digital rhetoric

google wave creates new (ways to) work

I'm documenting some of my initial experiences and thoughts about Google Wave. As I mentioned in my previous email, there is a certain vertigo that accompanies really new new media. Seesmic Video and Second Life both felt like that to me, Twitter less so. Even blogging seems strange when one first starts out. Certainly Wave is estranging. That said, it would appear that there is a typical (familiar) feeling/experience of estrangement that might be understood as a process of remediation. That is, the encounter with new new media is met with an attempt to engage according to practices of an existing media practice. In the case of Wave, it's IM or chat. This is particularly the case of a wave with synchronous users.

However, even if there was some compelling need for a better version of chat/IM, Wave wouldn't be it. Ultimately (and fairly quickly), one has to adopt a different set of behaviors.

I have read a common complaint that Google has been cryptic about what Wave is and how to use it. I get that, but at the same time the baseline description they have provided is that Wave is meant to replace email. As they explain, email is really an ancient technology (about as old as me, thanks). So in one sense Wave is "better than email" (or hoped/intended to be), but, as I see it, it is also "more than email" or email+. More is not necessarily better as we all know.

At the same time, as noted in The Complete Guide to Google Wave (by Gina Trapani and Adam Pash of Lifehacker), "Google Wave is fundamentally a document-centric system, so you want to
make good-looking waves with colors, font styles, headings, and other
word processor-like styles. You can attach files and create photo slide
shows in your waves, and add interactive gadgets like maps,
Yes/No/Maybe surveys, and YouTube videos." So, part of making "better email" is adding interactivity and media to messages. But the notion of "document-centric" seems very different from email to me.

I do recognize the practice of using emails to share a document that is being written collaboratively. And I do see how that can be a pain. But we have Etherpad and Google Docs or even wikis as "document-centric" applications. Given that we are talking about a Google-developed Wave, perhaps this begs the question why use Wave rather than Google Docs to collaborate on a document? The short answer is that Wave allows one to do a lot more than Docs does. It's perhaps closer to a wiki in its ability to incorporate media and gadgets.

The lingo of Wave suggests that each conversation is termed a "wave" (lowercase), and within each conversation, each instance of communication is termed a "blip." One can add a blip as a reply to the wave in general (which gets added at the bottom) or reply to a specific blip (which creates branched/threaded discussion) or reply inline to someone else's blip (similar to commenting in a document) or even, more radically, simply edit another person's existing blip (which is where Wave turns into a collaborative document composing tool).

So, hypothetically, if "we" were collaborating via Wave on a document we would output eventually, we would first create a wave and invite ourselves as participants. One of us would create a blip which we would collaboratively edit to be our final output. At the same time we might add blips within the wave as inline comments to the document or threaded conversations about the document. We could add media and gadgets to our blips (and even to our output document, depending on where it was going).

That's interesting. I have often argued that humanists ought to shift their scholarly practices to be more collaborative and make use of social media networks (and that this collaboration, rather than the incorporation of video or other media, is the real rhetorical challenge we face). But right now I can't say I encounter many opportunities to do such collaboration. As such, for me, this kind of document-centric approach is a new way to work but is also simply new work in that I didn't collaborate before and Wave suggests that I might/should in the future. Perhaps this will mean less work elsewhere… or not.

But in my view, we've already strayed quite far from the "better email" business. So let me enumerate some of my common email practices:

  1. Email students, either individually or by class. Generally these result in private exchanges. I don't see how Wave improves on these.
  2. Collaborating on cmte work. Here the document-centric business might come into play. I actually could see this as the first place I might use Wave, if/when my colleagues get on board.
  3. Organizing my kids' soccer team business. Here I could certainly see using waves, though not any time soon.
  4. Listservs like TechRhet or WPA. These would be interesting cases. Right now, someone would have to create a group of listserv participants, and then anytime someone wanted to start what is now a new thread, I think that person would have to create a wave and add that group of participants. Still, it could work, and it might expand the functionality of such listservs.
  5. Editorial collaboration. As co-editor for Praxis, I shift between using Basecamp (where the asst. editors discuss submissions) and email (where I communicate with non-Praxis Kairos editors and with our authors). I could see doing this work in Wave. Each submission would begin as one wave where our assistant editors review material. I could edit that wave and then share a part with the author. There could potentially be collaboration on text at that stage. Then a third wave where there would be the second stage review by our editorial board. Followed, potentially by a fourth wave where we return to the author for final revisions. I could actually see that working… somehow.

In any case, though I have curiosity and a professional interest in emerging practices like Wave, I don't want to be mistaken for a techno-enthusiast. I do think Wave merits investigation and experimentation.