It could be argued that until very recently, there wasn’t really anything fundamentally new about the internet. Email was just a faster and more efficient version of the post and telegrams. Web pages were similar to publishing and broadcasting – a one to many model, albeit with the barriers to entry dropped to near zero.

But I think it is no longer possible to argue that we are not living through a fundamental change in how human beings will live together and think. Social networking tools – Facebook, Myspace, and most recently and especially Twitter – are new things, giving us capabilities that have never been seen before in human history.

At the heart is the ability for many geographically dispersed people to collaborate in real time. It will change most things, including how we absorb and create media content.

I was reflecting on this when I received the following report from David Wright, a friend of mine who was invited to try out Google Wave. Read what he says, imagine what it will be like when this thing or others like it gets a grip, and then see if you can still mount an argument that nothing much is changing, and we can keep thinking in the old ways about how people will be informed.

Google Wave

What is a Wave?

That is the question I was asking myself around 5 months ago when I caught wind of another of Google’s many projects. This one was shown during Google I/O this year. They were doing an hour long demonstration on a project they had called Google Wave. While watching I was intrigued but was not blown away.

Fast forward four months and one of my friends dropped me an invitation to the closed Wave beta. A beta is an initial release of software for testing purposes. Wave is in closed beta which means you need to be invited to take part in it.

Firing up Chrome and logging in I was presented with a very Google-like interface. Clean, crisp, uncluttered layout.  Down the left was the familiar navigation panel: Inbox, Spam, Trash, etc. Continuing down was my contacts list. The rest of the screen was split into two equal windows, the left for all my Waves and the right panel to show the selected Wave.

So again I was left asking what is a Wave? Seven of my friends also got into the beta, so straight away we just started playing around with it, trying to found out what it did, how to manipulate it, what were the shortcuts.

A Wave is what you get when you take email, instant messaging (IM) roll them together and sprinkle some collaboration tools on top. An incredibly powerful system.

You can open a new Wave and invite who you want to participate in it. If you only invite one other person it is more email, IM than anything else. You can send each other messages (wavelets) within the Wave, whole chunks of text, drag and drop pictures, drop in links etc. With more people it gets more interesting, the other tools come more into play. Private responses where you select who can view it, post polls up for everyone to take part in. Each message can be directly responded to so you can have many nested conversations that are easy to jump in and out of.

Say me and three other people are working on a large project. We have a Wave going. We have been using it for a while so there are nested conversations within conversations. Pictures and updates everywhere. Now we add someone new. How can they understand what’s going on? Simple, the replay tool. Click “replay” on a Wave and it runs the Wave for that person from the beginning, showing each change in chronological order.

Even with that, it can get very confusing. You can see what everyone is typing while they are typing. You can jump in and edit anyone’s comments ( no stealth comments). You can be typing and adding to a comment while someone is doing the same thing. It is all real time. So there is a real question of etiquette. As we haven’t quite yet figured out email etiquette getting used to Wave will be interesting.

It is still definitely in beta though, so there is a lot of time to fix and learn. Of course once my friends and I had been using it for an hour it was natural for one of us to open a new Wave entitled “So how do we break this thing?” Apparently posting a million character word breaks the Wave making it unusable for everyone.

Will Wave supplant email or Instant Messaging? The short answer is no. If you just want to fire off a quick question or message, email is still easier. Holding long conversations is still easier via IM (or the phone of course).

What it will do is collaboration. Anything that requires more than two people’s input and it really shines. The ability for everyone to have their say, to follow easily what is going on, to track through the conversation, to be able to jump in after an absence and get up to speed straight away.For these things, it is perfect.

Collaboration is the heart of Google Wave. So what could it mean for news? Let’s imagine The Age decided to set itself up with a Wave account and all its stories were posted as Waves. They would be editable by the staff to allow real time updating. The audience could become involved in the Wave. A story could break as a Wave and all the staff could edit, add, drop in pictures, add maps to the Wave. Late to the story and need to be brought up to speed? Replay the Wave.

Media outlets could post all their stories as Waves. This would engage the audience by not only allowing comments butals nested conversations.As Wave is still in beta we are still discovering how it can be used and what can be achieved with it. It could provide citizen journalists with incredibly powerful collaboration tools for free, while allowing the audience to easily follow the stories.

The moment people have imprinted a piece of themselves onto something, as simple as having a debate instead of just throw away comments over a news story, they make a deeper connection to it.

As with all emerging technology it will be fun to go along for the ride.

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