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Magazines > ONLINE > January/February 2011
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Vol. 35 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2011

FEATURE
Communication Google Style: Interactivity and Trust
By Jill O'Neill

In October 2009, Google CEO Eric Schmidt made some predictions about what the web would look like in 5 years, during the Gartner Sympo­ sium/ITxpo Orlando 2009. According to ReadWriteWeb (www.readwriteweb.com/archives/google_web_in_five_years.php), he said:
  • “Within five years there will be broadband well above 100MB in performance—and distribution distinctions between TV, radio and the web will go away.”
  • “Real time information is just as valuable as all the other information, we want it included in our search results.”

A little more than a year later, we can start to see what Schmidt was talking about. Clearly, Google’s CEO was preparing for a new kind of information and communication environment, that of the real-time web, where asynchronous email exchanges may be useful, but not necessarily dominant over other, more immediate flows of communication.

REAL-TIME WEB

Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/real_time_web) defines the real-time web as “a set of technologies and practices which enable users to receive information as soon as it is published by its authors, rather than requiring that they or their software check a source periodically for updates.”

Industry analysts at ReadWriteWeb named the real-time web as a top trend in 2009. Those experts saw Facebook and Twitter as precursors of what has yet to be truly delivered in terms of potential for the real-time web. They also identified some key elements of the experience.

Real-time sites have a constant sense of individual presence (ambiance) supported by automated dissemination ofinformation (content, status updates) and an ability to note emergence. What’s hot, what’s happening, what’s important for those within my social network to know? Because Twitter and Facebook are so well-positioned to deliver those elements to users, they’ve been seen as Google’s greatest potential competitors. So now let’s turn to Google’s idea of what users are looking for and how Google’s products and services are being tuned to deliver the real-time experience.

The communication tools and services that Google currently offers—Gmail, Google Reader, Google Buzz, Blogger, even the ill-fated Google Wave—are gradually being tweaked and re-engineered in the interests of greater fluidity and immediacy in capturing, sharing, and discussing content.

Development Arc

The value of modern information technologies, particularly for the information community, lies in the areas of communication and dissemination. Email is a good example. The strength of email was its speed of delivery; communication exchanges were still asynchronous, but receipt of a message was more dependent upon a recipient’s willingness to check for new messages than it was upon delivery by the postal service. Its other strength could be directed to both individual contacts as well as to longer lists of multiple recipients. That flexibility of directed dissemination meant greater efficiency of distribution.

Think back to 2005 when Gmail had just completed its first year of beta testing. The service had just been opened to the broadest population, no longer requiring a user to have received an invitation from a beta test participant in order to open an account. The official Gmail blog explains what engineers had considered when creating a new email service (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2005/10/guess-what-just-turned-34.html). “We needed to rethink email, but at the same time we needed to respect that email already had over 30 years of history, thousands of existing programs, and nearly a billion users. So we started by learning which features were most important, and which problems were most aggravating.”

Gmail has been enhanced in recent months in a variety of ways. Google Wave’s functionality of being able to drag and drop an image or video from the desktop into a message has been added to Gmail. Recognizing that some users found the threaded organization of messages to be annoying, Gmail enabled users to make the choice of viewing messages as a threaded discussion or as discrete items. Enabling access to Gmail on mobile devices (Apple’s iPhone, devices using the Android operating system, etc.) was another field of development.

COMMUNICATING WITH BLOGS

When blogs came into public view more than a decade ago, they provided writers the opportunity to express ideas about content they found on the web and to facilitate public discussion and further dissemination of that content. Unfortunately, spreading awareness of blogged content was limited either to other blogs linking to and commenting on a particular entry or through the private emailing of links to one’s acquaintances.

There was a time gap between the immediacy of publication on the web and the discovery of the content by a user unacquainted with a particular content creator. The development of RSS feeds to notify about publication and to subsequently syndicate blog content solved some of that discovery bottleneck, but imperfectly. The Blogger platform languished for some years following Google’s acquisition of the company in 2003. But over the course of the past 18 months, Google has enhanced that platform for communication, emphasizing mechanisms for eliminating spam, enhanced personalization of the display, and improved analytics.

Certainly Google Reader, launched within months of Gmail in 2005, improved upon the functionality of content found by users. Users could privately bookmark and categorize the content they found (using folders) or further disseminate the content by emailing it to others. Subsequent upgrades to Google Reader in both 2008 and 2009 enhanced public sharing of noteworthy items. It also fostered both community and commentary across that user’s social network of “followers” or readers.

MAINSTREAM ADOPTION

The bulk of mainstream users in the work force have adopted these communication technologies. Email has a certain comfortable familiarity for most in the work force, and blogs are a recognized form of informal publication. RSS feeds have been integrated into the daily stream of information flow as publishers push awareness of new content.

However, there continue to be irritations with almost every service referenced here. Email attachments can be problematic because spam-filtering mechanisms isolate messages with large files for scanning purposes or bounce messages back to the sender. Commentary, whether in an email response or in a comment left on a blog, may be scattered and difficult to aggregate for purposes of research or efficient processing. The volume of content (whether created as an email message or as a blog entry) is rapidly increasing, the consequence of which is a sense of information overload, an audience suffering from a deficit of both attention and time.

Add to this a growing emphasis on social networking environments, such as Facebook, and the mainstream adoption of brief-messaging platforms such as Twitter. Google, to its credit, launched various initiatives aimed again at improved information flows.

Circumventing the Barriers

Fast-forward to 2009 and the introduction of Google Wave. The creators behind Wave recognized that there were a number of communication channels available to users that were not being appropriately integrated. In launching Wave, Google wanted to minimize the divisions between the various forms of communication (whether blog entry, threaded email discussion, or document), unify those communications in a single display and interactive environment, and reduce the influence of the print model over ongoing developments in digital.

As introduced, Wave was a real-time, collaborative communication environment aimed at the enterprise. Its array of robots and gadgets could be introduced into an individual Wave to facilitate decision making and to achieve consensus in group discussions. Digital objects, such as images, could be dragged into a Wave and shared more efficiently than in email. Engineers at Google developed this kind of communication environment with an eye toward the demands of team-oriented productivity, workflow processes, and ever-tightening deadlines.

Wave was not embraced quite as dramatically as industry observers had anticipated. Librarians who flocked to the tool in beta found the system unintuitive and consequently challenging to the mainstream. Those lucky enough to be invited into the initial beta test found it hard to find others in their networks with whom they could interact on the platform. At the most recent developers’ conference hosted by Google (I/0 2010), Lars Rasmussen, then head of Google Wave, admitted that the system was indeed somewhat daunting, but he indicated that the reason was that Google was trying to integrate two processes—communication and collaboration—into a single working environment.

WAVE GOODBYE?

Was Wave a bust then? Not at all. For some types of enterprise workflows and interactions, it has been embraced, and it remains a part of the premium Google Apps product suite offered to institutions and enterprises of all sizes. Other corporate service providers, such as SAP and Novell, continue to offer supportive services for Wave.

In August 2010, Google announced that the public use of Wave would be shuttered at the close of the year, perhaps recognizing that individual users seemed to be seeking a more flexible approach in selecting the communication/collaboration tools that they need to operate in the coming decade. Commenting on the tool’s failure to be adopted by mainstream users, CEO Schmidt noted that he saw the lack of acceptance for Wave as a sign that society was not yet ready for the changes being driven by emerging information technologies (http://gigaom.com/mobile/google-ceo-dishes-on-google-wave-verizon-social-strategy).

Lessons Learned

In February 2010, Google introduced another new service, Google Buzz. Upon initial examination, it almost appeared as if the 2008–2009 upgrades to Google Reader—the ability to comment on shared items, the enhanced visibility of a social network—had been repackaged yet again. A user of Google Reader, enabling Buzz in Gmail, found that the shared items feed from Reader could be displayed in the email application. Additionally, there was space to add commentary to those shared items.

Thus, what might previously have been a blog entry hosted on Google-owned Blogspot.com was now unobtrusively brought into the same application that handled email and chat. Users would benefit from the minimization of effort needed to switch between applications in order to communicate with colleagues and friends. Buzz primarily supports asynchronous communication, although there is an “indicator light” on each item that alerts the reader to the content sharer’s online presence and availability for chat.

An interesting social nuance was introduced in Buzz—the tool was anchored to users’ Google Profiles as well as to their Gmail addresses. Any items shared through Buzz appeared on users’ displayed profiles as a reflection of both their interests and their expertise. Such a connection helps to facilitate trust, an important element in the online environment.

Buzz offers a midpoint set of communication options between those of basic email (send, reply, forward), but in a way that is far less intimidating than those offered in Wave.

BUZZING ABOUT BUZZ

Google Buzz was clearly intended to more efficiently disseminate valued content throughout a user’s social network, a way for Google to fend off the growing influence of Facebook and Twitter. But privacy issues created a storm about Buzz at its launch. Google engineers—not considering all of the possible ramifications—had created an architecture in which any contact—whether through email or chat—became a node within an individual’s social network, a network publicly displayed on the user’s Google profile and in Google Buzz. Public backlash caused Google to shift its thinking about social networks.

In 2010, Paul Adams, a researcher currently working for Google on the user experience team, revealed what the team had learned about social networks and how their users interacted and “wanted” to interact with those in their social networks (www.slideshare.net/padday/the-real-life-social-network-v2). The team’s research showed the following (on average):

  • Most of us have four to six groups of “friends” or co-workers with whom we interact.

  • Each of those groups has between two and 10 individuals in it.

  • Those groups do not necessarily overlap.

  • Those groups do not necessarily need to see the same information.

In delivering the real-time web experience to a society not fully ready for it, then, Google would have to find a way to deliver the following elements:

  • The sense of a trusted presence or identity

  • Active contribution of new information or updates to information

  • Accessibility to the “right” group of people

  • An environment that fosters both interactivity as well as the reuse of discovered useful material

Blurring Some Edges While Defining Others

In Buzz, the communication options of blogging, commenting on the blogged entries of others, and transmitting private email unify the functionalities frequently found on external services, such as WordPress, Friendfeed, and Microsoft Outlook, within the Google suite of services. At the same time, the Buzz functionalities of liking and resharing obviously mimic those functionalities most popular on Facebook and Twitter. The resulting message is that, whatever users are empowered to do on competing platforms, they are empowered to do on Google’s platform as well.

What differentiates Google’s approach in 2011 is the recognition that the social network is a fragile and indistinct construction, unique to each individual. Given that understanding, along with the cultural differences toward privacy, it might appear that, despite speculation to the contrary, Google will avoid launching a formal social networking tool—the rumored “Google Me.” Instead, the organization will refocus on delivering tools that support the interactivity and communication necessary to the health of those social relationships without appearing to dictate how the user constructs their individual personalized environment.

The accompanying table reveals how Google has adapted its disparate set of acquired and internally engineered tools to the needs of the real-time web in the past 3 years, offering enhancements that either add for the first time or expand existing capabilities of dissemination and sharing of web-based content.

Given that not all users employ every Google service, between 2008 and 2009, Google began to introduce similar functionalities of liking, commenting, resharing, and emailing across all of the services. If you scan down the left-hand column of the accompanying table (p. 37), you can see the various functionalities that were introduced over that 2-year time frame to Blogger, Gmail, and Reader. Tacitly admitting that Orkut was flawed as a social networking option for many users, Google introduced Google Profiles as its mechanism for identifying trustworthy sources of information. However, as the x marks make clear, no single service has every capability. Scanning over to the furthest column on the right-hand side of the table, however, shows that Google Buzz does allow for each.

  Gmail Blogger Reader Profiles Buzz
Create x -- x x x
Disseminate x x x -- x
Publish -- x x x x
Star/Like x -- x -- x
Comment/Reply x x x -- x
Syndicate -- x x -- x
Share -- -- x x x
Reshare -- -- -- -- x
Share With Note x -- -- -- x
Multimedia x x x -- x
Instant Messaging/Chat x -- -- -- x

Google will continue to take advantage of existing and emerging standards in engineering these tools.

CALLING ON PROTOCOL

For example, Wave had used a well-established if underutilized protocol called XMPP (Extensible Mes­ saging and Presence Protocol), which was developed specifically with the intent of supporting communications of a broad variety, including instant messaging, video, audio, notifications, and subscriptions. XMPP, also known as Jabber, is a fundamental building block in creating advanced communication applications. Gmail has had Google Chat integrated into its interface since 2005, chat being one of the communications applications supported through XMPP. Group chat had been introduced in 2007, thus enabling both text and verbal communication through the Gmail interface.

Google has also been a significant promoter of HTML5, an upgraded markup language better suited to the support of video and audio in the web environment. Do you remember that comment Eric Schmidt made that indicated he was sure that, in 5 years time, the web experience would have as much in common with broadcast television and radio as with static text? The major browsers (Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, and Safari) have all been retooled in order to support HTML5.

The emerging era of mobile computing must also be factored into the tool set that Google offers. Buzz has a specially engineered mobile interface, one that groups it with two other applications aimed at communication (Gmail and Google Talk). In a world in which 85% of Americans own cell phones, mobile devices represent an important access point for finding and absorbing information from trusted sources.

It’s that same concern for trusted sources in the real-time web that drives interest in social search. In the field of search, Google’s implementation of social search leverages what it knows of a user’s activity on Twitter and similar networks to deliver relevant results from within a user’s circle of trusted acquaintances.

Future Directions

Gmail, Buzz, and Google Reader each support the annotation of captured content. In Gmail, annotation tends to occur either when an email is forwarded or when a message reply is interposed between paragraphs of the original message, for purposes of clarity. In Google Reader, the individual has an option of sharing an item with a “note,” and there’s a similar functionality in Buzz.

Google has not yet fully worked out annotation in the field of books, where its own Google Books represents a huge resource of reliable, authoritative content. To legitimately draw from that resource, users will be anxious to annotate and highlight the material they find and further share it with others.

This is a key function in the digital information environment and one in which no entity currently excels. Dedicated e-reader devices, such as Amazon’s Kindle, tend to permit very limited forms of underlining and annotation. Mobile applications may offer more interesting capabilities depending upon their audience. While it’s possible to use Google Buzz to annotate a title in Google Books, it is as clunky a process as it is in the context of any dedicated e-reading device.

With the launch of Google Editions promised as being imminent (“soon” is the word most frequently used by Google spokespersons), one must ask whether that will be the environment within which Google engineers will ultimately deliver communication, Google style.


Jill O’Neill (jillmwo@gmail.com; www.google.com/profiles/jillmwo) is an information industry professional working at the point of intersection of publishing, technology, and libraries.

Comments? E-mail the editor. (marydee@xmission.com)

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