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.”