Google Wave - how I use it

Posted on November 11, 2009

This is part two of a short series of essays I am writing on how I have been using Google Wave and my take on the system.
You can find the main article and index to the whole series here.

How I use it

Personally I’ve used it in different contexts and for different purposes (but always for collaboration, i.e. working with other people to achieve a specific goal) and so I am now able to have at least an idea of what does and doesn’t work for me, for example:

  • Messaging: For me this does not make any sense. People have “waved” me with the “Hey, you’re on wave too, great, let’s chat!” talk and, quite frankly, it feels like trying to kill a fly with the proverbial canon. You can do it, but you really shouldn’t as it is a waste of effort, resources and just plain silly. There are myriad instant messaging solutions out there and most of them do much better in that field than wave does. It is overkill, it is slow, it is just plain silly;

  • Exchanging longer messages: The “Dear Nuno, How have you been? I have been thinking about that party last week and…” kind of messages don’t appeal to me in the least bit either. Do you realize that in a wave (as it stands now, anyway) anyone can edit what anyone else has written? Have you really tried editing long prose on it’s current interface? This is the canonical use case for email, so just use email for that. If it’s not a “living” document, edited by more than one person, then it’s an email, not a wave;

  • Instant collaboration over a project: The ephemeral wave. A project comes up, people set up a wave and work on it collaboratively (and yes, they use it as a discussion medium instead of instant messaging in the context of that particular wave), work progresses until the point when the project is over and the wave looses it’s meaning and usefulness. It didn’t coalesce into a document, it was just a kind “white board” for people to work actively on. It has the history of the work done recorded in it, but apart from that it holds no value whatsoever for the future. This is a usage case that has worked quite well for me;

  • Planning: Two or more people collaborating on planning something like a trip, a podcast, or anything of the sort. I’ve used it on both the cases mentioned and, as it should be apparent, it is really well suited for that purpose. Even planing something slightly bigger, say the design and implementations of an open software project (I’ve done that too, and still am in fact) becomes very fruitful. All of these activities require a high degree of gardening, though, because otherwise the wave just turns into an unusable mess.

Things I’ve learned that work OK

As with any new tool, especially one that is as complex as this one, it takes time and experience for one to grok it. I’ve been using it for a while and I’ve already uncovered some patterns of usage that seem to crop up in most waves with different users. Here are a few examples:

  • Commenting on sections of a document: I sometimes start a wave as an outline of a document I want to collaborate on or maybe as a few paragraphs about the subject under discussion. And what do people do the first time they open the wave? They do what they’ve been doing for years on email: they reply to my ideas either on the top or at the bottom of the wave, usually on a different wavelet, either quoting my own words/section titles or simply by launching into the discussion without even stating what they’re replying to.
    But wave provides a far better way of doing this and after a while (and some experimenting) I find that people usually tend to drift to this way of doing things, which is to comment right there on the wavelet itself, creating a sub-wavelet that can even be collapsed if you just want to read the full text that’s being debated upon on this sub-wavelet. After a few rounds of this the document starts to look cluttered from all the sub-wavelets debating all the little pieces of text and so the need for curating arises. I will, on a later article, make some screenshots illustrating these items;

  • Curating the wave (think wiki gardening): When the document starts to look like one huge, chaotic mess (or better yet, before it comes to that) someone usually takes the time to read through the sub-wavelets pertaining to the section they’re most involved in, summarize it, change the “master wavelet” accordingly and then delete all of the sub-wavelets. This is a good thing to happen to a wave and not at all an attack on the sub-wavelet participants, as it ensures that the wave keeps fresh and usable. If the need arises for further discussion on a particular topic, people can just create a sub-wavelet and the cycle begins again. Also the history of what was said where by whom is still all there anyway.

  • Mind dumping: When an idea comes to me about a particular project/topic that I have a wave for (you know those “a-ha!” moments you usually have while on the shower or jogging) I usually go to the wave in question as fast as I can and I just write down whatever idea came into me head. This has too benefits for me: 1- I get it out of my head and into a written form. Doing this makes me organize my thoughts enough to write them down and may make some implications or problems immediately apparent; 2- It gives the other people I’, working with (the wave is about collaboration, after all) a chance to immediately start thinking about the issue/idea I’ve just got and I can get feedback really fast. I do this actively on some of the projects I’m waving about with people and it really works.