"How soon is now?" - Google Wave and live reporting

 by Martin Belam, 16 August 2010

Last week I was blogging about 5 things the news industry could learn from the demise of Google Wave. I also mentioned a sixth, which I wanted to expand upon in a little more detail - to do with the pace of 'live reporting'.

Emily Bell talks about how digital news delivery has stretched to the point where now really means now, and forever really means forever. She means that as soon as someone has tweeted some breaking news, you look slow if you aren't tweeting it as well. And that if you aren't also doing a good job of building databases, topic aggregation pages, people pages, and 'living stories' with permanent URLs that will last literally forever, you also aren't doing digital properly.

Google Wave promised to be instant and permanent,

Back in May 2009, Jeff Jarvis speculated about how Wave could transform live reporting:

"Imagine a team of reporters - together with witnesses on the scene - able to contribute photos and news to the same Wave (formerly known as a story or a page). One can write up what is known; a witness can add facts from the scene and photos; an editor or reader can ask questions. And it is all contained under a single address - a permalink for the story - that is constantly updated from a collaborative team."

This was the idea of a public manifestation of the collaboration that Wave could have delivered to the newsroom. As Mark Milian wrote for the LA Times:

"You may notice that double bylines aren't very common. That's because trying to co-author a news story stinks. The process usually involves one reporter talking to and researching a few things and another following a different set of sources and finally combining their findings toward the end. This can result in a mess of incompatible and unrelated research that gets either thrown out or somewhat-awkwardly wiggled in. We're not going to e-mail our co-writers with every new lead and minute detail we dig up. But if we're sharing a virtual notebook, we can scan through or search the newest findings as they're logged, make comments and highlight our favorite bits. Then, when it comes time to write, we can rearrange and discuss the story's flow in the same software. Thanks to the openness of Wave, collaborative pieces between bloggers could become more common. If Google connects its Voice calling service to Wave, we might be able to easily insert call recordings, voicemails and text messages into our notes."

The real-time and collaborative nature of the tool posed a particular set of legal problems though for publishers putting Waves into the public arena. Guardian software developer Martyn Inglis examined what Wave might mean in a 'DevLab' that the paper's Technology Development department carried out:

"Consider the issue of legal take down. Given that the Wave allows playback how do you remove all instances of a legally challenged post? Given the nature of the Wave itself - an XML document residing on multiple servers that each have a list of actions stored alongside that allows the recreation of that document in linear sequence - how do you manage removal of the post? From all servers? "

Google Wave may have possibly pushed real-time too far to be useful. Writing a Wave isn't just live blogging. A Wave is really, really, really live. I used it myself to 'live blog' a London IA event, and I found it very exposing. As I wrote for FUMSI at the time:

"It was only as other people started contributing to the Wave that it truly dawned on me that people could see me typing in real-time. For a while this made me quite self-conscious about my note taking abilities. With Twitter, or even 'instant' messaging, nobody sees what you are typing until you hit enter. With Google Wave, however, people can view your thoughts as they are forming on the screen. In a live note-taking situation, that means lots of spelling mistakes, typing errors, and liberal use of the backspace as I changed my mind about how to phrase a particular note. It is an interface where you can literally finish someone else's sentence for them."

For some time at The Guardian we've been repeating and adding to a phrase from Andrew Sparrow - 'if journalism is the first draft of history, then live blogging is the first draft of journalism'. We've already expanded it to suggest that a tweet is the first draft of live blogging, and the literally real-time interface of Wave meant you hadn't even got to draft stage before you were publishing.

For any news organisations developing real-time text-based reporting tools in the future, it will be worth remembering that live publishing still needs an appropriate filtering mechanism and audit trail.


Early on in the life of Google Wave, two newspapers made headlines in media circles by quickly adopting the technology - Welt Kompakt in Germany, and RedEye in Chicago. Tomorrow I'll have an email Q&A interview with Stephanie Yiu, who worked on RedEye's Wave experiment, discussing their experience of using the software, and what they learnt about the tool and their audience.


I had a Wave account, in fact, I sought one out, but then never used it. When I look back and ask myself why I never used it, the fear of spending too much time learning how it works would be at the top of the list. This perhaps speaks to the fact that Google was unable to explain in a line or two what Wave was about. The fact that others on the "Wave" could see you typing in real time would have been a deal-killer for me as well.

The concept of filters for what should be a private deliberation is one with which Google seems to have a problem. Note all the wrath incurred over the introduction of Buzz, which automatically published an account holder's private information.

Google, for all intents and purposes, is in the publishing industry, and it would be wise for its leaders to get some people from the news industry (who must deal with these public / private issues every day) on board to intercept some of this geekery for geekery's sake.

I think one of the problems with Google Wave was the fact that there wasn't any notifications as to when people had posted a response or message. This ment that it was useless as a basecamp/project collaboration type tool or better version of email for me.

Even when they brought in the notifications they were 40mins late, I know this because a client of mind tried to use it on a project we were working on, its was close to useless. I think if they go away and iron out the problems it could be a useful tool, so hopefully this isn't the real end of Google Wave.

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