A Conversation with Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint

Recently, I had a conversation with Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint, a new Seattle-based Wiki company. Wetpaint just launched a public beta last week, so we discussed were the company is headed, philosophy on building community and tapping into everyday peoples’ expertise, and the importance of simplicity to widespread wiki use.

Ben: Hi Stewart. This is Ben at Wetpaint.

Me: Hi Ben – thanks for taking time to talk with me about Wetpaint

Ben: Absolutely!

Me: looks like you guys had a pretty big week with the public announcement

Ben: Yes, we’re very excited our first week with a public beta. We’ve been very grateful for the feedback we’ve already gotten.

Me: everyone’s a critic, as I’m sure you already know…feedback is so important though – and people are getting so used to good interfaces/functionality – sets the bar pretty high

Ben: It’s true. We’ve gotten both praise and great ideas from people reviewing our site so far. We take user feedback as a very high value: it’s the best way to find out what we can do to improve and what the communities that Wetpaint will power will want to do with this platform. So we ‘tune in’.

Ben: The good news is that with some of the advanced technologies that are out there (and that we’re using) we’re able to make the user interface easier and faster. So we love ideas about how to make it even more accessible.

Me: that’s good to hear. how did wetpaint start (or wikisphere when it first started)?

Ben: Not all that long ago, a friend of ours was diagnosed with cancer. After the initial shock wore off, he did what most people do when they get bad medical news: He went online. What he found were lots of facts, but not what he was looking for. He wanted to know how people who had the same condition were dealing with the emotional blow. What tricks did they know about working around the symptoms? Who were the best doctors? What’s the stuff they don’t tell you at the clinics? Sitting helplessly on the sidelines of our friend’s dilemma, it dawned on us: Why not come up with a way to harness the collective thinking of people with first-hand knowledge on subjects like health, jobs, world events, or hobbies? Then, instead of relying on so-called experts, real people with real experience would become the experts. We were convinced then, and even more certain today, that, if you put thousands of heads together to solve a problem, give advice, or share a point of view, the results are always truly astonishing.

Ben: So what’s the best way to bring those minds together? Wikis are great, because they allow readers to become writers, editors, and fact-checkers. The only problem was, wikis haven’t been especially easy to use. And that’s why we started Wetpaint.

Me: Wow

Ben: It’s been important to us from day one that the technology we build is truly connected to real lives of real people.

Me: i feel like it’s an understatement to say it’s an interesting story – that’s very moving

Me: several blogs last week were asking where wetpaint fits with all the other players – powerful examples of what collaboration can achieve seems to really set you apart, and bill the wiki more as a tool of purpose than convenience.

Ben: Many of the bloggers really appreciate how ease of use and lowering the technical barrier to participate can help catalyze community growth.

Ben: The more technical roots of wiki software have to do with utility; but to us, we really want to build a platform that ties to personal passion.

Me: passion as a motivator – i like the sound of that

Me: can you give me a few examples of wikis you’re hosting now with wetpaint?

Ben: It’s important because it’s what draws people together in the first place. Shared interests that they are passionate about motivate people in politics, in religion, in sports, in neighborhoods, hobbies, and more. We’ve opened a number of wiki sites to test our beta platform. They include wikixbox360.com; for the gamer community around Microsoft’s new Xbox; wikifido.com, for dog lovers (I’ve spent the most time on this one personally!); wikicancer.org, for the community impacted by cancer; and even wikidemocrats.com and wikigop.com, a pair of sites focused on the 2008 election.

Ben: So as you can see, we’ve tried to inspire contribution across a broad range of subjects — from technical to human (and canine) interest.

Me: as a dog lover, and a democrat, (and a scientist by training who hopes for a real solution to cancer) i can appreciate that! Tell me more about the use of wiki in each domain name…this seems like a good way to make wiki more recognizable.

Ben: As we’re testing our platform on these sample sites, we wanted to make sure that people would know how they work. People who know collaboration online know wikis, so it’s a great way to set their expectations and invite contribution. Once they get to these Wetpaint-powered sites, they see the other aspects of the platform: so they can engage in dialog, comments, publish easily, etc.

Ben: We’ve aimed to bring the best parts of wiki, blog, and message board formats together on a single platform.

Me: even for people who don’t know collaboration yet, it seems like a great way to make wiki synonymous with collaboration…

Ben: Yes, and to make wikis less intimidating than they have been. Right now, 95% or more of wikis that consumers see require them to be able to write ‘markup’ in order to contribute. So we’re de-geeking the wiki, to broaden the number of people who can contribute.

Me: speaking of de-geeking, can you tell me a little about how it works, i.e. can wetpaint wikis be either open or password protected? If passworded, how would i invite others to collaborate?

Ben: Right now, all our sites are open. Individual pages can be locked or unlocked (e.g. by a moderator). Every page has an ’email this page’ feature, and it’s very fast and easy to register as well. When you contribute, you can not only make wiki-style edits and page additions, you can also leave comments. And we let users choose to either create a user profile page (a custom page all about themselves) or to post more anonymously.

Me: what are the specs and cost (how much space does each wiki get, pricing plans, etc.)

Ben: Once we launch the full service, we’ll be offering free site creation tools and hosting for everyone who wants to create their own community. There will be plenty of space for all creating an authentic community.

Me: How do you see education fitting into your user base? Would wetpaint be a good option for students collaborating on a group project, or for building community in a course?

Ben: We’ve had a lot of interest from may different constituencies in education. Many educators are already using wikis (and have expressed lots of interest in Wetpaint) to organize their classes and promote student (and student-teacher) collaboration.

Ben: Additionally, in higher education, we’ve seen some interest from academics looking to collaborate on large projects within a university or across multiple universities. Each of them have said they want to focus on their own specific content — NOT on building or implementing technology. That’s what seems to attract them to Wetpaint: they can spend their time building knowledge, not building their wiki syntax skills.

Me: that’s key, from my perspective. I spend a great deal of time at Brown convincing busy faculty and researchers to use a wiki for things like writing journal articles, tracking research, and they don’t want to learn something new – they want something which works with what they already know

Ben: Exactly. Right now, using most wiki tools, the cost of contributing (the time, learning, and complexity required) puts the value equation in jeopardy. But if contributing is fast and easy, like typing an email message is, then all of a sudden the equation changes and so does the value. If contribution is easy for lots of individuals, then collectively we’re able to quickly build a strong repository of knowledge, information, or data.

Me: which goes right back to what you said in the beginning about everyday people becoming the experts and sharing what they have to offer – they’ll do it when it’s easy and they focus more on the activity than the technology.

Ben: That’s why we think it all starts with passion. Everyone’s an expert on something.

Me: …a couple of quick questions – what about data backup (how often, how much), and what about copyright (who owns what’s put on a wetpaint wiki)?

Ben: We work with a third party to handle data backup (and we start out with all data kept redundantly on fault tolerant hardware). That way the end user never has to think twice about it, any more than you’d need to be concerned with your Hotmail being backed up. The respository of knowledge is so valuable. So we do everything we can to protect it.

Ben: When you add content, your content stays your intellectual property. When you post it, you do authorize Wetpaint to share it with the rest of your community, including both displaying it, and generally offering a community-friendly license. Our sites use the Creative Commons license to enable others to quote it, modify it, and republish it — at least for non-commercial purposes.

Me: makes sense…

Me: that’s it for my questions, and thank you for taking time to talk with me.

Ben: A pleasure!

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