October 19, 2009
Google Wave: Innovating Innovation at the Expense of Innovation

Platforms for culture and community are no longer a "cool, new thing" online. YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have been around long enough that most users understand the basics of their purposes and functions. But now that these systems have been entrenched in the flow of the Internet, some users have begun to hack away at the conventions of Youtube, for example, to create some pretty innovative uses for the platform.

Last year, Sheila -- now a second-year graduate student in the Comparative Media Studies program and a researcher with C3 -- wrote a report for the Consortium on the current state and future potential of online television. One of the interesting perspectives she draws from is that of technological adoption, to which she responds that now is the time for television to adapt and integrate with other technologies. Referring to the research of Noshir Conractor of Northwestern University, Sheila describes three stages of technological adoption -- substitution, enlargement, and reconfiguration -- which describe the evolution of technology to fit social practices: 1) new technology replacing older forms, 2) frequent use of the technology, and 3) a change in the use of the technology to fit social customes, or (vice versa) a change in a cultural practice because of the use of the technology.

YouTube is a great example of this, because in the past couple of years we have witnessed a host of awesome projects that have come out of the third stage, reconfiguration. Most of these projects have attempted to move beyond the ordinary practice of "viewing one video on a single hosted webpage" with wonderfully successful results.

After the jump, I'll briefly describe a set of these YouTube-based innovations, and then comment on Google Wave, the new venture of Google to mix up email and social networking into a highly collaborative space, and how the Wave might be moving a bit too quickly beyond its initial adoption phase.

One of the more popular YouTube innovations has been THRU YOU - Kutiman mixes YouTube, where digital artist Kutiman takes a handful of user-generated musical videos from YouTube and mashes them together into a harmonious compilation. Putting aside the creative layout of his website -- a scratched-up version of a YouTube user page -- the carefully laid out mash-up of his first song, Mother of All Funk Chords, not only combines videos, but cuts them precisely to fit a specified beat and tune.

But Kutiman is just one example of the evolving landscape of YouTube innovation. Kutiman continues to utilize the one-video format, but in Bb 2.0 takes a new approach (and another musical one at that) to how videos can be used sequentially and simultaneously.


Darren Solomon, the author of In B-Flat, writes in the site's FAQ, "I was making a site with embedded YouTube videos... when I realized that YouTube doesn't stop the user from running more than one video at a time. I was curious to see if there was a musical way to explore that concept..." After an initial attempt by himself, he solicited videos from a number of different users on YouTube, asking them to play notes in the B-flat major scale. Solomon aggregated them onto his B-flat website, which it is up to the visitor of the webpage to "create" the music, by arbitrarily choosing different videos (the "instruments") to play at various times. There are probably billions of permutations that can come out of this project, and hence billions of songs possible to compose, metaphorically. Personally, my most successful combination is the screenshot above (you can see which instruments to play by looking at which videos have the pause sign, ||, active).

It appears, then, that YouTube has in part moved into the third phase of technological adoption, where its users are innovating the platform to lay cause to a bunch of new methods of viewing YouTube's videos.

Like YouTube, Google Wave is a platform (instead of video, based around collaborative communication) that is beginning to aggregate a community. But I have a question: Will Google Wave crush the innovative potential of its users?

Google Wave is innovative in itself. If you didn't catch on to the hype surrounding its popularity across Twitter (it hit Trending Topics for about a week), watch the (hilarious) video below for a solid introduction to the platform's capabilities:

So, if that's about 3.5% of what Google Wave can do, it seems that the developers really opened the platform up to an unbalanced amount of potential innovation. It seems that a user can do, well, anything. Or at least that's what the marketers would like you to think (and I suppose that it's succeeded, since everyone's very, very excited).

But with endless potential and capabilities, what exactly will people use Google Wave for? If we posit that the Wave will be a replacement email system, that assumption certainly approaches the first stage of technological adoption: substitution. We have to keep in mind, though, that Google Wave is still an invite-only community, so there isn't a very large user base currently residing on and using the platform. Douglas Rushkoff has already written about what he calls Google's Velvet Rope: the company has adopted a similar invite-only system for Google Voice, which is limiting the immediate growth of the Voice user base. In a way, Google profits, because more people spend longer talking up the service, creating a thick atmosphere of anticipation (and jealousy).

But if there are no users for Google Wave, will we see the same stages of technological adoption? If there aren't a lot of users for Step 2 (enlargement), will we ever see Step 3 (reconfiguration)?

Because the problem I foresee with the adoption of Google Wave is that Google's marketers are pushing for the immediate success of Step 3. Google wants people to realize that email is "the old way" and that Google Wave will innovate, again, everything.

An interesting video popped up in my Google Reader yesterday, detailing exactly this kind of innovation that we might never see occur:

The video, entitled Good Wave Hunting, created by Whirled Interactive, features a clip from the movie Good Will Hunting, starring Matt Damon and Robin Williams. The style imitates that of typographic animation, many videos of which can be viewed on YouTube (one example below).

But back to the Google Wave video. Although it's not an official preview of Wave's capabilities, it certainly shows the potential of the platform. The two users can change font, drag images, import and play video (and it's even a good visual narrative if you have two minutes to spare). This short video makes Google Wave seem like a dream.

But can we do that? By we, I mean the users. Are we going to think to drag all those images and video into a conversation? Or for the first two years, are we just going to use the Wave as a replacement for email, and only innovate a few more years into its development? I wonder if Google is innovating the Wave to inspire innovation, but these aspirations are -- at least in the beginning -- at the sake of innovation. Google Wave needs users to use the platform. Forget about doing the impossible right now. I mean, I'm still getting chain letters in my inbox (thanks, Dad).