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What’s in a name? That which we call a wiki by any other name would smell as sweet July 30, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in communication, Consumer internet, Internet, Search, social networks, web 2.0, wiki.

(with apologies to William Shakespeare)

Recently Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint, wondered why the term “wiki” was not better understood. Wetpaint (a wiki company), prompted by wiki being listed as one of the top 10 most hated internet words, commissioned a survey to ask online users about their awareness of wikis, as compared to blogs, social networks, forums and search engines.

At the top level, the awareness levels were as follows:

Awareness Survey

Since these were online users (not the general population) this could be construed as discouraging; many don’t seem familiar with the basic technologies behind the modern web. However, I think that the data is misleading – while many people may not know about the technology, they do know specific examples of these technologies. As always, people focus on how their problems are being solved, not on what technologies are being used to solve those problems.

Take search as an example. Although only 76% of internet users were familiar with the term “search engine”, Google was recently announced to have the most powerful brand in the world. It beat household names like Coca Cola, Marlboro and Toyota. Its hard to imagine that there are ANY internet users who don’t use a search engine an a regular basis, whether they know the term of not.

Similarly, although only 28% of the surveyed audience were aware of the term “social networking site”, according to Comscore 64% of US internet users visited a social network in June 2007, with 39% visiting MySpace alone. Awareness does not appear to be a barrier to usage.

The same is also true of wikis. Although only 16% of internet users were aware of the term wiki, Comscore says that 26% of US internet users visited Wikipedia in June. If people are using Wikipedia, it doesn’t matter if it sits in the “encyclopedia” category or the “wiki” category in their minds

In the most successful consumer technologies, the technology becomes transparent to the user. Apple has sold over 100m iPods but I’m sure that many iPod users will not be familiar with terms like MP3, AAC or DRM. Users of cordless drills may not be familiar with the term Lithium Ion, even though that is hoe their drill became cordless.

For consumer facing internet startups the lesson is to view the world through your users’ eyes. Talk about the problems you’re solving, not about the technologies you use to solve those problems. That means more about “music” and less about “ACC”, more about “writing” and less about “blogs”, more about “collaboration” and less about “wikis”. After all, as Juliet tells Romeo:

That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet


1. RBA - July 30, 2007

What is to hate about the word wiki? You still need to master the skill of making it as mainstream as possible, but at least you have a word to work with 🙂

Look at the world of “social news” and “social content sites”. They’re all called Digg-clones, despite the fact many of those sites have very little to do with Digg. For example http://vou-naovou.corank.com (warning: there’s no nudity but it may be NSFW) has been labeled as a “Digg clone for Orkut profiles”, but to me, it’d be more clearly defined as a “HotOrNot for Orkut profiles” (because it definitely has nothing to do with social *news*).

So while I agree we should talk more about “collaboration” and less about “wikis”, I also think we should also talk more about “social content networks” (or however you want to call it), and less about “Digg clones”. Digg is a remarkable site, but the word “clone” automatically degrades any other site using similar methodology. If we have blogs instead of Blogger clones, search engines instead of Altavista clones, etc. why are we so stuck with the word “clone” when refering to social content sites where people submit and vote content, whatever content that might be, however that content is organized?

2. amisare - July 30, 2007

Ah , that reminds me of Monsieur Jourdain in Molière’s play “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme ” (http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext01/mgent10.txt) who confided in his philosophy master that he is in love with a lady of great quality and asked his philosophy master to write a little note for him to her …….

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: That will be gallant, yes?
PHILOSOPHY MASTER: Without doubt. Is it verse that you wish to write her?
MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: No, no. No verse.
PHILOSOPHY MASTER: Do you want only prose?
MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: No, I don’t want either prose or verse.
PHILOSOPHY MASTER: It must be one or the other.
PHILOSOPHY MASTER: Because, sir, there is no other way to express oneself than with prose or verse.
MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: There is nothing but prose or verse?
PHILOSOPHY MASTER: No, sir, everything that is not prose is verse, and everything that is not verse is prose.
MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: And when one speaks, what is that then?
MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: What! When I say, “Nicole, bring me my slippers, and give me my nightcap,” that’s prose?
MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: By my faith! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing anything about it ……

3. Ben Elowitz - July 30, 2007

Thanks Jeremy. You’ve got it spot on. In fact, one of the biggest surprises is that in the informal research we do, Wikipedia itself is actually quite misunderstood: not only do most people who are familiar with Wikipedia not know that it is a ‘wiki’, but in fact, less than half those who use Wikipedia even realize that it is created by users just like them! What they do know is that Wikipedia has lots to offer them, wiki or not.

4. Dottie - July 31, 2007

I can’t help wondering if the data is corrupt. While the research firms report high usage of social networks, wikis etc., my own anecdotal evidence suggests that many fewer people are using these web 2.0 type tools. In the absence of these research reports, I’d be inclined to believe we’re all sucking our own exhaust.

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