Why Google's "Hangouts" is a Whole New Medium

Wednesday Jan 4th 2012 by Mike Elgan
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Business people, marketers, managers, thought leaders, consultants and others should be having a field day with this new video medium.

New media are always perceived as mere updates to old media. In its first decade or two, radio was viewed as a mere tech upgrade to the telegraph -- they envisioned fewer wire poles, not Howard Stern. Film was seen as just a way to record stage performances, rather than an enabler of an entirely new kind of performance. They envisioned the lives of farmers enriched by big-city stage plays, not Avatar.

The thing to understand about hangouts, which is a feature of Google+, is that it’s a whole new medium. A superficial glance might convince you that it’s a tweak of an old medium (video conferencing). But hangouts is a new creature altogether. Here’s what’s different about hangouts:

* It’s social. Of course all video conferencing is by definition “social.” But I mean it’s plugged into your social stream. You can treat hangouts like any other object that can be “attached” or integrated into social conversations. You can link to them, share them, comment upon them.

* It’s multi-user. The ability for people to come and go totally transforms the social dynamics of hangouts. Two people are talking, then they bring a third. Then they invite the whole team. Later, the original two people exit, and the hangout continues organically. It’s less like a phone call and more like a conference room -- or break room.

* It’s live-streamable. Google recently launched a new capability called “Hangouts On Air,” which lets you live-stream your hangouts to hundreds, thousands or hundreds of thousands of people free. Right now it’s in invitation-only beta (I was selected as a user -- more on that below). Eventually, I believe, everyone will get it. What this means is that committees can hold public meetings and all interested parties can listen in, and add comments as the meeting is happening.

 It’s archivable. Hangouts On Air” then posts streaming hangouts on YouTube, which can be archived and embedded into web sites and blog posts.

* It’s launchable from text-based conversations. Google rolled out a feature recently that lets you launch a hangout from a comment thread. Let’s say you’re discussing something with your department on Google+, and the conversation would be better turned into a meeting, perhaps with additional participants. Just click a button, and the meeting goes instantly live as a hangout.

* It’s free and unlimited. Most of these features are theoretically available elsewhere. But they’re not free. The fact that they’re free adds to the casual, instant, flexible nature of hangouts. There’s no financial penalty. There’s no time limit.

* It’s global. Hangouts let you not care where anybody is, other than accounting for time (2 AM in Mumbai is probably not a good time for a remote performance evaluation.)

* It’s persistent. Because hangouts are free and unlimited, people are increasingly creating “persistent” or “ambient” hangouts. They launch a hangout, then leave it running. All invited parties can come and go as they please, talking or not talking -- just as if they were in the same room or office.

* It supports regular phone calls. In the middle of a hangout, you can just call people on regular telephones to participate.

* It’s high-quality and reliable. Hangouts is incredibly high quality and reliable, limited only by the quality of cameras and microphones and the local Internet connections of users. With professional-quality cameras and microphones, the resulting hangouts are professional-quality.

* It’s mobile. You can’t launch a hangout from a phone, but you can join one. (I’ve even done hangouts from a car -- no, I wasn’t driving.)

* It’s moderatable. Companies can hold public hangouts without fear of being heckled or trolled by hostile or disgruntled parties. Kicking people out of hangouts is a simple click away.

* It supports collaborative work. Google has been testing in a public beta-like sandbox a more feature-rich version of hangouts called “Hangouts with extras,” which lets you share your screen, collaborate on documents, collaborate on sketches and so on.

All these attributes add up to something far more than just an improvement to videoconferencing. They add up to a totally new medium, which businesses should be embracing.

All the cliches about replacing business travel, shortening meetings, increasing flexibility and communication -- which the teleconferencing industry has been hawking for years in the form of expensive equipment and infrastructure -- are actually realized by hangouts because it’s free of barriers, limitations and cost.

Let me give you one example of how hangouts can help one professional -- me.

Here comes the “Flying Circle”

This morning (Thursday, January 5, 2012) at 9am Pacific I launch the first of a weekly series of hangouts I’m calling the “Flying Circle.”

I consider it totally new kind of “thing” on a totally new kind of medium.

Journalists conduct interviews. The purpose of interviews is fact-finding, education for the journalist and possible quotes and perspective for a story.

Businesses hold focus groups. The idea of focus groups is to get a bunch of people in the same room and rapidly extract their attitudes and knowledge about a narrow subject.

Video podcasts exist. These range from the least professional to the gold standard in video postcasts, the TWIT network. (TWIT calls them “netcasts.”)

But the “Flying Circle” isn’t an interview, focus group or video podcast, though it blends elements of all three. And it won’t replace the need for these things, either.

It’s like an interview in that a journalist is using it for journalistic purposes. But it’s not an interview in that it will be everybody talking to everybody, rather than one person asking questions and others answering. It’s a journalist-mediated conversation.

It’s like a focus group in that a group of people are gathered for a facilitated discussion. But unlike focus groups, it will be broadcast to the public live.

It’s like a video podcast in that it will be broadcast and archived. But it’s not a “show” -- we will try to forget about the audience and just have a conversation with each other. There won’t be much visual appeal. There will be no sound or visual effects.

If I were to do a video podcast that involved interviewing multiple guests, I would need special equipment. I would need a producer to orchestrate everything and book the guests. In short, I would need money.

But the way I’m doing “Flying Circle,” I don’t need to spend a penny. The orchestration is handled crudely by hangouts itself, which auto-switches to whoever is talking.

And I’m not “booking” guests. I’m inviting a bunch of experts on each topic area, and whoever shows up gets on the hangout. I don’t have to worry about last-minute drop-outs. I don’t even have to worry about finding guests. I just crowd-source it on Google+.

I don’t need any special equipment. Google streams it, then posts it on YouTube.

In other words, I’m launching a whole new kind of “thing” on a whole new kind of medium that will be broadcast live to tens of thousands of people and archived online -- and I will literally not spend a single penny to do all this.

Above all, the “Flying Circle” is experimental. I’m going to let it evolve as the medium of hangouts itself evolves, and see where it takes me.

That’s just one example of what’s possible. Business people, marketers, managers, thought leaders, consultants and others should be having a field day with this new medium. There is so much potential -- and so much upside for the early adopters. As with all new media, careers will be made by hangouts for those adventurous enough to jump in early and fully explore.

And when you do jump in, please keep me posted. I’d love to learn what you’re doing and how it’s working for you. Circle me here.

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