The Couch Surfer: ‘Google is counting on early adopters, who’ll happily pay $70 for a Wave beta invite from eBay’

WTF is Google Wave? It's a question that's been troubling the web for months, and troubling me for a good few days. And it appears, finally, to have been answered. Sort of.

Last week, I became one of the latest, er... wave of web users granted invitations to a preview version of Wave, which Google says is what email would look like had it been invented yesterday instead of 40 years ago. It's a lot like webmail, a little bit like instant messaging, and a tiny bit like a chatroom.

GoogleWave has been trending heavily on Twitter, meaning lots of people either have it already or want it ASAP. When they get it, however, I'm not sure they'll be able to use it immediately. The complicated clutter of the Wave homepage isn't nearly as straightforward or simple to grasp as, say, Twitter or Facebook. Nor is the software self-explanatory – hence the extensive library of YouTube videos explaining what the heck Wave is and how the heck one is supposed to work it.

It involves "Waves", which are something like email conversations, but ones that can be re-edited or added to at any time, and which new participants can join along the way. "Blips", meanwhile, are the individual components of each "Wave", while "Pings" seem to be some sort of Facebook-poke-cum-IM combo. Everything on Wave happens live, so you can watch your correspondents type new messages or re-edit your old ones in real time. Wave conversations lend themselves to the inclusion of links, documents, pictures, maps and video.

Unfortunately it's hard to tell exactly how exciting a new communications tool Wave is, because so far only about three of my friends are on it with me. Trying to start a conversation – sorry, a "Wave" – when there's nobody to start it with is like shouting at the top of your lungs in the middle of a deserted Google server farm. I persuaded some work colleagues to have a go, but our shared Wave fast became a contest to draw the most lifelike genitalia on a map of Cockfosters. As an experiment in the power of online collaboration and instant communication, it was inconclusive.

If you're at the early-adopter end of your social spectrum, you'll frequently find yourself alone at the digital coal-face. But Google is counting on the early adopters – those nerds who'll happily pay $70 to get a Wave beta invite from eBay – to be the sort of people willing to take the time to figure out how to use the darn thing and what to use it for, then evangelise on its behalf.

They'll work hard to find new users without being paid by Google, because the best way for them to optimise Wave's potential is to get as many friends and colleagues using it as possible. This principle has a name: the "viral loop", which is also the title of Adam L Penenberg's new book about online virality. "A viral loop," Penenberg told me, "is what happens when you have a product or service that your users are spreading because they want to, or because it's built into the product."

The guys at Google are old hands at the viral loop: it was an integral part of their marketing for Gmail, for example, and it's how they've launched their new web-based operating system, Chrome OS.

I suspect Google Wave will be brilliant, just as soon as I get a little practice and a few more friends; but as long as I attract those friends to try it with me, it doesn't matter what I think, or WTF Google Wave actually is. Thanks to the viral loop, it's going to be huge anyway.

I recently had the opportunity to live in an apartment with no TV set. It wasn't so much banned by the flat's existing inhabitants as unavailable – and possibly frowned upon, though I didn't press the issue hard enough to find out. For someone who often has to write about television for money, it seemed an impossible situation. But, on reflection, I probably could do without the box itself. I can see pretty much anything I want as long as I have a laptop, a wi-fi connection and a budget for DVD boxsets. Yet something will be lost if the future is TV set-less: cheering at a Champions League match, sniffling through a state funeral, yelling incorrect answers at University Challenge, seeing Jedward get voted off The X Factor. These are experiences to be shared, and not just on YouTube.