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A Seattle startup called Wetpaint launched the newest Web-based “wiki” platform this week, offering people who register with the company the ability to create community websites that can be edited easily by any user, or by invited members only, depending on the creator’s preference.

Wikis have been a popular tool for Internet geeks for about a decade, and now they’re beginning to be adopted inside many businesses. For the most part, though, they haven’t crossed into the mainstream – the way that other Web-based publishing technologies such as blogs have. Wetpaint’s founders hope to make that transition – in part, by making their free, advertising-supported service as easy to use as familiar software tools such e-mail and word-processor programs.

Starting a Wetpaint site is as simple as picking a name and design, creating a few pages, writing something in them, and deciding who can edit them. The company’s CEO, Ben Elowitz, says he hopes everyone from neighborhood watch groups to Cub Scout leaders will warm up to Wetpaint and start using it to collaborate on projects and manage group information.

Elowitz believes that online collaboration is a largely unexplored market. “Message boards are good for dialogues, blogs are good as soapboxes, and social networks are good for meeting people, but none of those really let you manage relationships,” he says. “For people who are online now, the technology is there to give them a chance to connect over their common interests.”

But the public still has a shaky idea of wikis. Surveys conducted by the Harris polling organization for Wetpaint show that only 5 percent of adults who go online can define the word “wiki,” according to Elowitz. And it’s not clear that Wetpaint or any other wiki-focused company has made the technology simple – or useful – enough to attract large numbers of users.

The most famous wiki, of course, is Wikipedia – it’s the largest encyclopedia ever written, with 1.2 million articles contributed by more than 1.6 million registered users and policed by approximately 1,000 volunteer administrators. Indeed, Wikipedia has become the 16th-most-trafficked site on the Web; on any given day, about 4 percent of all Internet users stop there, according to Web traffic research firm Alexa.

But while most of Wikipedia’s readers are aware that they can edit encyclopedia entries, the average visitor does so very rarely. In fact, a core of around 500 people account for about half of Wikipedia’s content – an indication that the technical process of writing and editing wiki items remains forbidding for the average user.

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