Why Wetpaint Went from Wikis to Social Publishing—the Next Step in Social Networks

10/23/08Follow @gthuang

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sadly, when a friend of a friend who had cancer went online looking for advice on experimental treatments and how best to spend his precious time. “We thought, matching Wikis with a human need, that could be a really cool business and also impactful from a human standpoint,” says Flaherty.

Together with a few friends and former co-workers, Flaherty and Elowitz came up with a business plan, and launched in October 2005 with $5.25 million from Frazier Technology Ventures and Trinity Ventures. Their first product, a Web-based tool for creating wikis, was ready in the spring of 2006. But there were bumps in the road. “It was a learning process,” says Flaherty. “There were lots of failures.”

For starters, users had to overcome the “blank canvas” problem. Even if they were passionate about starting a wiki site about music, technology, or a game, say, users would get started with Wetpaint and then face a blank page with no content. So Flaherty says his staff sent “education e-mails” about how to proceed, designed templates as a guide, and evangelized wiki sites that were doing well. Getting a user started can still be a bit of a hurdle, Flaherty says, “but compared to where we were in June 06, we’ve made a lot of strides.”

There was a deeper challenge, though. “When we launched,” he says, “we wanted to make the best wiki on the planet. But then we realized wikis were not social enough.” To become more mainstream and popular, they needed to incorporate social networking tools, like messaging, photo sharing, and reader profiles. With the rise of Facebook and MySpace serving to create platforms for online relationships, Wetpaint wanted to position itself as the next stage in social networking. “Once you have the relationships, what do you do? You create content together,” Flaherty says—and the company’s notion of social publishing was born. “That was the critical inflection point.”

That was mid-2007. A year later, the jury is still out as to whether social publishing will truly go mainstream. Making the social-wiki interface simple and easy to use seems like a key hurdle. But with Wetpaint’s new venture rounds, raised in January 2007 (led by Accel Partners) and May 2008 (DAG Ventures), investors are clearly banking on user-interactive sites as a disruptive economic model for the Web. “People will be more likely to go on your site if they can take part,” Flaherty says. “That’s more sticky, and they’ll go tell their friends.”

Wetpaint makes money from a combination of ads, subscription fees, development and maintenance fees, and revenue sharing. In part to differentiate itself further from competitors like Wikia, Ning, and JotSpot (now part of Google), Wetpaint launched an online widget in May called “Injected,” which allows any website to become social in the Wetpaint sense. The company is also cashing in on being used by big brands like HTC and media companies like Fox, Discovery Channel, and HBO—all of which have set up wikis for customers and fans (check out these sites for the shows Fringe and True Blood).

As for the future market, Flaherty thinks there’s plenty of room for fan sites, health sites, list sites, business networking sites, and any other type of social site a user or company might create. “We’re a platform for social publishing,” he says. “Content is not a zero-sum game.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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