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4/14/2006
06:47 PM
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Will Easy Wikis Mean Busy Cliques?

Wetpaint wants people to use its wiki tools to build online communities of animal lovers, political junkies, gamers, and more. Once the sites are up, will advertisers follow?

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.

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