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Social Media Killed Google Wave

On Wednesday Google announced they are pulling the plug on Google Wave. Yes, this will piss you off, but this needs to be said:

Social media killed Google Wave. Or at least social media was instrumental in its demise.

Why? Because the people who fell over each other and sold their grandmothers to get an invite to this much hyped communication invention were not the people it was intended for and they did not need it, want it or know how to use it. As a result it was left, like an unsolved Rubik’s Cube, by the wayside to die a slow death – not because it was faulty or lacked uses but because those of us who had it didn’t understand it, grew tired of it and simply forgot about it all together.

So how did this happen? Winding the clock back to last year and you’ll be sure to remember the insane frenzy that was the battle to get a Google Wave invite. Everyone and their grandmother (before she was sold) wanted in on this revolutionary “real-time communication platform” from Google. The video demos were awesome. Silicone Valley was all abuzz. The gadget blogs, geek blogs, dev blogs, social media blogs, tech blogs, mom blogs and cute-dog blogs were talking about it. The Twitter Fail-Whale got face time over it. Facebook became a trading ground for invites. It was truly crazy.

The description tells the story

But why? All the videos, the writeups and the demos showed the same thing: Google Wave was a real-time collaboration platform that allowed groups of people to work on the same project at the same time – in real time. Which is something that’s done. In organizations. And in companies. And that’s about it. Normal people, like me and the vaste majority of the social media herd, do not need nor use such collaboration platforms because we don’t work on projects where they are needed. And before you say “oh, but Google Wave was something new and different that I needed in my life” remember that there are already several services out there that do part of what Google Wave did that you rarely, if ever, use.

I remember sitting at my desk in those days and thinking “what the hell are people going to do on Google Wave anyway?” I kept seeing Facebook and Twitter updates like “I’m on Google Wave right now! Anyone want to chat?” and I thought “Why? You’re already on a different platform chatting about chatting somewhere else.”

Don’t get me wrong here. I was part of the frenzy and I got my invite and peddled invites to all that asked. I was just as bitten by the bug as everyone else. And I’m to blame for Wave’s demise as everyone else.

Don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it – for real

When I finally got my invite it was for a reason. We were in the process of planning the first 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathon and needed a way for the 6 members of our team to work together on a pile of disjointed odds and ends. My partner in crime Angela decided that Wave might be a good platform for this collaboration so she set up a wave for us to play around with. After watching some videos and reading some of the documentation she quickly became proficient and set up a really impressive wave with images, documents, videos, chat and map integration. The problem was noone else in the group had time to get familiarized with the app so Angela ended up working on it pretty much on her own while the rest of us just watched in awe.

What I saw was huge potential – if there was a huge project with a multi-tiered team in several locations involved. What I realized was that this thing was not made for me, my company, my coleagues or anyone I knew really. It was made for large corporations or groups with highly complex projects that require real-time data and content management.

And that was, and is, the crux of the problem: The people on Google Wave were not the people who would benefit, or even find useful the functionality of Google Wave. Thus it was discarded as a neat looking but useless Beta.

Too much, too soon and to the wrong people

In the wake of Wave’s demise a lot of people are saying it buckled because it didn’t have enough to offer, that it was too complicated and that it didn’t have an actual use. I disagree. Google Wave was something truly remarkable that introduced a whole new way of collaborating and creating content. The problem was the people who would actually use it were already using other more established platforms or were drowned out by the masses that were so eager to jump onto the newest and shiniest bandwaggon that they didn’t realize the band was playing atonal black metal jazz with clarinets. Sure, it has it’s followers, but those were not the ones hitching a ride.

Additionally I think Google Wave was a bit too forward thinking. In a nutshell Wave introduced a type of non-linear stream-of-counsciousness workflow that is hard for people to wrap their heads around unless they are already used to it. Although real-time collaboration might sound cool it takes time to get used to writing a document while watching someone else edit it. And it takes even more time getting used to having multiple conversations in multiple streams at the same time. Sure, social media is pushing us in that direction but we still have a long way to go. We are still too stuck in the linear task-oriented way of doing things to be able to incorporate this type of workspace into our lives and offices. It’s coming but it’s still a few years away. Google simply pushed the envelope a bit too far and it fell off the table.

What can we learn

Like I said, the problem with Google Wave was never the app itself but the people who (didn’t) use it. This begs the question “Why were these non-users involved in it to begin with?” The answer is social media hype, pure and simple. Everyone was talking about it. It was touted as the hottest thing since an overheating MacBook Pro. Everyone just had to have an invite. People actually paid money for invites. But noone (myself included) ever took a step back and asked themselves “Am I actually going to use this thing? Is it even for me?” It’s pretty clear that Google had asked, and answered these questions and that both answers were “No!” Which is why the Beta was closed. Unfortunately the closing of the Beta seemed to have the unintended effect that people thought it was cool to get an invite, that they were part of something new and revolutionary, so rather than the Beta staying closed within the groups that were actually going to use the device it started spreading out to nerds like myself who just wanted their share of the fun.

Regardless of how it actually happened the result was an almost vertically accellerating growth in users followed almost immediately by a vertical drop in actual use. Not because the app was crap but because the people enrolled in the Beta testing were not actually Beta testing or doing anything else with it.

The conclusion? Hype is just hype. It is not a measure by which you should make decisions on whether or not to participate or buy something. And closed Betas are usually closed for a reason: To get actual results from actual users. And maybe most surprisingly: Social Media has the power to destroy great things simply by overloading them with massive interest followed by complete abandonment.

Rest in peace Google Wave. We hope to see you again in another time.

By Morten Rand-Hendriksen

Morten Rand-Hendriksen is a Senior Staff Instructor at LinkedIn Learning (formerly specializing in AI, bleeding edge web technologies, and the intersection between technology and humanity. He also occasionally teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. He is a popular conference and workshop speaker on all things tech ethics, AI, web technologies, and open source.

One reply on “Social Media Killed Google Wave”

Even for non-organizational users, a bridge from Gmail to Wave could have encouraged adoption. For instance, implementing a “Wave Inbox” in the same way that the new, “Priority Inbox” feature has been integrated with Gmail would have seamlessly married the two tools. Bottomline for myself and many other users was the pointlessness of keeping Gmail open on one screen and Wave open on another. Google missed an opportunity to feed all email/chat/doc and (later) Buzz content through a Wave filter on the same Gmail Inbox screen. Alas…

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