Breaking Waves A Google Waves Experiment
BACKGROUND OF GOOGLE WAVE
Google Wave was previewed to Google employees on May 27th 2009. Described as a “personal communication and collaboration tool” it was gradually rolled out from September 2009 via invitation. A combination of instant messenger and email, users could send messages to their contacts in a chain (similar to Google Mail) but then move back UP the chain, and insert text, images, video etc to add to the conversation.
The hype surrounding Google Wave had been immense, yet my initial experiences of it were less than favourable. I found the site restrictive, hard to navigate and slow. However, I was also clear to me that a tool that allows multiple people to edit one document and add content had some potential.
It had been widely tipped as a useful tool for businesses, and even education, when the process of the presentation or the lesson is the focus, but would it work for journalism, where traditionally the process is building up to a finished product ‐be that a bulletin, article or a report?
In Gatewatching (2009) Axel Bruns described a new sphere of news that was the “publicizing <…> of whatever relevant content is available anywhere on the Web (and beyond)” (Alex Bruns “Gatewatching” 2009 p 2)
Today’s journalism is a conversation, not a lecture. I wanted to launch a crowdsourced wave, where people could publish information about a particular story, whether that was images, video, copy, quotes or maps. Most importantly, I wanted to encourage NON‐journalists to participate as well.
The number of content sites encouraging the public to get involved in the news process is increasing (e.g. Wikipedia) but I believed my Breaking Waves project was an unusual enough idea to gain some interest.Google Wave can be used as a live chat room, as a live‐blogging tool and as a content editor, and it was THIS final tool that I wanted to investigate further.
The focus was very much on news gathering, or rather, content gathering. I was hoping the experiment would take shape as people contributed and that a solution to how this content could be distribution (if at all) would present itself.
I started by simply playing with Google Wave, getting used to the systems and experimenting with a few of the installed gadgets (maps and polls as well as the editing system).
This was, as I had hoped, going to be more than just a wiki. The fact that collaboration could take place in real time could, potentially, start debate on the site, and content could spring from that. This was not about many people editing one persons article, but users adding content to, essentially, a blank page. The possibilities were endless.
I launched the wave with a subject that I hoped would spark some interest and generate plenty of content. At the time Britain was suffering some of the worst snow storms in years, and what better a subject to get the Brits talking, than the weather.
The online community were already heavily involved in crowd sourcing postcode based snow updates via Twitter (eg. B18 3/10 light snow), which were being fed into a map. I was confident that interest in participation would extend to my site, with non‐journalists posting human interest content, and the journalists who were involved bringing a more formal, news edge to it with news reports, comments etc.
The wave was launched in the Google Wave interface, but I soon embedded it into the Birmingham experimental news page Hashbrum and made it public. Once that link was “tweeted out”, people began to participate, adding pictures and video.
I decided early on that there needed to be some structure to the Wave, or it could, as I had seen with simple conversations, become quite chaotic. Below the title I loaded several pre‐defined wavelets entitled LINKS, MAPS, PICTURES, VIDEOS and MISC, I hoped this would sort out the data, and keep the wave organised.
The question remained, what to do with the content?
I set aside another wavelet, at the top of the wave, simply called COPY. My plan was for this to house the final document, a long form report bringing together all of the content posted by others. However, I soon realised that this was not the point of the project. Users were participating for the sake of participating, the focus was not a final article.
Browsing the many public waves on Google Wave, is it interesting to how it is being used.
The Chicago Red Eye blog holds daily Waves where readers can discuss the top story of the day with the editor. It is not dissimilar to a comments page, but is truly live, and takes place at the same time every day so people make an effort to join in.
Another interesting use of Google Wave is one pooling together information following the recent earthquake in Haiti. It contains a series of networked waves, covering topics such as food and water, nursing, evacuation and emergency care. Experts are sharing information, expertise and advice, plus there are plans to link up Twitter accounts to the site, so news of future disasters can be handled quickly.
The communication model has changed: in both cases both the company running the wave, and the “readers“, are part of the process, and the process IS the product. Chris Wade was one of the trainee journalists to get involved, despite his initial reservations about Google Wave.
“everything seemed to make quite a bit more sense. Multiple users contributed their pictures, maps and videos of the snow, and Google Wave was a brilliant way to bring all these together. It was ideal for a project like this”
Another contributor, Matt Walker, told me via Twitter:
“It has the potential to replace IM/Social networking/collab stuff etc.”
I decided to shelve the idea of a “final copy” section to the wave, and instead let the user submitted content be the article. There was already so much “traditional” news coverage of the situation, I hoped visitors to the page would prefer to browse a section of their choosing, whether it be articles, pictures or video.
I have also recently launched another Wave, this time with a music news focus. The welsh band Lostprophets (social media devotees themselves) have been on the promotional trail this week with the release of their new album, expected to debut at number 1 in the album charts. I wondered if this might be an interesting opportunity for young music fans, who are happy to share images and content online already, to get involved with this project and pool the extensive coverage that the band were already getting.
I was hoping to use an RSS feeder to bring in content linked to the band (with hash tags or Twitter feeds) but the current RSS Google Wave gadget (rssybot) is not functional. Once this is working, it would be a great addition to the feed.
I also need to properly promote the feed and get it out there to the right people.
The Birmingham Snow Wave was successful in as far as people participated in the process, although the numbers of contributors were disappointingly low. It has received 14 content posts since launching.
As with any new project, it was hard to find the volumes of people who would be interested in taking part. Despite the hype surrounding Google Wave, it now seems there are invitations, once rare and coveted, going spare. It seems the initial interest has been limited to the technical and business world.
Struggling to find participants was also not helped by the subject matter. The Snow in Birmingham was far too niche a topic and several journalists from around the country said they would have participated, had it been a national focus. I think with Google Wave still in such an early stage, the broader the subject the better.
However, the participants that did contributed to the wave, 4 in all, seemed to enjoy taking part and liked the experimental and unusual take on news gathering.
It obviously appealed to journalists, with 2 young students getting involved. Another user was a friend of mine, who heard about the project and wanted to “have a play”. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, it is much harder to find interesting content. Instead I found that embedding the wave into a blog website and promoting that URL instead, sparked some interest and a few requests for Google Wave invitations.
My second Wave, Lostprophets Album Release, a very recent addition, may stumble for a different reason ‐ the audience. Google Wave, although causing a bit of a stir among the technology world when it launched, has not really broken into the mainstream, and certainly not into the younger market. However, I would like to pursue this line, and experiment with Twitter feeds to pull in and coverage online.
One of the resounding criticisms of Google Wave has been usability. One of the participants in the snow wave, non‐journalist Karen Davies commented:
“I found it really hard to use and navigate…I consider myself quite savvy when it comes to computers and to social networking sites. Google Wave is really ‘clunky’. I really like the idea behind it all but I think they haven’t put enough thought into the layout and interface.”
In the same way that many Twitter users do not access the service through the official website (instead, using an app such as Tweetdeck), so Google Wave would expand. We must not forget, however, that Google Wave is still in the beta stage, with no plans to make it totally public until the end of 2010.
One of the benefits of Google Wave is its non‐linear approach to comments. Blips can be added at any point in the wave which can spark interesting debate, but as with any user generated content, this can potentially cause problems with people posting defamatory, obscene or copyright material.
So who is responsible for making sure that doesn’t happen?
I am still waiting for clarification on this issue, but a recent Twitter conversation with
Birmingham blogger and social media expert Jon Bounds suggests that it is in Google’s hands.
A public wave is the responsibility of Google, as it sits on their site and not of the person that starts the wave. (In the same way you are not responsible for the comments to a video you put on Youtube.) Does this change if you embed the wave into your website or blog?
Google has taken down Blogger blogs before now, will they step in if Google Waves become legally unsound?
So does Google Wave work as a collaborative news tool?
I believe it does, but it takes another step away from the traditional news model as content is crowd‐sourced from the public, and the tradition of a “final piece of work” is removed. The content is simply organised and becomes a scrap book for people interested in the story.
Sites like Posterous, Dipity and Tumblr are already aggregating content and pull in feeds from Flickr or Youtube via RSS feeds or from email, but Google Wave allows for direct interaction. This can, in theory, be added to an RSS feed as well ‐ bringing the best of all worlds: user comments and automatically added content.
Once the service has been opened up to everyone, and new applications (a Tweetdeck for Wave for example), gadgets and robots are being designed for it, then we can truly see it’s potential.