Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Starting small ripples in a big pond - GOOGLE Wave goes preview

"Hi - I'm
and I'd like to wave with you! "

As one of the lucky ones to gain an invitation to Google Wave, I'd like to document some of the possibilities and curiosities discovered in the first few days of being immersed. It's a whole new mindset folks - some of the expectations brought forward from previous social media tools like Twitter, IM and Skype still apply, but others seem counter-intuitive and are raising healthy waves of discussion in this fast growing community.

Several folk have already documented rudimentary user guides (see Google Wave 101) so I won't duplicate this effort... instead I'm focusing on the user experience: what's disconcerting, what's different, and what's exciting.

Browser inequities
We've experimented with most of the standard browsers out there and found some interesting quirks - Google's own Chrome browser fairs very well (no surprise there!) Firefox also fairs well with very few noted problems for either Mac or PC. Flock is also smooth in Wave - indeed it seems more responsive that Firefox. Safari is not quite as happy, and IE is bearing some bruises as well... One of my friends is using Swiftfox which is Firefox 3.5 on a Ubuntu Jaunty OS - she notes that it works but has had a few problems. This is still a very new preview version of Wave... browser support will likely be a moving target for some time to come.

As you type - it appears
Initially it's very disconcerting to see people's responses appear as they actually type them - to see the typing corrections, the word changes, the sentence substitutions... there is no sober second thought here - as you start to type, your every keystroke is live to all other participants in the current wave. In many ways it is like a peek into a colleague's mind/thought process as you see their keystrokes - and very unlike Twitter or Skype where you can type, edit, rethink and rework your words before committing them to be public.

It certainly speeds up the conversation... you can jump right in and start responding or adding to the information as soon as you perceive the flow - no need to wait for them to finish the thought! Reminiscent of a free-for-all conversation? Sure is, and some wave conversations are already revolving around the "netiquette" of letting one speaker finish before jumping in...
Even more interactive is the ability to actively edit what others have written.. even while you are still word-smithing an extended response, another wave participant can can jump in on words you just typed and start editing them. Note that YOUR posts have open edit access to all in the wave - not just you. Depending on your browser, AND which panel within the Wave environment you have opened the wave in, these edits by other folk may be highlighted in yellow, or bolded, or flagged with the other waver's name while these edits are current. [NOTE: Go back to a comment within a wave at a later point, and the only indication of an edit is that the authorship of the comment is now credited to all users that have touched it... there is no indication which words or sentences are attributed to which author. ... hmmm]

If you have a high level of need to think, rethink and carefully craft your words before others see them, this instant as-you-type viewing will deeply disturb you. When working and waving with folk with whom you have a level of trust, however, this is incredibly liberating to the flow of the conversation and to the collaborative process... much close to a realtime conversation then a long scrolling roll of chat.
This kind of open conversation and experimentation builds a wonderful collaborative group dynamic - Doug Peterson sums it up well in his blog post about his initial Wave experience - "Building Knowledge and Trust".

Waves are nonlinear
Even more fun comes when you realize that a wave is not a linear timeline ... there is no need to add your 2 cents worth at the end of the toilet paper roll and hope your friends realize your comment pertains to something from several hours (or days) earlier... instead just click on the comment or item within the wave that you want to tag or add to, and a new indented box places your comment within the wave, hierarchically threaded to fit the point where you were relating. In a busy wave it is almost magical to see comments blossoming up and down the length of the wave - many expanding ripples of thought!
So how do you read a wave? - Each time you see the list of active waves in your inbox, each wave shows a numeric indicator of how many items are in that wave, and how many of these have been added since you were last there... once the wave is open, all new items have bright green margins so you can quickly scroll through and see what's been added. You can choose to click on and mark each item as read individually, or click a button and flag the whole wave as read. It seems overwhelming at first, but some of my waves have over a hundred participants, and I find it quick and easy to catch up on the conversations... and jump in at the points where I wish I'd been present to interject. Anytime the wave's levels of threading get too confusing or you want to see just how the current conversation came to be, you have the option to rewind it, and play it back sequentially, one addition at a time.
And you can capture and archive the wave as a read-only copy for future reflection.

The tsunami effect
Start your ripple, but the wave is free to grow...

One click is all that is needed to start a new wave... enter your topic or opening sentence and then click to add as many of your contacts to the wave as you wish - a small discussion group of three colleagues or a larger group of all your friends - just click on their name and they are also on the wave. The next time they log in, they'll see your new wave in their inbox and see all the current conversations, gadgets, images and included files those already active in the wave have contributed. One feature getting discussion is the fact that anyone within a wave is free to add anyone else they want to... waves GROW with participants as they become popular. This "add your buddies" behaviour is not new in social media tools - within Skype, anyone in a group chat could add in anyone else. What's different in Wave is the content access... unlike Skype where you only see the conversation from the point you were added, Wave lets you see the full wave content from it's inception.

Floods of contacts
Anyone you see in a wave is just one click way from being added to your contacts list... it becomes very easy to find folk and build contacts. Indeed some waves can be created as open and public.. you can add yourself... and thus there are growing "directory waves" of educators, of librarians [self-organized into a alphabetical list, of course! ;-) ], of IT folk... "Linked-In" waves, so to speak.
Controversy swirls here too... with open growing waves, your contact information is out there and some wavers have noted a concern...
"By being in a wave, anyone who is invited to the wave (regardless of source) can then add us to their contacts. Spam potential? There is no way to block. Just flag subsequent waves as Spam -- it's already one of the options in the toolbar".
This will be something to watch... there's nothing like floods of spam to kill a good conversation!

Is this new social environment still quirky? - you bet!

Some odd bugs noted are:
  • the ability to add users to your contact list - but never delete them ( delete function is missing)... feels a bit like Hotel California!
  • no ability to see who's online or not... while a wave may contain any users, it's difficult to know who's live unless you catch them typing!
  • some actions, like sorting waves into folders within your inbox and colour coding them for ease of sort are finicky.. you often don't see the changes you've made unless you force a screen refresh or log out and back in again.
... but hey - it is a preview version... still in infancy beta!

Cool tools and gadgets

I'm still busy exploring all that is possible... but there is a growing list of extensions and gadgets working within Google Wave... plus a number of reported successes with some of the tools from the Google Gears toolset.

Do plan to have both bandwidth and RAM... Wave is not for slow connectivity, nor older computers.

Is it worth the effort to muck about, explore, learn, fail and play? ... definitely!

And one final thought in closing ... here's a humorous quick explanation of what Wave is... and why folk are scrambling for invitations... enjoy!