Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Telephone Dread and Wave Inbox Puppies

It took me 30 years to get over telephone dread. Before my cure, I could only make a telephone call in a quiet environment without anyone to disturb me. Having decided to call someone, I would screw up my courage, pre-decide what to say to every possible answerer, and then pick up the phone. The dial tone would taunt me until I started dialing. With every digit of the phone number, I would experience doubt and anxiety. The touch-tone made it better; in the days of pulse-tone dialing, I hated numbers with lots of zeroes. Maybe the number was wrong. Maybe the person I was calling would be out. Maybe I would have to talk with someone's mother. Maybe the person wouldn't know who I was, and I'd have give a humiliating explanation of who I was. Half the time I would click the hook part way through the number after thinking of some unconsidered terror. By the time I got through, I would be an emotional wreck.

It was the mobile phone that cured me. I could just key in the number, double check it, stare at it for a minute, and then I could press the send button and I was launched into the call. Ten buttons of anxiety was reduced to a single button, and that, combined with a small bit of emotional maturity, has enabled me to use the phone like a normal human being.

I've always been comfortable with email. There's a single send button, and once an email has been sent, I can forget about it completely until I get a reply. And there's no need to reply immediately- the ease with which email can get lost is perhaps its best attribute!

The tele-presence afforded by Instant Messaging is quite comfortable. You can see who's "around" and strike up casual conversation. The intermittent immediacy can be very stimulating.

Twitter was very un-threatening to start out with. No one was ever going to read that first status message, or so you thought. Gradually, Twitter will reel you in because once in a while, without rhyme or reason, people will react to what you say. Retweets are like the random rewards that kept pigeons pecking in the famous random reinforcement schedule experiment.

Google Wave is different, and I still can't tell if it will terrorize me as the telephone dial did or whether it will comfort me the way IM status messages do. Although it's conceived as email re-invented, it moves beyond familiar modes of communication. My first impressions post got a commenter who pointed to a blog post from June that included a note about the unexpectedness of one of Wave's features.
Wave is changing paradigms. People can no longer take back what is released. Even if someone deletes part of the document, the deleted part can be seen in playback. While this "permanent memory" was there almost since the beginning of the Internet, it was never before real-time. How could we take back an information from a Wave? Imagine you have misplaced your password to the wave instead of password input box. It will always be visible. OK, I could change my password, but what about unfortunate copy&paste event with a credit card number?
I had never really considered the importance of forgettability in communication.

Wave's waves are described as "living things" because they can be continually added to. They also live somewhere that's not on your computer. Google's conception is that there will eventually be many Wave Service Providers running the Wave open-source service platform, but for now, the waves all reside on Google's servers. I can't think of any form of human communication that "lives" in remotely the same way. Maybe people playing music or games together is the closest example.

Email was easy to start out with because it wasn't so different from the kind of mail that requires stamps and envelopes. You wrote a message and sent it off. Instant messaging was not so different from having a real-word or telephone chat. Wave, by contrast, maps most closely to other things you do on the internet, like IM and Wiki editing, each of which is a degree removed from things you do in real life. Wave is two degrees removed from normal human intercourse.

Since it's a living thing you can't just send a wave and then forget it. Your "inbox" is like a litter of puppies that are yelping for attention and growing in front of your eyes. Or maybe they just sit there dead, waiting to be "archived". It will take a while before I'll know whether the Wave window will be filling me with dread or delight. At least I've learned how to give my puppies a bit more breathing room.

After four days of Wave, I'm most excited to see how the Wave ecosystem is developing, even though many features are still hidden because important things aren't working yet. A sorely needed feature has been a way to do ranking of public waves. Today, that feature is being born. This is a great example of the benefits to having a platform open to developers from the very beginning. Needed functionality is being quickly added using the robot mechanism. I'm starting to think about how to use Wave robots to do useful things in libraries and scholarly communication.

This post is posted in Wave.

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