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Control the community or just let go?

I often advise companies about to release software to the market to suspend their expectations and prepare to let the market tell them how their application will be used and be open to the programmatic and marketing adaptations needed to improve upon those unanticipated applications.

That advice may never have been so apt as in the case of Wetpaint, which today sends to beta an intriguing wiki for community communications. Wetpaint grew from the founders’ own need to find a very simple way to share information among a group of friends. They soon realized that while a wiki is an extremely flexible information sharing application, the tools to create and contribute to wikis are rather hard to use.

The Wetpaint team focused on the contribution aspects of a wiki, and has delivered a collaboration environment that does more than just make adding or editing content easy; it actually encourages the people to participate in online communities.

The eight Web sites launched today demonstrate the flexibility and range of Wetpaint. These sites include:

wikiFido.com, a site for dog lovers
wikiXbox360.com, an Xbox 360 reviews and tips site
wikiCancer.org, a support forum for those who have or who help those who have cancer.
wikiBirdFlu.org, a site focused on news and science on the potential pandemic.
wikiDemocrats.com and wikiGOP.com, partisan political sites focused on the 2008 presidential candidates.
wikiSandbox – A blank wiki where people can try out Wetpaint, and
wikiFeedback.com – A forum to share feedback about Wetpaint and its demonstration sites.
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Behind these varied demonstration sites is the noble goal to create environments that lets good people come together in supportive knowledge communities. That’s where the grand experiment comes in. The company can create the most compelling site with the most altruistic of intensions, but until you add people to the mix, it's anyone's guess how the site will be used.

In the short run, Wetpaint will create and manage the initial communities – in this mode, the company can quash conduct unbecoming to the community at large. But as this platform takes hold – and I'm confident it will – the founders of Wetpaint will reach a decision point: either maintain a tight hold on community standards (and thereby limit growth), or let go of the reins and hope their faith in humanity is well placed.

This, of course, is the decision point that most software developers face as they venture into social computing. By definition, social software is all about people, and very few of us are really very good at predicting human behavior. As more software takes on social elements, software developers will have no choice but to learn to listen to the market. That's empowering to those of us who used software.

Chris Shipley is the executive producer of NetworkWorld's DEMO Conferences, Editor of DEMOletter and a technology industry analyst for nearly 20 years. She can be reached at chris@demo.com. Shipley, has covered the personal technology business since 1984 and is regarded as one of the top analysts covering the technology industry today. Shipley has worked as a writer and editor for variety of technology consumer magazines, including PC Week, PC Magazine, PC/Computing, and InfoWorld, US Magazine and Working Woman. She has written two books on communications and Internet technology, has won numerous awards for journalistic excellence, and was named the No. 1 newsletter editor by Marketing Computers for two years in a row. To subscribe to DEMOletter please visit: http://www.idgexecforums.com/demoletter/index.html.

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