Start the Wave: Disintermediating Social

Ad hoc social networks: right now that’s what I’m calling the disruption Google Wave will wreak. I’m looking forward to it leaving the invite-only preview. It’ll be like kudzu sprouting everywhere, from its quiet persistance in the nooks and crannies of the Web, right on through to the most popular gathering spots.

Google Wave, or maybe more accurately, the open source Wave protocol could be the most important innovation to our interaction with the Internet since the development of the Web.

I say all of that in spite of being a little frustrated with Wave’s current early beta state and lack of wide-spread availability. Now that the preview version has been available for a while, I’ve read articles saying that Google Wave underwhelms or even fails. There are still some problems to work out (it’s only a preview version after all) but I think it’s off-base to trash it so I’m going to do the opposite with this post.

Don’t know what it is? Here’s a simplistic overview: with Wave you can start a conversation (instantly or sequentially) with friends, colleagues, whoever, incorporating essentially any other electronic form of media you desire. The whole history is maintained in the Wave and can be played back as it occured or glimpsed as a fait accompli.

I think of a Wave as a discrete encapsulation of both content and the live processes of the people engaging with each other, engaging with that content. It can easily be distributed, shared, or otherwise punctured.

Google Wave makes it easy to embed games, business applications (SAP’s Gravity prototype is an impressive example; I don’t understand why they’re bothering with 12sprints Streamwork–they’d be better off building functionality on Wave *), text documents, video meetings, the possibilities go on and on; all of these things operate under real time collaboration. Even a plain wave let’s you see other people’s typing as it occurs. This is neat, it’s valuable, sweet utility that will draw people to Google Wave but it’s not what makes Wave so important or really differentiates it.

I think Wave has two crucial things going for it. First, it gives you control over whether waves are public or not and second, perhaps more importantly, it’s based on a free and open-source protocol.

My first point: the publicness.

Waves can be embedded in Web sites. Imagine browsing your favourite site and seeing a link for a public wave. You join it. Instantly you’re part of a community around a specific topic. This is nothing like embedding Twitter feeds or structure-heavy LinkedIn and Facebook stuff.

Let’s say you’re an enthusiast of Czech tramcars (that almost happened to me). You take photos of vintage cars rusting in far out rural locations. You participate in message boards reminiscing over the merits of the Tatra T6B5, somehow you secured a video of trams rumbling through a bygone communist city.

Then one day you find a Web site of like-minded enthusiasts and you see that they’ve put a link to their public wave. So you join it and find that a number of people have been debating the specs of the T6B5. You notice that scans of old documentation appear in the wave and someone has drawn diagrams around certain areas linking them to the related conversation. You remember that old video you had of one in action, so you insert it to the wave too. Oh, but wait you’re the only one looking at that moment–if the others were there you’d be chatting with them live. No problem. Even if someone isn’t typing directly back to you, they’ll see the update next time they open their Wave application and they’ll be able to reply.

Although my example above is not so serious, the point I’m making is that yes Google Wave lets you collaborate privately with those you invite but it also lets you open things up to the public in a way that didn’t exist previously. And you can make this happen just by clicking the “New Wave” button. Where else can you do that sort of thing? Traditional Web sites? Yes. Discussion forums? Yes. Video sharing sites? Yes. But you can’t do them all at once, seamlessly. I could keep listing things but you get the point, don’t you? Those will be challenged with this new disruption, and they’re not the only things.

I don’t even have to collaborate with people. I use Waves as my personal note-keeping medium. To-do lists, boring things like that. I could even publish my own personal Waves, like statuses on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, or blog posts (indeed I think I’ll try it on this site, stay tuned). Perhaps it has my likes and contact information as well. Public versions. Shared versions. Private versions.

Here’s another example. Wave has tremendous potential for “content producers.” Take a media/analyst company like the one I work for (TEC), where we send our subscribers e-mail newsletters, publish reports online, help companies through their software selections, host podcasts, etc. all based around enterprise software topics. We could be hosting waves around selected subjects with our analysts, writers, consultants, all participating whenever new issues arise. It would effectively subjugate (or augment if you prefer to see it that way) our other media initiatives. People that would normally subscribe to an e-mail newsletter, could join a wave instead and begin interacting at their leisure with whatever has occurred and become aware when something new occurs, and contribute their own input.

Waves may offer new promise for newspapers, musicians, all sorts of “content producers” if they harness the concept well.

My second point: the free and open-sourceness (wave protocol).

Social media mechanisms tend to decentralize Web content sources. They make it easy to spread articles, music, video, conversation, games, etc. beyond the boundaries of the originating Web sites. Facebook, for example, has taken over as one of the dominant destinations on the Web. I can go to facebook and communicate much as I would through e-mail, but I get potentially more out of Facebook because of the ways it sucks in the activities and interests of my selected peer group. That makes Facebook appealing and oh so sticky. But it is a single site, I do have to play within its boundaries, and not everyone that I can reach through e-mail is available, or even appropriate to reach through Facebook. Nor will they ever be because of two things: the rigidity inherent to its closed (single controlling company) structure and the domineering way it mediates my person-to-person communication.

So Facebook has some problems. In spite of all the various forms of access third parties can successfully take advantage of on top of the Facebook API, Facebook is a single company, with closed control. It’s essentially the same with Twitter, LinkedIn, and of most other social media sites (there are some possible exceptions like status.net/identi.ca).

Communication/collaboration mediums like e-mail on the other hand, owe much of their success to the fact that the platform isn’t controlled by a single company. Anyone can develop and proliferate e-mail servers and applications (desktop, web-based, smartphone apps, etc.). They work together by adhering to an open standard. It’s worked so well that e-mail has been one of the longest standing, most pervasive, and still highly relevant Internet applications. Unlike say, the social network MySpace: the fad that’s fading fast.

Social media innovated or reintroduced popular mechanisms for communicating-with other people via the Internet. Whereas most traditional Web sites had got themselves into the habit of communicating-to other people (which is fine, it serves a certain purpose–presenting or disseminating that which is authored, as it is authored). The Web site proper became the focal point. With social media mechanisms the web site is itself not so much the focal point as it is an aggregator and conveyor from other sites and between people (not the company operating it).

Social media sites generally lack user-facing content to communicate-to (except stuff developed by users themselves) but at the same time social media sites haven’t developed the full extent of communicating-with. The more the Web site itself fades from the focus and simply conveys person-to-person, the better it enables communicating-with as opposed to communicating-to. Facebook type companies are still too central to the communication they enable. On the other hand, Wave concocts a balance between the two, which is a disruptive innovation made possible because of the open source protocol. Wave wrests control from social networks by giving anyone the opportunity to form them, ad hoc,without a central overseer; like e-mail.

If Facebook or LinkedIn undergo a downward trend in popularity (Internet users’ have notoriously fickle tastes) or outright collapse, it will trigger a collapse in communication, data, the interactions within their communities. They thrive on critical mass and uptime. How about the proliferation of online office productivity applications? Those may allow users to collaborate in real time but they suffer the same problem as Facebook and LinkedIn, they’re a single entity conveying the communication.

The effort users have put into building their profiles, collecting the histories and online memories of their peers, attaching themselves to special interest groups, etc. will eventually be lost when sites like Facebook decline. Unlike e-mail, you can’t easily take Facebook with you. Some people have recognized this and have been working toward ways to get info out of online services. It doesn’t change the fact that we’ll never see a proliferation of Facebook servers offered by other companies.

This is fundamental: Google Wave is an implementation of an application that uses the open source Wave protocol but it’s not the only one, there will be others many of which might be quite different from Google Wave itself.

Wave, inherently made for live communication and collaboration, doesn’t risk hobbling its users through the fault of a single company or sag of popularity. Wave has every possibility of becoming popular the way e-mail did, since anyone can develop wave servers, clients, bots and extensions for the platform, etc. Other social media and work collaboration platforms cannot make a claim like that.

One more thing to consider. Building the Web on the Internet was an order of magnitude different from the rise of Web 2.0 apps. Web 2.0 sites are still, at heart, Web sites, they just do more. Wave on the other hand, is an order of magnitude different from the Web, since it’s emerging from it. Google Wave can do a better, more flexible, and more useful job subjugating portions of the “Web site proper” than any existing social media Web site.

If you’ve played with Google Wave and don’t get it yet, I strongly recommend reading the unofficial Complete Guide to Google Wave written by Gina Trapani with Adam Pash. I found it very helpful. Read the section on making waves public to find public waves or also see this directory of public waves. There’s also Google’s discussion site. For a quick though far less informative overview try Lifehacker’s Google Wave 101 or The Shiny Wave’s cheatsheet. Also, some interesting extensions and prototypes.

* Update 20 May 2010: SAP’s Streamwork now supports Google’s Wave protocol. I’m glad they realized the wisdom in adopting wave rather than trying to make an isolated version of their own.

One thought on “Start the Wave: Disintermediating Social”

  1. You are right bulding wave servers are an order of magniturde more complex than Email and it is interesting the protcol is open.
    Even google is trying to not control the Wave it seems like they are the largest power in charge of it. Will be interesting to see which other parties are involved with Wave.

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