Sunday, 18 October 2009

Google Wave, transparency* and engagement

I've been using Google Wave for about a week now and every time I log on I discover something new. I've read a few gripes about things being broken, or it being too confusing, or too quiet, but for me the biggest problem is having time to play around with it enough to learn everything it can do.

Lifehacker has been invaluable, as has this post and this one although when I swept off in a, well, in a wave of enthusiasm to embed a wave on here I swiftly discovered my limitations. I was pretty downcast as well until I realised that it should be quite easy as it's all done by automation but the facility isn't switched on yet. And since my coding skills are pretty lowly I am really not up to tackling this without bot assistance. So instead of getting hung up on what it can and can't do, I think I'm better off trying to work out the rules of engagement.

For example, I've just crashed a Wave. It's about Flickr, I didn't mean too, but I have just added myself to the discussion simply by clicking 'reply' to see if I could. No one cared but it was weird that a debate was going on between a group of people who obviously know one another and suddenly I'm in the middle of it. All a bit too "Ta-daaaaaaa!" for me right now. I guess it's because I am still treating it like it's a private conversation; it is a public Wave on the public timeline but, like Twitter, it's not easy to keep that in mind when you're using it. It becomes a little world and when someone new arrives it's a surprise.

Here's something else to, raised by Nick Miller in the 'Wave, journalism and the mainstream media' wave I joined today:
Watching people type in real time is fantastic, in a voyeuristic way. You can see their minds working.

But do we want people to see our minds working? How many times have we written an email, tweet or forum comment, only for our censor to kick in and say 'don't send that!'.
How many times? For me, a lot. Right now I'm getting mocked for my poor typing skills by fellow wavers who can see me correcting as I'm going - but there's a lot more onus on me now to think through what I'm going to say. You know in Google Chat when it says X has entered text and it generally means they're sense-checking what they've written? In a wave, your thoughts are revealed letter by letter. And I get very self-conscious if I start a sentence, then backtrack/delete and rephrase it while other people observe me making those changes.


What Google has done is create an application that allows those watching a wave to see thought-proceses at work; a wave is an aid to Transparency. A journalist using a wave is asking people to collaborate wiki-style in information-gathering - in fact, s/he should be writing the article in the wave, so contributors can participate in living, breathing news-making - a space where they can throw questions, facts and comments in themselves - not be served up a flat, one-dimensional statement of facts that ends when the story is thought to be the required amount of words.

I remember last July when a crane collapsed on an apartment block in Liverpool, and how Twitter was integral to the Post and Echo's coverage - imagine if we'd been able to start a public wave on the topic and embed it on our websites. By bringing a contributing audience into our site and asking them to help us - using maps and images being added alongside observations and comments - the 'journalist as gatekeeper' would have been truly defunct. Rumours posted could be quickly checked and a breaking story updated constantly. And it would remain open for users to revisit, and add to. The playback option shows exactly who made what changes when, which is also pretty handy.

It's not Twitter, or Facebook, or a wiki, or even email but it is, I think, a great learning opportunity for journalists who are prepared for the sense of exposure and vulnerability it brings. Letting someone see the messy spaghetti of a story-in-progress is something we've been conditioned against for decades - it's many years since I sat my NCE but I'll bet the NCTJ is still interested in the end product, not the journey - and Google Wave is all about in-progress. It would be unsettling (and possibly, initially, irritating) as a journalist to type a statement and then see another wave participant dive in and start editing the text you've just written to change a fact, or add information but I'd imagine it would also be exciting to see a news story being woven out of random strands of questions and facts.

Google Wave is going to be what a journalist wants make it - crowdsourcing, debating, real-time news-gathering, breaking news, image sharing, archived events, live-blogging, polling, asking for feedback - but, I think, the most exciting thing it offers is the opportunity to change the way we think about interaction and engagement. As a learning tool for transparency, it really could be amazing.

* Shortly after I published this post it was pointed out to me that the headline read 'tansprency'; I told you my typing was hopeless...
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