Would a Wiki By Any Other Name Smell As Sweet?

Did you know that in a recent survey by Harris Interactive that only 16% of the online public know what a wiki is? For some, this will seem surprising. Others will say "what's a wiki?"

I had coffee today with my friend Kevin Flaherty of Wet Paint, the Seattle-based wiki company. He told me that they were perplexed that "wiki" was deemed one the 10 most annoying words on the web, so they ask Harris Interactive to do the survey comparing "wiki" to the terms social network, blog and online forum. Here's what they found (full results here):

16% of the US online population is familiar with what a wiki is. Even if you just look at the online trendsetters (18-34 year olds), only 27% of those online users are familiar with wikis.

Blogs, which have universal awareness among nearly anyone reading this post, are only familiar to 35% of online users. And familiarity with social networks as a category still ranks below that of online forums at 28% and 35% respectfully.

For context, consider that 76% of the same population know of search engines and 97% of toilet paper.

What does this mean? It means that we're making assumptions about what people understand about our online world. There is more misunderstanding than understanding and more confusion than solution.

What really gets me about this is that wikis, RSS, social networks and blogs are all accessible and potentially useful for the general public - but they're not being adopted as quickly as we'd imagine. The culprit, from my perspective, is the language we use to describe and promote them. It's too easy to forget that we're in the minority.

My advice to promote more awareness is to stop talking like a brochure and tell a story. Don't talk about what your product is or does - tell people why they should give a damn. Use real world examples and show how a problem gets solved. Look at every word you use and consider the simpler options.

You might not earn the respect of programmers, but you might just turn your Mom onto something that will save her time - and we all need more time.