time communication and collaboration into regular work and life. Much praise is due to Google and the Wave teams for pushing the boundaries instead of cloning familiar models.