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Nathan Key on GoogleWave, Irony, and Hoverboards

Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 12:11 AM EDT

Our good friend Nathan emailed me recently about doing an interview for his blog, even as I was about to email him asking for a guest spot about what he thinks GoogleWave might have to offer writers. Check out the interview below and visit Nathan’s blog here. Thanks Nathan!

CHRIS: I first heard about GoogleWave from you on Twitter. Tell us a little bit about what you understand GoogleWave to be and why (if) it will be important.

NATHAN: I think I need to address this question in two parts, the first section being a brief summary of what we all think Google Wave is and then address what it might actually end up being…

The first part is that Google Wave is a new social networking application that’s going to allow collaborative data creation by combining elements of file sharing, document creation, media hosting, and online conversation within a real-time, visual platform. Basically, it’s a reimagining of wikis and bulletin boards. The interface will allow participants to view media, text, and conversations in a real time setting, as opposed to bulletin boards, discussion forums, and wikis that all require refreshing. Since it’s an application rather than merely a website, Wave can be inserted into existing webpages, social media sites, and blogs- just like the Google Maps application. If it works correctly, it should allow visitors or collaborators to chat about their content or ideas in real time and within a shared space.

But the second part of the answer is that much like other social media forums, we really won’t know what Wave is useful for until people begin playing with it and using it themselves. Just from looking at the video demo, I think I can see all sorts of uses- group projects within businesses, interactive experiences within a blog post, planning and remembering a party, creating shared memories from family vacations- all sorts of collaborative projects. But the reality is, because of the social aspect of this application, it could really be used for any sort of social activity that requires discussion or shared experiences.

I mean, what is Twitter supposed to be? People use it for a lot more that “status updates.” It’s used for promoting products, sharing news, conversing about various topics, trending research… I mean, really, the uses are as variable as the users. Different people use it for a lot of different things, and I think the same thing will probably happen when Google Wave is released. The intended use will probably evolve into something completely different than the original intent.

CHRIS: I think you’re right on about how we don’t know what good a thing will be until people use it. At the same time, I had no idea that I wanted something like GoogleVoice until I read about it.

You and I have talked before about the irony of all the different web apps and suites and messengers re-congealing back into platforms like Gmail and Facebook, this after one of the big things we hated about AOL was its all-inclusiveness. What do you think this says about the social evolution of online communication or communications in general?

NATHAN: Yea, it is sort of odd that this whole online experience had it roots in places like AOL and CompuServe which were sort of a single experience. Later, the web splintered off into all these various different companies who specialized in searching the web or hosting photos or providing news or blogging. Now all the best companies are returning to the conglomerate model. Giants like Google are trying to provide the same sort of portal for the internet as AOL and CompuServe did in the beginning. They want users to stay on Google owned and operated sites for as long as possible.

I guess I’d compare it to any business, really. I mean there’s always going to be the GE’s of the world who want to gobble up all these subsidiaries in an attempt to capitalize on what the little guys are doing well.

It goes back to the argument, do I want to specialize in one thing and do it really well, or do I want to generalize in all sorts of things so that I can meet the expectations of a larger audience. What I usually find is that everything is pretty cyclical- when there are a lot of generalists who are doing OK at a lot of things, suddenly one or two daring individuals or companies will stand out from all the others because they specialize in something. Then everyone jumps into the specialization market because they see how much money there is to be made in specializing. Pretty soon, you’re all over the place getting one thing from here and another from over there.

So then, when the balance has shifted, someone probably decides to offer a few services or team up with other people who have similar ideas and market themselves together, creating conglomerates again.

Anyhow, I think that’s what’s happening with Google and Facebook right now. They’ve both been really good in one or two areas and so they’re now looking to expand their base since they’ve got people on their sites all the time.

CHRIS: That gets at an underlying question: how is Wave different from something like Facebook?

NATHAN: Good question. I think one of the primary differences is that Facebook is geared toward finding out about what individual people are up to. Facebook is really great at reconnecting old friends. So you’ve got all these individual pages, each one for an individual person and it’s basically representative of their own little world. They have all their photos, information, and interactions gathered in one place for others to witness. But I think because of this the interactions are sort of isolated from one another. I love that each page is called a “WALL” because it really is representative of the isolated, walled up, individual online experience for most people. Sure, you can create a “group” and invite other people into it, but most of the people who use Facebook tend to forget about the group aspect of Facebook and worry more about their own individual experience.

With Wave, the dynamic is focused almost entirely on collective topics, much more like you’d see on a wiki or in news forum. Waves are (in theory) topic driven and so people who have an interest in that topic are invited to come join that conversation or project. Those who aren’t create their own wave about another topic/project, or join a wave that’s already been created around that topic.

CHRIS: You messaged me on Twitter (speaking of the evolution of communications) about GoogleWave as a tool for writers. What did you have in mind?

NATHAN: Well, something that we’ve been discussing together for the past year is how the music industry has really embraced this “death of the author” meme. A lot of artists are providing interactive music experiences where their fans are able to access their music and recreate it or remix it into something new or different. Radiohead has been doing this a lot, and we’ve seen a lot of other bands and artists like Ben Folds and Third Eye Blind jump into this sort of thing.

But as writers, there haven’t really been any online tools that allow us to effectively collaborate with other writers or embrace the re-imagining of our ideas in the hands of others. Since I haven’t actually used it (only read and watched examples), I don’t know whether or not Google Wave will be a realistic tool for collaborative writing, but I think there’s some potential there.

For instance, if you and I wanted to team up on a blog post or a book, we might create a wave together and bounce ideas back and forth. We could chat about it in a shared space (much like IM), edit text collaboratively (like Wikipedia), and even invite some of our readers to join the discussion, too, so that we get a feedback loop going and involve our readers in the process. In that way, it’s possible that we can slightly change the writing process a bit and make it a little less about us and a little more about our readers.

CHRIS: We should do something like this. If there’s a video component, let’s do an video interview of each other on both of our blogs in real time. You in?

NATHAN: I’m totally “in” for a live interview when Wave is released, although I’m not sure if they’re going to do live video, too?

CHRIS: Last Question: “The Batman” animated series had something called the BatWave, and I think this and GoogleWave are both named after a hypothetical technology from “Firefly”. We’ve seen this before, notably with Star Trek, where sci fi anticipates real science or inspires it. Is art a self-fulfilling prophecy in these cases? Are there any sci-fi concepts out there now that you see getting traction in the real world? I’m betting on terraforming and things like that. What about you?

NATHAN: How about the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Now that the Amazon Kindle is boasting a live feed from Wikipedia (for free), we’re pretty close to a hand-held device that can tell you about everything on the planet. If we can only get it to talk to us and show videos like the gadget in Adams’ books, we’ll be all set!

The reason I think Sci-Fi is so good at predicting the future is that most really good Sci-Fi is nothing more than an exaggerated allegory or metaphor regarding a social issue that’s going on in today’s world. We all know that Star Trek was really about the Cold War, that Wall-E was a social statement about the ramifications of continuing to trash our world, and that The Matrix was an allegory for living under the blind control of The State. People who write good Sci-Fi are usually visionaries who are able to see the potential outworking of current social issues and so I think it stands to reason that they’d also have a gift for exploring the outworking of our current technology advancements, too. Just as they can predict the outworking of a philosophy or activity, they’re also able to predict the needs that people have and how science might expand to meet them.

That’s why terraforming is probably more realistic in the future than the hoverboard and the flying car technology from Back to the Future, Part 2. We may have a real NEED for terraforming as our planet continues to lose viable farmland, but flying cars and hoverboards don’t really meet any immediate need, They’re novelty for now, so they’re not as likely to come about in the near future.

Special thanks to Nathan for doing this interview and for interviewing me on his blog last week.