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Think Big. Move Fast.

(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