‘Bove the contentious waves he kept

Google Wave is a browser-based collaboration tool that combines messaging, document writing and discussions in real time. I participated by proxy in an experiment with the tool last week that involved fellow content management professionals. These are my observations.

Saying is easier than listening.

In many ways the collaboration was too real time. In a spoken conversation, talking across each other isn’t really possible. In the Wave, it’s the norm. Even with half a dozen participants, it seemed everyone was piling in trying to get their thoughts down rather than considering what people were writing elsewhere. There were multiple threads to the document that you couldn’t follow at once It was like being in the middle seat at a party: it seemed like a good place to be but you couldn’t figure out which conversation to jump into. This might say more about the participants than the platform, but it is a serious issue for collaborative working where listening to a conversation, being able to respond to the speaker and draw out more information is crucial to constructive dialogue.

More is easier than less.

Anyone can add to the document, but there are no commenting features and a social reluctance to delete what someone else has written. The effect is that assertions are qualified rather than challenged or deleted, meaning that you end up saying in thirty words what you could have said in ten. The compound effect of this writing style is that you layer meaning on top of meaning to the point that — as Julia Kristeva might have pointed out — as a group you’ve said something different to the individual’s original point. That’s not collaboration.

You get more than you need.

I couldn’t quite figure out what we got from the Wave that we couldn’t get from just a Google document combined with chat or a similar tool. It was less the case of the glass being half full or half empty than the glass being twice as big as we needed. There were too many features. Nearly everyone experienced serious browser issues — except Ian, whose virtual shoulder I was peering over— whose Chrome held out where Firefox faltered. Wave might run in a thin client, but it’s a fat piece of technology.

So was Wave a total washout? No, but I think it will take a lot of adapting to. If only there were some browser-based tool out there that wasn’t reliant on Ajax, that was near real-time but forced you to refresh so that you listened before you spoke and which encouraged you to be as brief as possible when you did speak up.

Where could we find a tool that met those requirements? I’ll have to ask the good people of Twitter.

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5 thoughts on “‘Bove the contentious waves he kept

  1. Michael

    Haven’t actually tried it yet (though a friend tells me he’s just sent an invite, hurrah), and it sounds to me like a bottomless attention sink, but I wouldn’t write it off yet. It certainly wouldn’t be the first collaborative tool where we have to evolve a social convention for how to use it before it’s really useful. It’s debatable whether that’s a solved problem with Twitter (actually, some people I know have yet to solve it for email ;)

    Do wonder though: if we have to “adapt to the software”, then isn’t that de facto a symptom of bad/lazy product design?

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  4. Matt Hamilton

    Your thoughts are similar to mine on reading about this experiment, namely what does this do that you can’t do with existing tools? You mention Google Docs… another great one for this kind of thing is Etherpad.com which also allows you to save versions of the doc and add revision notes etc. We’ve used it for collaboratively writing marketing material and drafting web page copy amongst a distributed group of people. OK, so it doesn’t have all the integration stuff that Wave is on about, but for simply collaborating on a document then there are lighter tools. I remember seeing a proof of concept at a conference a number of years ago for the Plone CMS where someone developed an AJAX realtime widget that allowed collaborative editing as well.

    -Matt

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