What Google Wave means for arts organizations

Wave, the latest Google creation, was released October 1 to much excitement amongst early-adopter techies. What is Google Wave? As Google puts it: "We set out to answer the question: What would e-mail look like if we set out to invent it today?"

Three words jump to mind when describing the experience promised: real-time, collaborative communication. Each conversation is a "wave", similar to an email conversation or instant message. Each individual message is call a "blip." Participants can embed video, documents, and apps into a wave, embed the Wave itself on their site or social networking profile and more. It's open-source, so the possibilities are nearly endless. Mashable has a great guide to the new platform.

Picture from Google

Google only released about 100,000 invitations to preview Wave and will slowly be rolling out more, but there's already talk of Wave as the death of e-mail. In fact, creators Lars and Jens Rasmussen hope that Wave will one day replace it. There's talk about how Google Wave will change a lot of things, but being an arts management student, I set out to investigate how will Google Wave affect arts organizations. Here are some ideas I came up with:

On a small scale, Wave can simplify basic projects within arts organizations. Take the annual report, which in most development departments is passed through at least a dozen pairs of hands and even more revisions. Wave serves as a central place for the document to be revised. No more sending out the final proof to 10 coworkers and getting 10 different versions back. No more worrying about saving the wrong version. It’s updated simultaneously. So consider the possibilities. Collaborators on a script could wave on the latest set of edits or the marketing department could wave the season brochure for approval throughout the organization.

But there’s a larger way Google Wave can connect us. Besides an extension that allows the social-media savvy organization to update all its accounts at once (Hallelujah!), Google Wave can help us accomplish our core mission as arts managers--taking away barriers between artists and audience. Here’s an idea of just a few things that will be possible when Google Wave gains wide usership: Invite potential single-ticket buyers to opt into a public wave and create a rich-media wave for each show in the season—include show descriptions, video interviews/webisodes, discussions with cast members/directors in real time, reviews, and whatever else you want to embed. Once your audience has seen a show, the org can poll audience members with an extension that allows you to poll for yes/no/maybe questions. Google Wave would allow audience members to discuss the show with each other or review it. The education department can effectively crowdsource their learning guide and teachers can discuss with other teachers what worked and didn't work for them. More on Google Wave and its social media implications for non-profits here.

Another neat feature is the ability to build Wave robots. Robots are automated participants that you can program to respond automatically to questions. (Right now, access to the Sandbox where these robots can be built is open to developers only.) In browsing around some external sites, I found robots that will tweet your blip on Twitter, play roshambo (rock/paper/scissors) with you, translate your wave into 40 languages and more. A simple robot could be programmed with information from an arts orgs website to answer simple questions like “What time is the show tonight?” or “I’m lost, show me a map to the theatre.”

Additionally, there’s been a lot of talk on what this means for the future of journalism. For an industry that has been (and some would argue, still is) so reliant on reviews and newspaper advertising, arts coverage is a continuing issue. Google Wave has the potential to transform journalism. With stories as waves, the journalist can add and transform stories as more information is available. How relevant that could be to a review of "Coppelia" is hard to say. But opening the Wave to people who can discuss and add to the story with links, videos, and more has potential. However, as more arts organizations are finding with any online journalism, people have to opt in first to read the arts stories, and that will not change with Google Wave.

I’ve heard from arts administrators who worry about encouraging open discussions or reviews on their website or social networking presence, thus missing out on a prime opportunity to create dynamic, relevant content. It’s my assertion that you can’t worry about people giving your show a bad review online. If you want to encourage positive word-of-mouth, negative word-of-mouth will inevitably occur sometimes. Particularly out-of-line or offensive comments can be deleted. But social networks are about community, and that will not change with Google Wave or any of the emerging technologies that will come along in the near future. Don't worry about people talking about your show. They already are. Worry more about not knowing what they're saying.

But don’t get me wrong, I haven’t drank the Kool-Aid yet. For now, Google Wave reality for me is how it is for most people. I have about 4 friends on it that Google culled from my Gmail contacts, and only 2 I really talk to, but they are rarely on. I searched the public waves for things that interest me and found some noisy waves and some quiet ones, none related to the arts yet. In writing this blog entry, I actually waved it to one of my contacts and we collaborated on it. The experience was odd--like standing over someone's shoulder as they proof your work. Plus, there's the interesting phenomenon of wanting to instant message about the document while working on the document itself. So, we ended up having instant message exchanges in the document itself. But all in all, pretty successful. Here's a screen shot: screen shot of Google Wave

Google Wave is not by any means a must-have tool for arts organizations… yet. There’s good reasons to wait (one of them being the difficulty it is to find an invite!) and devote your resources to the social media networks that work for you now. The temptation in the social media universe is always to jump on board the "next big thing" as soon you hear it could be the "next big thing", but doing that could mean spreading yourself too thin or choosing a social network that won't help you in building a community or increasing sales. Right now, the number of people on Wave is simply too small to make it worth consideration for most mid-size or even large organizations. We'll be hearing a lot more about Google Wave in the future as the kinks are worked out and developers create new apps that promise to revolutionize. That's the fun part about this new technology; all we have to do is wait to see if it catches on... and in the meantime, dream about all the possibilities.