Over the past week Google has been rolling out the first invitations to its latest service, a complex “real-time communication and collaboration” system dubbed Google Wave.
Instead of sending messages back and forth, users create web-page-like documents called waves that others can modify or comment on, using a combination of features more usually seen separately in email, wikis, instant messaging and social networking (see a video introducing Wave).
Early reviews have been positive, and demand for invitations outstrips supply (Google says ours is still on the way). But even for those who have tried and liked it, Wave’s potential is still hard to assess….
Two of the features of Wave that are likely to alter how people communicate are related to time: it allows users to see others typing live, even if they later delete that text; and a “replay” function plays back the complex tangle of interactions that produced a wave.
Past research has shown that the real-time, synchronous, nature of instant messaging (IM) encourages an informal tone, says Susan Herring, who researches the convergence of computer communication platforms at Indiana University in Bloomington. “It invokes face-to-face communication and encourages people to use conversational strategies,” she explains.
Seeing live typing may accentuate that effect, but Wave can also be asynchronous, like email. “We won’t see the difference between the two types of communication disappear,” says Herring. “More elaborate messages are still possible, but when the other person is online you will be drawn to a more informal style.” The pace and style of communicating with Wave will be more varied than with email.
Held to account
Meanwhile, the novel replay feature may have multiple consequences, says Watts. One is to add significance to Wave messages – just as the fact that people can store emails they have received means writers tend to rein in emotional emphasis they might let rip in spoken or IM chat.
“Replaying a Wave gives an even more tangible and reliable feeling for the history of a relationship,” Herring explains, compared to the way email threading and sorting quickly breaks down, hiding chronology.
Replays may also improve our ability to know the intentions of others – a capacity called theory of mind that is central to the way we communicate. Different communication methods provide different types of evidence that is used to create such models. Because Wave provides multiple ways to transmit that evidence, it may make it easier to model others’ minds. “Watching a Wave replay could help people to imagine what was in the minds of others,” says Watts. …