Google Wave: A Revolution Without Conventions.

It was almost 4 months ago when I first blogged about the impending communication revolution that would take its form in Google Wave. Back then it was out of my reach and the late September date I was given at the time for a wider release to the public came and went. I resolved myself to reading up a bit more on the protocol and then leaving it at that, hoping that eventually I would get a chance to have at it. Well no less than two weeks ago a few of my friends were invited and last week I managed to score an invite off one of them myself. Queue an entire Friday afternoon spent chatting, collaborating and breaking Google Wave with 5 of my technically inclined friends. Wave has definitely managed to live up to the hype, but not without some very interesting consequences.

When you open up Wave you’re greeted with a very a familiar Google-ish interface. It’s clean and minimalistic something which is rare in today’s rich content web. It’s really just an updated version of their Gmail interface which will help ease people into the transition from email to Wave. You’re added into a couple of default Waves in order to help you get the feel for how to navigate around and what features are available which won’t tell much to us techies but should help your average user get into the right mind set. After stumbling around for a bit and clicking wildly I caught my friend and co-worker who had had wave for a week or so and got into some real waving, and this is where it got interesting.

By default Wave is set up to transmit your keystrokes in real time to everyone who is part of the wave you’re adding to or editing on. The demonstration of this showed it to be quite snappy however it appears that the speed shown was probably due to the fact that the server was 10 meters away from them. As the wave starts to grow in size the lag starts to become more noticable up until the point where you can type a whole sentence before it appears on screen. This seemed to be alleviated somewhat by using Google Chrome which also added the benefit of being able to drag and drop files directly onto a wave. You can get the same functionality by installing Google Gears but you’ll still be better off installing Chrome (there didn’t seem to be any performance improvement in Firefox when using Gears).

After fooling around for a while trying all the various features and figuring out some system limitations (long character strings in excess of 256 characters without spaces seem to hurt Wave in a very bad way) it dawned on us that there was no social convention for using this new tech. For instance if you’re watching someone type something and you think you know what they’re talking about the reaction is to start typing your response right away. In a conversation this would be equivalent to interrupting them whilst they were talking, which is a bit rude. There’s also the issue of in-line responses, which allow you to reply to a section of a wave. You can do this while they’re typing and whilst it seemed useful at the demonstration, it only seems to sever the flow of conversation mid-stream. All of Wave’s features lack social conventions on their use and as such feel slightly awkward to use (and also make for some fun with Internet memes).

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This isn’t necessairly a bad thing, it just means that the technology really is a paradigm shift in the ways of Internet communication. Email suffered less from this as it was mostly just an electronic representation of a physical process, and thus was easily understood. Wave on the other hand functions like email mashed with IM and a sprinkling of a collaborative document management on top. It’s highly unusual and really has no physical process which it replicates. Thus it will take some time for people to develop their own standards and conventions on how Wave will be used. It will be interesting to see how it will develop as I can see many different ways of setting Wave standards, each with their own merits.

Is it a faux pas to respond inline whilst someone is typing? When is part of a Wave off-limits for replying to? Do you ever need to actually hit done, since you can just keep re-editing your wave which everyone can see? There are so many questions and only time with everyday usage will give us the answers.

If you’re on Wave and want to have a chat, I’m on there at [email protected]

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