Google Wave – How it might work (if we stop moaning)

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[tweetmeme]May I introduce the fabulous Su Butcher (@subutcher to you tweeters) who has written an excellent post on her experience of Google Wave for The Cube and  how we might move forward with it. There has been a lot of chatter on the subject, much of it negative, so Su’s thoughts are timely. My own view is that it’s early days. Yes it’s still a little clunky, but there is some clear value in how it could be beneficial in the future. Over to Su …

Everyone’s talking about Google Wave – and some of them are moaning.

This is my take on why I think this might be and what they should be doing about it. Oh, and how I think Google Wave is a useful tool if used properly (and with a little discipline).

What is Google Wave?

Google developed Wave from the question ‘what would email be like if it were invented now’. The user interface is a little like an email application, but each email-like object is a “Wave”.

A Wave is a document/place to which you can invite participants to collaborate, so instead of sending emails backward and forward you join together in one place for a particular purpose, like for example, to discuss a subject.

When people participate in your wave they can add content – text by typing, images, files etc. by dragging and dropping. If you’ve ever participated in a Wiki then you’ll get the idea. But the difference between a wiki and wave is that in a wave you see what people are doing in real time, and who is doing it. This means you can watch the discussion unfold, and it gives Wave a ‘chat-like’ quality.

In addition there are also two types of ‘Extensions’. These are:

  1. Gadgets –applications you can put in the wave which help people interact in different ways (like a google map, a mindmap application or a poll participants can vote on). There are new applications being developed all the time.
  2. Robots – automation systems which do things automatically (like enable you to format the wave with HTML, or post everything on the wave to twitter, for example)

But don’t get distracted by all the goodies too much.

This is a quick summary of what google wave is, if you want more detail I suggest you check out Mashable’s Summary article as a starting point. If you’re on wave you might find John Blossom’s Content Wave blog of interest.

What you can do with it

Here are some examples of waves I have participated in to give you an idea:

  • People are putting together lists of things (the obvious one being a list of Google Wave extensions people are trying out). Collaborative lists are great because you can discuss the hierarchy, value and problems with items on the list.
  • People are uploading documents and discussing them – for example there is a public wave discussion the constitution of the United States of America.
  • Photographer Andy Marshall started a ‘why tweet?’ mindmap wave. This is a wave with a mindmapping application in it where he sketched out a ‘why tweet?’ mindmap. It is now publically accessible and dozens of people are adding their nodes and rearranging it collaboratively.
  • A group of people interested in Architecture have started an Architects Wave to discuss useful things architects can do with the software. In particular they are discussing how it could be used for collaboration. Set up by [email protected] and [email protected].
  • I recently started a wave on a project where I invited the participants and collated together all the information they needed to execute the project. The wave not only acts as a repository for the documentation (photos, pdfs, text, maps etc), but as a place where it can be discussed and enhanced as the project progresses.

So that all sounds very simple – why is it complicated?

What’s the Problem?

Problem One: Not enough users

Google wave is in Beta testing mode – which means that google have put the application in the hands of some willing volunteers to see what we do with it. And this is where things get both interesting, and problematic.
The problem is, people want to collaborate with their colleagues, but they might not be able to invite them, and it isn’t obvious how to find the people who have access, or how to connect with them. Yes, it’s a beta and a bit clunky…

When you join Google Wave you will be invited by another person, who may add you to their ‘waves’. But you can also find people where you know their google account username, by typing it into the dialogue box that appears when you add a contact. Anybody in your Google Contacts who have Wave accounts will automatically show up in your Wave contacts. You can also search for things. Unfortunately Google is relying on complex search ‘strings’ at the moment, but these two are simple and useful:

  1. You can search for “with:public” in the Google Wave search box (next to the “New Wave” button). This should bring up a long list of public Waves that you can join.
  2. If you add a name (or part name) to the search term you may find people you know who are participating in a public wave. (but if you want to get rid of the public waves and go back to your own, search for in:inbox to:[email protected]).

Problem 2: We do what we know (rather than what’s new)

When we see a new piece of software like wave, we like to associate it with things that are familiar to us, like email and chat. Faced with a new piece of software, we behave the way we always behaved quite easily – intuitively. We aren’t likely to “read the manual”, or watch the videos. Rather we’ll try things out cold and see what happens. Software developers learn a lot from this, because in the end this is in the nature of most human behaviour, so they have to design for it.

Well it might be useful for the developers, but its particularly frustrating for us, because Google Wave isn’t like email or chat. It’s something else, and we will have to learn how to use it. (see Problem 1)

Problem 3: We have Hangups

Thirdly, when faced with new social situations, we reveal some of our hang-ups. Ask my dad who recently bought his first Mac. He hates it because it shows him how much depth of knowledge he has (and habits he’s developed) using Windows, something he wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

One hangup I have noticed with wave is how challenging it is to see people watching you type, with mistakes and corrections. I’m a quick typist, but others are slower, and we all make embarrassing mistakes. With email this didn’t matter- the reply just ended up in your inbox complete and probably corrected for spelling and grammar. But with wave you reveal much more about yourself, and this may be unsettling. Google Wave has a ‘draft’ mode, but Google hasn’t turned this on yet. John Blossom of ContentWave, a blog on Google Wave, thinks that this is because google want to encourage us to experience the opportunities that ‘real time’ offers – and get used to it!

The most important hangup I have noticed so far however, is the one which I think is causing people the most difficulty with Google Wave. This is DELETING THINGS.

Hung up about being Deleted?

When did you last watch without feeling when someone deleted your work? Exactly. But with wave, deleting is not just useful, it is essential.

When you’re collaborating on a document you make decisions and material is superseded. Deleted superceded items (including conversations) is really useful. It clears them out of the way for the MEAT. By enabling deletion, Google Wave gives you permission to comment, discuss, digress, decide and then delete the discussion leaving just the decision in place.

Imagine you’re writing a shopping list with three other people. Everyone adds their own items, but if you’re shopping for meals you need to list the meals too, take the ingredients you need off and add them to the list, argue about what meals you want, what type of ingredients you want… but what you want to end up with, is the shopping list. The rest is superceded.

The way Google Wave lets you get over this deleting hangup though is very clever. The real power of Google Wave is something which a Wiki doesn’t have, and its not the real time quality, it’s the Playback function.

Playback means NO Deletion

Across the top of the ‘wave’ document is a Playback Button which brings up a slider bar, a bit like on a youtube video. You can use the slider and your tab keys to go back to the start of the wave and tab through everything which was done on the wave, including when things were created and deleted.

By using playback you can end up with the finished shopping list, but also see how it was arrived at. Because playback exists, deleting content doesn’t matter as much.

Unfortunately we as users still have to get over our hang-ups about deleting. But its ok, we can do it. All we need to do is keep focused on our objectives.

Do the Housekeeping

And here we come to the nitty gritty of wave creation. You have to be at least a little strategic, have some structure, or you end up with a mess. People can comment on, add to, change digress and waffle all over your wave. If everyone makes a mess and no-one clears up all you have is a mess.

Well if you made the wave, it’s your baby, and its your job to clean it up. Its not so bad – remember that you cannot delete in a wave, you’re just removing.

Remove what is no longer relevant and, like a good facilitator, you’ll steer the meeting towards its objective, diverting from digression and clearing up confusion. At the end of the process (or even somewhere in the middle) you’ll still have a creation which can be understood and can serve a purpose, no matter where it wandered along the way.

In summary

What Google has done with Google Wave is very interesting and innovative from the perspective of most of the people trying it out. Whether is takes off will to a large part depend on the ability of its users to embrace some of the social challenges it puts on us, and conversely, on Google treating us a little kindly when we need it.

But most of the onus is on us. We know that you have to have a plan to make a project work. So make your plan, do your housekeeping, don’t make a mess, make a carefully crafted, collaboratively created Wave. Or six.

Su Butcher blogs at and has recently begun a new project to help Professionals get started online, called


For those conscious souls ready to step up and serve. Suitable for established or new coaches.

  1. Neil says:

    Thanks for that – it’s helped me understand better. I tend to find that if web-based applications aren’t as easy to use as Apple’s desktop software, then I rapidly lose interest.



  2. Nice one Su. I agree that a lack of users has definitely made it a difficult start – it’s hard to collaborate by yourself! Thanks for the further explanations though, I haven’t the chance/reason to really dig into Wave just yet but I definitely want to start using it.

  3. I agree this is a very well written blog about Google Wave. I was given an invitation on Google Wave when the invites were release and I found it very frustrating in the beginning because I could not Wave with anyone. At first I was really excited about being on Google Wave and then lost interest all together, waving alone wasn’t fun but maybe its time to re visit Google Wave.

    PS. I think Google should consider adding in a much easier search method to find people. Something similar to Facebook to make it easy to find others.

  4. Neil, I agree. When time is of the essence I run out of patience if I have to spend too long working new applications out, particularly when you’re used to the intuitive nature of Apple’s products. Sometimes it’s worth sticking it out though.

  5. Romany, you’re right. The key is finding the people to collaborate and connect with and the search function isn’t quite there yet.

    Feel free to add your Wave addresses here if you want to build up your contacts people. Mines [email protected].

  6. Jim says:

    I’m still not hearing a killer use. I’ve been waiting for the last three weeks since I’ve been on to hear of a conversation/wave related to, say, Copenhagen where people
    – got to know one another
    – hashed out a document
    – planned a meeting

    Do these things happen? With google docs, I had half-used it before this fall, w/o success, but then worked in a four-person collective where everyone could use it well– and got to see how we could use it to create common spreadsheets (public or closed), docuemnts, minutes, etc.

    Haven’t seen how Wave even competes with Google Docs yet. Or supplements it!

  7. Su Butcher says:

    My google wave address is
    [email protected]

    If you know someone’s googlemail address just use the same [email protected]

  8. Su Butcher says:

    Hi Jim,
    Have you tried searching at with:public with the extra term Copenhagen?

    If there isn’t a wave doing what you want, why not set one up yourself?

    I often find if I do something online several people say, oh yes, I was wondering about that…

  9. I started off by loving Google Wave – trying out all the features and using it regularly to communicate with people. This has tailed off massively in the past few weeks though, I rarely log in at all. I found that while I was talking to people on there, soon this just migrated back to Twitter or email. The biggest problem is that I don’t need another site to check, when I can get all the functionality on other sites that I use already. I’ve no doubt that I’ll go back to it in the future (the honeymoon period is over for me) but right now, I’ve no real need to.

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