Will Easy Wikis Mean Busy Cliques?

Wetpaint is hoping people will use its wiki tools to build their own online communities of animal lovers, political junkies, gamers and more. Once the sites are up, then the

April 15, 2006

4 Min Read
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Mention wikis and people invariably think of Wikipedia, the popular online dictionary that's open for anyone to edit. A Seattle startup is hoping that soon the word will also trigger thoughts of online communities.

Looking to cash in on Wikipedia's popularity -- it's among the Web's 20 most visited sites every month -- Wetpaint Inc. has launched a handful of beta sites built on a hosted wiki platform that allows groups of consumers to create their own Web sites and add new information, photos and links.

But the connection with Wikipedia isn't entirely appropriate, Wetpaint chief executive Ben Elowitz insists. As popular as the site is, the number of actual contributors is small; most people who visit it don't know they can edit the pages. Programmers and developers are the biggest users of wikis, typically to collaborate on internal projects.

"The wikis that are out there are easy for developers, but hard for anyone else," Elowitz says. "They all have markup languages. That's simple as pie if you've written C++ before, but it's complex and intimidating if you're only used to Hotmail."

But he thinks he's solved that hurdle by making Wetpaint software easy to use and more like something consumers would find on their home computer. The company eliminated the markup language, so that what's on the screen is what gets published -- no confusing codes to interpret -- and put an edit button on pages to simplify the process of changing content. "If you look at traditional wiki software, it's incredibly sterile because it's designed for programmers by programmers," he says. "We want to create sites that are enjoyable to use and inspire people to become part of a community."Charlene Li, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, believes the company has done a fairly good job of achieving that. "The nice thing about Wetpaint is it's geared toward consumers. It's dumbing down the wikis in some sense, but the whole idea behind it is to make it easier for consumers."

Many of the companies working with wikis -- like JotSpot Inc. and Socialtext Inc. -- are targeting business customers, but at least one other, Wikia Inc., is taking aim at consumers, using the same MediaWiki software as Wikipedia.

In addition, the Reuters news service uses a wiki for a financial terms glossary and eHow Inc., which offers step by step instructions for everything from building a deck to throwing a curveball, has launched wikiHow, a collaborative writing project with more than 6,500 articles.The idea for Wetpaint, which is backed by $5.25 million from Trinity Ventures and Frazier Technology Ventures, came from a friend who after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer couldn't find a place online to meet others who shared his experience.

So the company created WikiCancer.org, one of the eight beta sites it launched last month, along with others targeting dog lovers (wikiFido.com), Xbox 360 fans (wikiXbox360.com) and political junkies (wikiDemocrats.com and wikiGOP.com), all pre-populated with information that visitors have since been able to edit.

"Wikis work really well in a trusted group, where people know whoever is going to make a change does so with the best intention in their hearts," Li says.Wetpaint has been monitoring the sites and gathering user feedback. At wikiFido.com, the community wanted to post photos of man's best friend and "My Dog Is Cuter Than Your Dog" has become the most popular page. A "Cityguides" page was added recently for people to post recommendations about vets, parks, pet food stores and other topics. "We watch what people want to do," Elowitz says.

The formal launch, scheduled for sometime this summer, will feature about 50 different sites. Anyone will be able to set up his own wiki site, on any topic, for no charge. Wetpaint will earn its revenue from commissions, through Google AdSense, from clicks on advertising placed on the sites.

Li says the business model is sound. She cites two job search sites, Indeed.com and Simplyhired.com, that are run on ads relevant to their content pages through AdSense. And once Wetpaint users build their own communities -- say, a group of new mothers in a particular town -- if they get enough traffic, even more advertisers will target them.

The challenge then becomes attracting enough people to build communities. That concept may sound a little dated -- Friendster or MySpace' anyone? -- but Elowitz believes that new browsers' Ajax technology and lower hosting costs combine for a better user experience today compared to roughly four years ago when the social networking sites first launched.

Plus, people have broadband Internet connections at home and they're comfortable with having their Web pages and blogs, Li says."You also have a strong culture of participation that didn't exist before," she says. "People are more adept at contributing content to people they know and trust. It's not just community of people randomly drawn together but they have a relationship."

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