01 November 2014

Google Wave and the uncanny valley of communication

Last week I saw a tweet wondering if Google Wave could have been successful, had it launched now instead of 2010. I suspect it was more of a rhetorical question, possibly hinting at the recent launch of Inbox, which was introduced in similar terms to Wave (the next evolution of email and invite-only rollout). For me, the answer is pretty clear: as much as I loved Wave, it was too complex to ever gain mainstream adoption. Real-time communication has since become the fastest growing segment of social media, but collaborative editing hasn’t taken off, and I can’t think of an app doing both successfully. The combination of features Wave offered would have had a hard time entering corporate space as well simply because companies are reluctant to radically change their existing systems. Some concepts have been adapted into other products – for example on Medium people can comment anywhere in an article, starting a local thread, although it’s unclear if that was inspired by Wave or just a similar idea developed independently.

Another early problem of Wave was slow performance. Since in 2014 most relevant apps have mobile versions, Wave would have probably suffered on that front as well. Chatting in Google Wave had a real-time mode where people could see others typing – not just the ‘friend is currently typing’ notification you get in Whatsapp and every other chat app today, but actual letters and words appearing as other people typed on the other end. It would be difficult to replicate this feature on mobile with performance on par with other messaging apps. I imagine regular chat apps send data over the network only when you actually hit ‘send’, while Wave-like real-time typing would need to constantly ping the servers to send and receive each keystroke.

Thinking about this, a more fundamental problem of Wave comes to mind. I don’t know how many of my readers are familiar with the concept of ‘uncanny valley; it basically states that, when people are confronted with new objects or situations, their degree of comfort steadily increases as the new thing gets more human-like, but is interrupted by a deep, sharp ‘valley’ where objects not human enough raise feelings of strangeness and uncanniness. It occurs to me that Wave, trying to reinvent communication, stumbled into a similar uncanny valley. Uncanny valley of communication and Wave

The most natural, familiar mode of communication is talking face-to-face; speaking on the phone is likely a close second. People are communicating fast and can gather feedback from others through gestures and voice tone. On the other side of the valley we find written communication, asymmetric and more broadcast-oriented, with delayed feedback. Lately they have started to converge through chatting, but Wave pushed the boundaries too far too fast: seeing letter appearing and disappearing on the screen as the other person is still formulating thoughts is akin to reading their mind, a very unusual experience with no real-life equivalent. Another unusual aspect: people could edit a Wave later, effectively going back in time and changing their memories of a conversation. People could write anywhere and reply to anyone, creating the impression of a room where everybody was talking at the same time.

There was tension between the public and private aspects as well: normally it’s reasonably clear if people are communicating privately – like a cozy chat over coffee between friends – or publicly – writing an article or making a speech. As much as talking in public can be stressful and uncomfortable for most of us, uncertainty is worse. We expect that out private conversations remain private, that other people don’t open mail not intended for them or eavesdrop on our phone calls. Wave stepped over these boundaries, because participants could add others and make private waves public without consent from the rest. The broad feature set of Wave, spanning from casual chat to collaborative document editing, only added to the problem, mixing work and fun in ways people don’t usually. Since Wave hasn’t address these issues, it’s hard to see how it could become popular or a replacement for other mediums, no matter when it would launch.

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