Death of the document?

isko_loves_waveWith not even a soupçon of the quagmire I was entering, I recently looked up the definition of ‘document’. In case you didn’t know, the glib dictionary definitions hide a debate that has, well, not exactly raged, but rather limped on for nearly twenty years now. I don’t know, but I guess that it was the arrival of the digital ‘document’ with the first word processors in the early 1980s which sparked it in the first place.

It turns out that there’s no one definition of ‘document’ that everyone’s happy with. We can all agree what a cup is, or a bus, but not, it seems, a ‘document’. And to cap it all, a recent paper in the Journal of Documentation (Frohmann, Berndt. Revisiting “what is a document?”, JDoc 65(2), 2009) tells us that we shouldn’t bother anyway. Shame, I’d been planning to investigate where the ‘document’ stands in the light of Web 2.0, much as Steve Bailey and James Lappin are doing for records. And then what happens? Google announces the death of the document.

How so? Well, instinctively, we humans don’t welcome change. We are ruled by nostalgia – or rather, inertia. Come any new technology, we always try to replicate the old model within it, failing to see that it offers scope for completely new ways of doing things. Web 2.0 is just the catch-all term for a number of such new ways – new models of communication and interaction – Blogs, Wikis, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and now, Google Wave. All of them are document-agnostic.


The team that developed Google Maps moved on to look at the various ways in which ICT supports the ways we communicate and share information. They range from the historic, fixed snapshot (documents, including email and blogs) through the quasi-dynamic SMS and IM to real-time telephony. In all of them, the concept of the link begins to eclipse the concept of the discrete document.

Google Wave integrates the best features of email and IM to move a significant step forward toward the ideals of the Semantic Web. The plus is that discrete, siloed documents are no longer the focus of communication. Rather, documents become just one element in a conversation. And a conversation, one might note, in which any kind of editor function has been eliminated. It remains to be seen how that disintermediation helps or hinders effective information sharing.


Wave offers four main innovative features which take it way beyond conventional email. The first tackles the problem of ‘threading’. A Wave starts with a message, just as in normal email, discussion lists, forums and blogs. However, Wave allows participants’ comments or replies to be embedded in-line in the original message adjacent to the text to which they refer. The logic of the would-be conversation is no longer fragmented across multiple, separate messages, linked only by a tenuous ‘thread’ which is easily broken. The advantages of this consolidation apply to attachments too, which are a pain to find again in anything but the shortest thread. A Wave therefore becomes a multi-participant conversation, complete with associated resources, attached or linked.

Wave’s second key feature builds upon the quasi real-time echoing of participant keyboard input familiar from IM applications. Google’s step forward in this case is to echo updates to all participant screens in as near real-time as current technology allows. No longer do you have to watch that scribbling pencil for seconds that feel like minutes; characters appear virtually as the writer types. This live, as-you-type updating works well with simultaneous multiple editing too.

Thirdly, Wave authors are allowed to specify the scope of participation, from public, to group, to private, and whether each member has read only, authoring or editing rights. The group and private categories can be expanded or contracted at any time.

Lastly, and perhaps the most significant feature of all, participants who join the conversation late don’t lose out. When they join a conversation in progress, they can simply click a button to see each and every change made to the original message up to that point, in a kind of slow-motion automated playback of a wiki page history. The Wave Playback facility could prove to be the silver bullet that records managers have been looking for to bring email under control and to tame the anarchic tendencies of Web 2.0. But it could equally be used also as a point-by-point versioning system where that’s useful.

Google have made the most of the opportunities provided by current technology by including further features, such as context-aware corrections as-you-type (‘Spelly’), detection and insertion of links as you type (‘Linky’), and ‘Polly’, a gadget for conducting surveys and polls. Particularly impressive is ‘Rosy’, a robot drawing on Google Translate which can translate in real-time, as you type, from any of 40 languages. There’s easy linking to Google Maps too, as you might expect, and yet more.

The original Wave video (1h20) can be found on YouTube, while Smarterware have chopped it up into eight 30-60 second chunks for those who can’t afford 80 mins. online. Alternatively, there’s an excellent summary of Wave on Mashable.

But by now you’re asking, ‘OK, nice, but so what?’

Changing how we work

Wave combines previously separate communication applications into an integrated communication space far better resembling what third generation knowledge management sophists revere – the conversation. It enables a whole new level of real-time disintermediated collaborative communication where the document is just one part of a greater whole – the conversation. What’s more, another of Wave’s robots – ‘Bloggy’ – allows Wave content to be published to blogs, or via the Wave API (Application Programming Interface), for whole Waves to be embedded in a blog, or in any Web page come to that.

As if that weren’t enough, Google are making the Wave source code, its XML-based communications protocol and its External API open source. That opens the floodgates for developers around the globe to create extensions and gadgets of any kind imaginable. There is already a Twitter extension –‘Twave’ – which integrates Twitter feeds within a Wave, incoming or outgoing. Although Google obviously hope that most Wave developments will be hosted by them, they are acknowledging the corporate perspective by allowing anyone to run their own Wave server. How that fits with their advertising-based business model remains to be seen.

Implications for KO

Possibly the single most significant thing about Wave is that Google are recognising the potentially unlimited development resources available through the open source community. And that’s where KO might just find a new lease of life. We’re all familiar with the ongoing debate, a little less polarized now than it was four years ago, on formal taxonomies versus folksonomic tagging à la or Technorati. Wave, it seems, has adopted a flat tagging approach similar to Twitter hashtags. However, there’s lots of room between the two for rapprochement, as evidenced by the emergence of RDF-style machine tags (triple tags) on Flickr a while back, or by Wikipedia’s extensive category tree. Open Intelligence, a knowledge-sharing site set up by ISKO UK member Jan Wyllie, is pioneering a faceted tag system which may just provide some clues to where KO might be going in the Web 2.0 world.

It would seem not unreasonable therefore to pose the question whether someone (ISKO UK?) might sponsor some research into how established KO techniques may be applied to findability in Google Wave? It could make for a challenging doctoral dissertation. Then, someone with the necessary technical savvy just might develop a Wave extension allowing tags to be selected from a thesaurus. An attractive prospect, methinks.

Let’s not play catch-up yet again. Let’s get involved!

3 Responses to Death of the document?

  1. infopolecon says:

    Just use Dewey

    • bbater says:


      Your terse comment is not very helpful. When you say ‘Just use Dewey’, to which part of my article, or to which issues, are you relating?

  2. Zack says:

    Pretty cool post. I just came by your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your posts.

    Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon!

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