Google Wave: The Wikification of Conversation

BLOG Google Wave: The Wikification of Conversation

google wave logoAt a meeting of Canadian IT leaders today, I was charged with explaining Google Wave to them. The objective was for them to appreciate how GWave will change the way people in business communicate.

I’ve viewed the videos and some online explanations of the product, which is due for public release in the fall. But none of these really gives the end-user a sense of what GWave is, or does. So I decided to tell a story instead. Here’s the story I told them:

One of our tasks is to provide guidance on how the transition of Canadian companies to IFRS (the new global accounting standards) will affect IT departments, and specifically how financial and reporting systems will have to change to accommodate these new standards. We’ve prepared an online training program (a webcast), a recorded interview with some IT experts who have implemented IFRS in Europe (a podcast), and an article in our association magazine. These three resources have been posted to our website, but we’re struggling to get the intended IT audience to visit the site, because they’re not aware of it. Marketing is, alas, not our strong suit.

Suppose we had done all of this in 2010 instead of 2009. In 2010 we will have access to Google Wave, a new tool that integrates the functionality of e-mail, IM, wikis, blogs, Twitter, and other social networking tools. Here’s what we would do instead of our ‘IFRS for IT’ web page, and what might happen as a result:

  1. We set up a ‘wave’ (a container for a conversation) entitled ‘IFRS for IT’. 
  2. We post a text summary of the webcast, podcast and article to the wave. We embed the webcast, podcast and article (not just links to them) below the text summaries.
  3. One of the audience members of the webcast and podcast, who has put these two recordings through a voice recognition software tool, posts a text transcription of them underneath the embedded casts. The built-in Google Wave semantic spell-checker auto-corrects spelling and homonym (“there” vs. “their”) errors.
  4. We use the built-in Google Wave translation tool to simultaneously post a French language translation of the transcriptions. 
  5. The twelve of us (the ‘core group’) involved in the project each independently “subscribe” people and groups we think might be interested to the wave. They receive the entire ‘conversation’ to date (the content and messages in the above steps). They can, if they wish, ‘rewind’ it and see each step as it was added in turn.
  6. Several of the invitees post IMs right in the text of the articles and transcriptions — comments, clarifications, suggestions, and questions. The entire wave is a wiki — people have full ‘author’ privileges to make changes (which are ascribed to them, and which can be reversed or amended, wikipedia-style, by a member of the core group if necessary).
  7. Other invitees, and core group members, join in the conversation, adding replies to the questions and to the suggestions. A whole new section of the article, dealing with specific IFRS IT issues for the banking industry, is contributed by one invitee, who invites other bank IT executives to contribute to this ‘wavelet’.
  8. One banker embeds a YouTube video in the wavelet, a transcription for it is added, and several discussions about it ensue.
  9. One invitee solicits ‘best practices’ in transitioning IT departments to IFRS, and posts a ‘form’ (essentially a database) for replies, using the built-in Google Wave form generator. Within days, fifty practices have been posted to the database. Some people begin and reply to conversations about some of the specific practices in the database.
  10. Someone starts a Twitter tag called #IFRSIT and, using the Twave widget of Google Wave, embeds a real-time feed of tweets containing this tag into the wave.
  11. One of the bankers wants a conference call on IFRS IT implications for that industry. He posts a form soliciting participants for the call. Several people enrol, the call is scheduled and held, and a recording and transcription of it are immediately posted to the banking industry wavelet.

Some remarkable things have happened here. There is no marketing involved. People invite people who invite others, and all are immediately included and engaged in the conversation. They can subscribe to the whole wave or just wavelets. They can have sidebar conversations, with full discretion over whether they are public or private. There is a complete, organized transcription of the entire ‘conversation’. The conversation is collectively managed and collectively edited and formatted to suit the needs of the self-selecting participants, and it’s easy to follow the threads. Updates and notifications occur in real time, and several people can be changing any part of the wave at the same time. With Google Voice (also new from Google), voice conversations can be recorded and transcribed and fed into the wave as well.

Inventing the story above (based on the features described in the Google Wave publicity materials) led me to an Aha! moment:

Google Wave is the wikification of conversation

You read it here first. I predict this will be the tagline of this new tool, and that GWave will render e-mail largely obsolete. And why would you send an IM or a tweet when it’s just as easy to start a wave, and capture and archive the entire multimedia ‘conversation’, and when waves can be linked together (a tsunami?)

Here’s another story, this one about (perhaps) the future of this blog:

  1. It’s May 2010, and I’ve just agreed to do a conference presentation on Transitioning to a Steady-State Economy and what it means for producers and consumers. 
  2. I go for a walk in the forest, with my iPhone and sketch pad in hand. I take some video of the forest, with the voice track of my preliminary thoughts on both the subject of my presentation (what I will say) and the format (I want to make it interactive, conversational). I stop to rest, and sketch out some graphics I’d like to show, and take a camera shot of them. I also retrieve some useful graphics and links from the Web.
  3. I set up a Wave entitled ‘Mindful Wandering – Thoughts on a Seminar on the Steady-State Economy’. It contains the video of the forest (just because it’s beautiful), a GWave-produced, auto-corrected transcription of my spoken thoughts, my sketches, and the graphics and links I’ve retrieved from the Web. I post the Wave to my blog (this is how I do all my blogging these days).
  4. My readers edit, comment on, provide suggestions to, add to, and ask questions about, the transcription of my conference outline, key messages, and graphics. This is interactive — I’m online the whole time, replying immediately by text or recorded voice, and all the discussions get added to the Wave. Someone contributes a video by Herman Daly, and someone else attaches extensive, highlighted extracts from one of Richard Douthwaite’s online e-books.
  5. I casually mention I’d love to be able to talk with these two ecological economists. Someone who knows Herman Daly arranges an introduction and time for a phone conversation. I come up with and post the questions I’d like to ask him. Readers suggest additional questions and refinements. I edit them into a final question list. We have the conversation, and it’s recorded and transcribed, and posted to the Wave.
  6. Now I’m ready to finalize the presentation content. I create a mindmap of the presentation, and link it to various parts of the Wave. Then I reorganize and clean up the Wave to mirror the mindmap. All of the changes in the above steps show up immediately on my blog, since by now blog ‘posts’ have been replaced by blog ‘waves’.
  7. I ‘perform’ (using my webcam) my presentation, and produce a simultaneous transcription of my talk. I post it, in pieces, to the Wave, so that it’s sync’d to the graphics. Now anyone who can’t attend the presentation can see/hear it all, and those who prefer the text over the spoken version can opt for that instead, or in addition.
  8. I muse with my readers about the format for the presentation. Should participants be expected to watch/read the Wave version of the presentation in its entirety before the conference, so that we can spend the whole session just talking and answering questions? Should I just ‘play’ the presentation, in sections, on the big conference screen, and then entertain questions and conversations during the breaks between sections? Should I ‘re-enact’ the presentation, live, at the conference, a kind of lip-sync’d version so people get to look at me and not just the screen? 
  9. There’s lots of discussion, but the conclusion is that, since it’s a live conference and since the audience can’t be expected to view the Wave in advance, I’ll have to ‘re-enact’ what’s already on the Wave. I feel like Vanilla Ice but that’s what I do, and thanks to all the input from my readers, it’s a big hit. The live conference session is recorded, but the only part of the live session that actually makes it into the Wave is a transcript of the Q&A. 
  10. We all wonder how long it will be before such conference sessions are replaced entirely by ‘live Waves’, where ‘pre-recorded’ wavelets are posted in real time on a ‘conference Wave Site’, with real-time questions submitted by the virtual ‘attendees’ queued and answered in real time at designated points in the ‘presentation’ (or answered after the session if there are more questions than can be answered in the time allotted). We conclude that, precluding $200 a barrel oil, this will not happen soon, because the real value of these conferences, as has always been the case, is the networking that occurs in the corridors between and around the actual presentations.

If you’re sufficiently familiar with Google Wave, I’d love your thoughts on how fanciful the above story is — it sounds as if GWave should be able to deliver all this functionality, but perhaps my expectations are too high.

On the way home from the meeting I listened to a great David Weinberger podcast from TVO, dating back to February. It just reinforced my sense that GWave, by adding context to conversations, will revolutionize the way we communicate. Highlights from David’s presentation:

  • We worry too much about the ‘echo chamber’ danger of the Internet. There is no evidence that we ever sought out people with conflicting views before the Internet came along, nor that we change our minds once we’ve made them up. Conversation is essential to how we self-identify.
  • Machines and digital computers may be useful metaphors for how our DNA and brains work, but they are not how our DNA and brains work.
  • The Internet has altered long-held views that knowledge is orderly, order-able, the same as ‘content’, more than mere ‘opinion’ or ‘belief’, or that any bit of knowledge fits in one best ‘place’ (under a specific ‘topic’ in a taxonomy or in a specific location). “Philosophy is not a topic“.
  • It’s easier and preferable to filter stuff on the way out (user discretion) than on the way in (provider discretion).
  • “Expertise doesn’t scale.” Mailing lists (the wisdom and conversation of a group) are inherently smarter than experts.
  • Broadcasting, politics and advertising all oversimplify (dumb down) complex subjects to “maximize information ROI”. Conversations and blogs add back the complexity, and in so doing add context and meaning.
  • Our modern perception that we (can) live inside our heads is “psychotic metaphysics”.
  • “Knowledge is never done….We never get anything right, and then we die….[so] transparency is the new objectivity.”
  • Knowledge by itself, without context, is worthless. Its value is as a means to understanding.

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7 Responses to Google Wave: The Wikification of Conversation

  1. The only bit that seem fanciful to me was that the automated translation to French would be good enough for general consumption. Even so it would be quick and easy to clean up with a team of collaborators. Apart from that I thought everything sounded completely plausible. I know these things get hyped up but Google Wave is the first thing to get me excited about the web again in quite a while. When I’ve had time I’ve been digging in to the developer documentation and I expect that by the time it goes live for general use, there will be a lot more functionality than we can imagine. “The Wikification of Conversation” – Nice

  2. Jon Husband says:

    Excellent .. your points and summary fit into / with what I have been calling (and writing about) … ROII (Return on Investment in Interaction).

  3. Jon Husband says:

    And … gets tricky in your story trying to keep track of “who’s the boss” on the organizational chart …I dunno, Dave .. tricky territory, that.;-)

  4. Nathan says:

    Interesting thoughts, but I appreciated the post just leading me to have a look at Wave in the first place…

  5. Randall Ross says:

    I don’t think the question to be asked is whether your (or anyone’s) expectations from technology are too high, but rather whether this outcome is what we want in terms of our information technology future. In IT any technological outcome is largely possible. If we imagine and support (explicit or implicit) an IT world with Google as our master, we are likely to achieve it. Slightly better than one with The Convicted Monopolist Corporation at the top? Perhaps. But I would argue that we can do better…Intentional community can and does apply to the world of networking and software development.

  6. Jon Husband says:

    Intentional community can and does apply to the world of networking and software development.You could argue, I think, that in those two worlds there is nothing but intentional community (purposely saying nothing about the depth or value of any given intention(s)),

  7. raffi says:

    a critical and sympathetic response from a russian developer who created something much like the Wave with much fewer resources.

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