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How to Use Google Wave to Collaborate on a Project

As I said yesterday, the current Google Wave preview has its flaws. It’s unpolished and light on some critical editing tools.

It’s also missing the single most important element in any collaborative project — other people. Until Wave sees wide adoption, it can be difficult to recognize the protocol’s full potential.

Still, all you need for your own collaborative writing project is one other person. Once you’re in the preview, Google sends you new invitations pretty quickly and I was able, within a couple weeks, to get everyone I ever talk to online enrolled in the program.

Only three or four of them still participate regularly, but I spend a lot of time working projects with those three or four people in Google Wave every week. As long as you can get a collaborator to peek in from time to time, you can do amazing things with it.

I talked a little bit about prewriting yesterday, and I’ve got half a dozen writing projects in various stages of design sitting in my Wave inbox even as we speak. I’ve used Wave for a lot more than that, though. I’ve used it to discuss book ideas and get feedback on drafts, to prepare development plans for major programming projects, to make dinner plans with a large group of friends, and to discuss the merits of certain humorous webcomics.

Whatever your purpose, getting the most out of Google Wave (without getting frustrated) can take a little bit of care.

Putting Wave through Its Paces

A wave, as I mentioned yesterday, is a series of comments or “blips” strung together in nested hierarchies.

One of the first things you should do in Wave is have a good complicated chat with a friend. Make sure to go back and start new offshoot conversations off early comments from time to time, and get an idea how nested waves grow (and how to read through them without getting lost).

Edit your blips, too. For us grammar snobs, it’s probably the single greatest advantage of Wave over chat clients (and even email). Did you post without reviewing your comment? Did you make a typo or a copy/paste error? No problem. Publish and polish, as Dave would say. Feel free to fix your errors (and even your collaborators’ errors) at your own leisure.

One of the biggest weaknesses of the current preview is that you can’t yet rearrange blips. It’s aggravating, for a tool that so excels at managing and organizing conversations. But if the people you’re working with don’t pay attention to their nesting, or plan ahead, it’s easy to end up with conversations in the wrong places.

I’m sure that, in time, that’ll be fixed. For now, I just try to plan ahead and design my waves, building a string of consecutive top-level blips before I invite others into the conversation (just like I mentioned yesterday in an example), so that I can be sure any discussion of those topics will naturally occur beneath their entries.

Surviving Its Shortcomings

At this point I’ve repeated “preview” a bunch of times, but I haven’t really explained it. Maybe it seems obvious enough, to anyone who remembers the Beta tag that hung on GMail for four or five years, but it’s a little more complicated than that.

See…Google Wave isn’t a website, or an authoring program. Google Wave is a communication protocol. It’s a standardized, open-source method for capturing, tagging, and distributing snippets of conversations.

The Google Wave preview, though, is a website and an authoring program. It’s a sample of what can be done with the Wave communication protocol. In this case, Google put together a multi-purpose communication client that’s designed to look and function a lot like a chat client with an email-style Inbox.

You can try writing a novel in it (as I have), and you’ll get frustrated and switch back to Google Docs quick enough (as I did). That doesn’t mean Wave is no good for novelists, though — it means novelists need a custom Wave client designed to handle large blips, to differentiate between authors and reviewers, and to hide one reviewer’s feedback from others (so they can experience the text just as it is).

And all of that will come, if the protocol isn’t entirely rejected and forgotten by the community. In the meantime, we make up for it with some of the tricks I described above — designing the discussion, dividing subtopics into individual blips — or, even better, individual waves that can easily be dragged into a master wave to create links.

That’s how I often end up organizing the discussion of a major project. I start a new wave to serve as the Table of Contents and contain general discussion of the project as a whole, then I make new waves for different aspects of the project (To Do list, visual design, organization and structure, purposes/goals, that sort of thing), and link each of them into the first one.

You can also make up custom tags to assign your waves, much like you would for blog posts, and use them in the same way, too. You can use Wave’s search function to display a list of all waves matching a given tag, and even save that search for future use (so it functions kind of like a folder in your email client).

With a little care and handling, it’s easy enough to make this preview feel just like the real deal.

Entering Its Gates

Of course, there’s still the matter of getting in. The preview is currently invite-only, and it probably will be for a while.

I know that sounds pretty exclusive (and maybe a bit intimidating), but it’s really not. As I said before, within a few weeks of joining, I had more than enough invitations to bring in everyone I knew. For that matter, I’ve still got extras. I haven’t used any of them in months.

So if you’re convinced, if you’d like an invite, let me know in the comments. Even if I use mine up, I’ve got friends and family who would all be happy to share some of theirs, too. If it gets you working in Wave, it’ll be well worth it.

15 Responses to “How to Use Google Wave to Collaborate on a Project”

  1. Gurl says:

    I will also offer up invites as well. I have quite a few and not enough people that I think will stick with Wave to invite. I have 25 that I will give out for Aaron’s other readers, if he will be kind enough to coordinate with me once he’s used his invites.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      That’s really generous, Gurl. One of my students last semester pointed out that you can actually just add me as a collaborator to your “Invite others to Google Wave” wave, and then I can directly distribute your invitations.

      I’m not saying we should do that. I just think it’s cool that they thought that through.

      I’ll definitely get in touch with you if we need to work something out, though. As of right now, I’ve got twenty invitations available, and I’ve only gotten to spend one so far.

  2. Dave Doolin says:

    I’m not totally sold on Wave yet. The concept is brilliant, but the implementation is pretty lame. My guess is that it’s going to sputter along for a while, then Google will get the implementation fixed… or a competitor will get it right.

    One thing for sure, collaboration tools are in their infancy. Lots more interesting tools to come, I’m sure.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      My only real, long-term concern with Wave is the way it slows down on long conversations — whether it’s complicated nesting, 100+ blips, or large individual blips (which, you and can imagine, a fellow like me tends to generate). In any of those three cases, though, a wave that is still reasonably sized can slow to a crawl.

      I don’t know if that’s a problem with the preview client (which wouldn’t bother me at all), or if it’s a fundamental limitation of the communication protocol (which would squash most of my hopes for future uses).

      Still…if just for coordinating the planning of a project (whether it’s dinner or a game design document or a big-ass e-Book), I wouldn’t give up Wave for anything right now.

  3. Ok, I’m game. Send me one and I will at least check it out.

    I was thinking this might be possibility for a digital “scrbblebook” as you call it.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Glad to see you’re in! Trish and Courtney are both occasional users, and you can find Carlos and Julie in there any time you feel like chatting.

      I’ll add you to a wave I wrote way back in November, when everything was still shiny and new. It’s a basic introduction to what Wave is and how to use it. You can just skim it if you want — I haven’t actually looked at it in months, but I suspect it covers much of the same material I’ve talked about in these two articles.

  4. Julie Velez says:

    Yes. We just live in Wave… Perhaps we should start living more.

    I thought I saw that Google tweeted that Wave is open to anybody now. Am I wrong about that?

  5. Aaron Pogue says:

    Oh yeah! Email address. Once you’re in the Wave, add using the + button in the bottom left corner. I look forward to chatting with you there.

    • Gurl says:

      I just tried adding you and got that you don’t have an account 🙁 quadruple checked the email, even though I copied and pasted it…

      • It’s

        Looks like whatever address you sign on with, once you’re on it will have a extension.

      • Aaron Pogue says:

        Ooh, weird.

        I actually signed up using the extension (months and months before Unstressed Syllables even existed), but I discovered on Thursday, researching this blog, that you can add multiple email addresses to the same account.

        So I did that, associating the one. Apparently I did it wrong (or it just doesn’t work).

        Luckily, Becca saved us all. Thanks, Becca!

        • Did that work? I signed on under my gmail account, too. But I noticed it’s calling me So now I’m wondering if you add people by their address or their googlewave extention address. It makes things very confusing. So much for finding people! The invites seem to work, though. I got one friend to join so far.