Wikis Made Simple -- Very Simple

Wetpaint and other wiki startups are offering free and easy-to-use tools. But will most consumers really care?

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.

Microsoft Xbox 360 fans have used the Wetpaint application to create a wiki with resources such as game reviews, cheat codes, and a guide to accessories. Any visitor can create or edit pages in it. (Courtesy of Wetpaint.)

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.

Software engineers at Wetpaint and other consumer-oriented wiki companies believe they can overcome the usability problems. “Wiki technology has gotten to the point now where it’s simple enough that the first wave of non-geeks are using it,” says David Weekly, CEO of PBWiki, a provider of free wikis based in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Whether or not they actually create and edit their own pages is irrelevant, from my perspective. They just have to know they can,” he adds.

Yet plenty of doubters remain. Mark Hurst, a user-interface designer who leads the New York City Web design consultancy Good Experience, thinks wikis will have limited appeal outside technology-industry professionals and other heavy Internet users, mainly because average PC users aren’t clamoring for collaborative editing tools – and have no time to learn how to use them.

“Google won out over the dozen search engines vying for the top spot just a few years ago because it was the easiest to use,” says Hurst. “If you look at wikis, Google is a pretty good benchmark. Is Wetpaint going to create something that becomes indispensable to the average user’s life, and so unbelievably transformative that they have to tell their friends about it, and so easy that any user can learn it on their first try in two seconds? The day my Aunt Edna tells me she’s helping to edit a wiki is the day I’ll say we’re ready for wikis.”

But others believe that wikis serve a real need – but they need to evolve more. “Yes, there will be wikis around a few years from now, but they’re not going to look like your father’s wiki,” says Joe Kraus, CEO of Jotspot, which provides wiki-building tools to businesses and small organizations. Kraus says Jotspot’s own engineers are working to integrate other common types of desktop applications into wikis – or, rather, to make those other applications more wiki-like, meaning, for one thing, that the information in them will be editable by a group. He says Jotspot will launch a new set of services later this summer, but declines to offer more details.

“For wikis to truly become mainstream, you’ve got to stretch them – because otherwise they just look like Wordstar from 1995,” says Kraus. “They’re very useful, but still trapped in this nerd clothing.”

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