How do you make a tuna fish sandwich? After you've finished eating it, how do you wash the dishes? How do you tie the shoes you'll be wearing that day, and what are the five steps for correctly buttoning a shirt? How do you avoid being creepy if you run into your crush? (Step 1: Don't linger.)
How do you be cool? How do you smoke a cigarette? How do you stop caring about what other people think? How do you dress like Ryan Gosling in Drive? How do you listen to punk rock music, or gangsta rap, and how do you do a sexy dance? How do you kiss? How do you be the best you can be?
How do you get a job? How do you buy a house? How do you get a promotion? How do you afford expensive stuff? How do you know if you're ready to have sex? How do you afford designer clothing? How do you become a billionaire (in 15 easy steps), and how do you buy a private island?
How do you be more down to Earth? How do you reconnect with old friends? How do you get out of a boring conversation? How do you handle haters and jealous people? How do you confront a backstabber? How do you deal with an intruder in your home? How do you react after shooting a home intruder? How do you hide from a murderer? How do you run away? How do you fake your own death?
Consult Google for answers to any of those and many more of life's most pressing questions, and chances are you'll quickly find yourself perusing the informative and deeply strange tutorials of wikiHow. Making a tuna fish sandwich—you'll learn at wikiHow—involves being careful not to cut yourself when you open the can. Being cool means you don't "act like you'll die if you have to spend a Friday night alone." To hide from a murderer, first "plan beforehand." ("Because if this ever happens to you, you may need to find a hiding place.")
To spend any time reading the delirious, encouraging tutorials of wikiHow's school of volunteer editors is to climb the Jacob's ladder of dilemmas that make a life, with the voice of a Valium-addled pre-school teacher as your guide. On wikihow, there is no distinction between the pragmatic concerns of day-to-day life and the deathless fears that live in the bottom of your belly. The problem of keeping new leather shoelaces from coming untied is treated with the same effervescence as the problem of dying in peace; treating blisters taught with no more or less cheer than treating prostate cancer. No question is too small (How to Pick a Good YouTube Name), too large (How to Understand—that's not any particular subject, just understanding in general), or too laser-focused on its target demographic (How to Act Like Hatake Kakashi, a guide to exuding the relaxed cool of a fan-favorite character on the anime series Naruto). For wikiHow, there isn't a problem on Earth that can't be solved in four numbered steps, a sprinkling of nested bullet points, and a positive attitude.
All of which adds up to a uniquely enchanting publishing voice, as evidenced by the frequency and enthusiasm with which particularly uncanny wikiHow links are traded on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. But the reason for wikiHow's existence—the millions of people searching Google for advice on issues from the laughably mundane to the heartbreakingly existential—is poignant. Its unflagging, blank cheerfulness can be as affecting as it is disconcerting.
Therein lies the tension that makes wikiHow so spellbinding. It's a bare-bones SEO play, living and dying on the search queries of frustrated homemakers and maladjusted teens, but it's also, for better and often for worse, one of the web's foremost resources for the frustrated, annoyed, sad, or depressed. It lacks the scruples to compensate the army of contributors without whom its for-profit business model would quickly crumble, but thanks to the infinite idealism of those volunteer editors and a bounty of articles on navigating the terrors of adolescent social life, it is a place of startling warmth. It's one of those magical places where the collision between the web's structuring algorithms and its users' idiosyncratic humanity is on full display.
It is also very funny.
wikiHow launched in 2005, with the stated intent of creating the world's most helpful how-to guides. It quickly assumed internet infamy thanks to relentlessly earnest tutorials like " How to Dress Goth for a Casual Party," "4 Ways to Be Really Sexy With Your Boyfriend," and "How to Be Smart and Cool at the Same Time." Its editorial and visual style—always yearning for something, fantastical or mundane, that seems to be just out of its reach—has been skewered on BuzzFeed (he 17 Most Perfect wikiHow Articles Ever Written, The Huffington Post (1 Bizarre Life Skills You Could Only Learn From wikiHow, and Jezebel (5 Utterly Deranged wikiHow How-To Guides.
A reputation for oddness and tragedy hasn't hurt wikiHow's business: Thanks largely to search traffic—Google a question beginning with "how" and wikiHow will likely be in your first few results—it isroughlythe 118th-most popular website in the U.S. and the 177th-most popular in the world. (For reference, that traffic pales in comparison to Wikipedia's or BuzzFeed's, but is significantly higher than Gawker's, Vox's, or Vice's, especially internationally.)
Though wikiHow is a for-profit company with a small paid staff, it relies on Wikipedia-style volunteer contributors and editors to create most of its content. The feeling that many of its articles would be equally suited as field instructions for aliens learning to assimilate on Earth is probably a result of that relatively open-ended approach.
The site hosts endless tutorials for transitioning from one high-school subculture to another and practical guides for repairing door frames and changing tires, but it is most striking when expressing a bodily ache for basic human connection. Who is googling How to Socialize, Be Funny and Make Friends? Or How to Get Your Friends to Stop Hating You? Or How to Start a Bromance? Or How to Love Your Kids? Or How to Cope When No One Cares About You? Many articles are obviously made for and by members of the world's most socially bewildered demographic group—teens—but others point to a deeper and more frightening despair. How do you feel better when you're lonely? Failing that, how do you survive alone?
The first thing you notice upon entering the wikiHow community is its overwhelming friendliness. Unlike Wikipedia, whose infamously complicated user experience can be intimidating, wikiHow goes out of its way to make you feel comfortable. Easy-to-follow instructions are readily available, and if you're not feeling bold enough to immediately dive in and write your own how-to, the site provides you with a few less challenging options to start with. (Alternately, you could consult the wikiHow article entitled How to Write a New Article on wikiHow.)
My first stop at wikiHow was one such sandbox called Knowledge Guardian, a crowdsourced system for approving or denying edit submissions to already existing articles. Knowledge Guardian gives you a sentence along with its corresponding tutorial and asks you to answer the question, "Could this information help someone improve this article?" After bouncing through a series of banal edits to "How to Wear Black Lipstick" and "How to Make a Wedding Dress," I landed on " How to Prank Your Mom." Juvenile, silly, addressing a question whose answers would seem self-evident—this was the wikiHow I've come to know and love. The proposed addition:
"One way to prank your mom could be to make a fake barf mess with oatmeal- make sure to add sound effects of you throwing up!"
Obviously, I gave a resounding yes.
After tooling around some more on Knowledge Guardian and a nearly identical tool called Quality Guardian, I was ready to write my first article. Rather than impose my own ego and biases onto wikiHow, I headed to a section of the site that catalogs readers' requests for new tutorials, hoping to fulfill someone else's wish. Amid "How to Start Your Own Clown Business," "How to Approach a Call Girl Through Texts," and "How to Show Your Parents the Benefits of Using wikiHow," I found my prize: "How to Describe the Sound of a Foghorn," a premise with the perfect cocktail of surreality and extreme specificity that makes for the best stuff on wikiHow. (See also: "How to Make People Respect Your Pet," "How to Chase Lizards out of Your House: 13 Steps.")
wikiHow's guidelines for editors expressly advise that articles based on "joke topics" are subject for deletion, so if the community is policing itself as it should, we can assume that even the most bizarre of its pages were created unironically and in good faith. With wikiHow's neighborly spirit in mind, I set out to create the internet's most sincere and useful guide for verbally communicating about a very particular auditory phenomenon.
Here's what I came up with:
You've found yourself in the company of friend who has never known a foghorn's sonorous bellow. "That quacking duck is as loud as a foghorn," you say, and your friend replies, "What does a foghorn sound like?" What do you say next?
- Consider your audience. Does the person have a fully functioning sense of hearing? Might they know the sound of a foghorn by some other name? Do you and the person share common experiences that might be drawn upon in your description?
- Try onomatopoeia. If the person has clear and unimpeded hearing, the best way to describe the sound of a foghorn might be to approximate the sound with your mouth. Say, "A foghorn sounds kind of like this," then: Purse your lips to form a "b" sound. Open your mouth, dropping your jaw low, and transition into an "ah," as in "father," adding a touch of nasal "honk" as you see fit. Sustain this nasal "ah" sound as loudly and for as long as your lungs will allow.
- Try metaphor and simile. Sometimes, simply replicating the sound of a foghorn may not be enough. In these cases, try comparing the sound of a foghorn to some other familiar sound. "A foghorn sounds like a tuba." "A foghorn sounds like a bass clarinet." "A foghorn sounds like a car horn or fire alarm, only much lower in pitch and more drawn out."
- Speak as clearly and as informatively as possible. If onomatopoeia and metaphor have failed, you may need to describe the sound of a foghorn without the crutches of figurative language. Say things like "The sound of a foghorn is very loud," "The sound of a foghorn has a very low, consistent pitch," and, "The sound of a foghorn can be overwhelming if you stand too close." Soon, your friend will know just what it's like to hear the sound of a foghorn.
When using onomatopoeia, consider the safety and comfort of the people around you. Do not imitate a foghorn so loudly that it might cause them annoyance or damage their hearing.
Pretty good, if I may say so myself. Concise, descriptive, peppy, uncondescending. If I lack the resources and talent to create a few of wikiHow's famously stilted illustrations, I make up for it, I hope, with clean copy and facility with the subject matter. I crossed my fingers and hit publish.
Considering that wikiHow's legions of contributors are doing unpaid and mostly thankless work in the service of a company that directly profits from their labor through advertising, my biggest question going into this experiment was not wikiHow but wikiWhy. Why spend your time writing lowest-common-denominator content with no guaranteed readers for a company that isn't even paying you? The answer, at least in my case: Writing a wikiHow is fun! The process is mildly challenging in the same way that performing charades is fun and mildly challenging: it forces you to consider a piece of knowledge that you take wholly for granted in new terms, breaking it into component parts for easy transmission.
There's also the collaborative aspect, which is rewarding and happens more quickly and frequently than I'd expected. Three days after I submitted my foghorn article, an editor named Cyber Fox added a tip to the bottom: "Air horns sound similar to most foghorns. If your friend is familiar with the sound of an air horn, you can describe it as sounding like an air horn, except deeper and louder." Staving off the strong proprietary urges that I was surprised to feel stirring within me—Wouldn't that make more sense in the metaphor and simile section, Cyber Fox?—I was forced to admit a helpful addition when I saw one.
On its various about pages, wikiHow describes itself and its mission using the messianic language of philanthropy. Users are known as "knowledge philanthropists," and the company self-identifies as a "hybrid organization"—"a for-profit company focused on creating a global public good in accordance with our mission." wikiHow is built on open-source software, and its articles are licensed under Creative Commons, meaning that users could theoretically replicate the entire site on another URL if they ever felt that the values of wikiHow the company were diverging from those of wikiHow the community. (In fact, this so-called "forking" is actively encouraged by the company.)
But the fact remains that wikiHow, emphatically a money-making enterprise, would be nearly worthless without its community of unpaid laborers. (This is true to some degree of almost all social networks and blogging platforms, Kinja included.) Jack Herrick, wikiHow's founder, funded the site in part with money he made from buying and selling eHow, a tutorial site whose business model differs from its successor's in one key sense: eHow pays its writers and wikiHow doesn't.
My goal was to build the world greatest how-to manual, every topic, highest quality page on the web to get started on that topic, and in multiple languages. The way we were producing content on eHow, we're not getting there. So the way we use content on eHow is we paid people $15 to write an article—freelance writers. And for $15...you got a $15 article. It can be pretty good. It's not always terrible, but it certainly not the best-on-the-web sort of quality.
And we realized it's not what's going to win long term. The best-on-the-web is going to win long term; the high quality stuff is going to win. So, how do I build that? And I looked around and if we'd had tons of money we probably would have figured out a way, like pay people more money. We didn't have tons of money. The reason we were paying people $15 is because that's what would pay back. So, like, geez, what else can we do, here? And I found Wikipedia. Wikipedia in 2004, when I was looking...if not already the best encyclopedia, was on the path to being the best encyclopedia. And I was like, geez, they have figured out the quality model that covers multiple languages, multiple topics...
So, the idea really came from inspiration from Wikipedia, and born out of the frustration of what eHow was doing. And so, starting late 2004 we started building it behind the scenes, launched it, and as soon as I launched it I realized that's the product I was in love with. I really fell out of love with eHow and my heart went into wikiHow from then on.
Though he doesn't put it in these terms, the specific point of inspiration that Herrick took from Wikipedia was the "wiki" model—content created collaboratively by a community of volunteers. But Wikipedia, for all its flaws, is the product of a non-profit organization; at least in theory, it exists solely to serve the public. Herrick's wiki spiel, put in less idealistic terms: wikiHow works well as a business because it uses the low-cost volunteer system behind non-profit Wikipedia as a means of generating revenue.
As a privately held company, wikiHow is not obligated to disclose its financials, so it's impossible to know just how much revenue is being generated. If wikiHow's staff page is up-to-date, it's at least enough to pay a team of 22 employees. (A wikiHow spokesperson was unable to give an interview in time for the filing of this article.) Herrick, for his part, is transparent about the company's interests. "In no way would I want people to think that I don't financially benefit from wikiHow," he wrote in a long post about money to the wikiHow forums last year. "All other things being equal, given the choice between making more money or making less, I'd rather make more. Just because wikiHow's financial success is not my only motivation doesn't mean that it isn't a motivation at all. As I've said all along, the combination of financial and non-financial motivations is why the hybrid business model works so well."
Wikipedia isn't the only website from which wikiHow draws inspiration. As a business that depends mostly on a specific type of Google search traffic to generate revenue, it has forebears in sites like Yahoo Answers—that other great repository of crowdsourced internet weirdness—and peers in more recent upstarts like Quora and Rap Genius.
According to Alexa's estimate, 36% of wikiHow's visitors come from search engines. That number seems low. Think about it: when was the last time you found yourself on a wikiHow article? How did you get there? Have you ever been on the front page? (My last time was asking Google for a safe and reliable way to open canned food without a can opener. wikiHow had answers, but none of them were very good. I went out and bought a new can opener.)
If viral abbatoir gutters like Distractify and ViralNova represent the now-dominant model for a Facebook-governed content industry, wikiHow is of the old rite, with another traffic idol, Google, and associated set of rituals, SEO.
The idea that you could keep a business afloat by providing answers to the assorted questions people ask through search engines was probably pioneered, almost accidentally, by MetaFilter. Though the site is mostly known for its famously civil and well-moderated message boards, its main source of revenue is a subsite called Ask MetaFilter (otherwise known as AskMeFi), where users can publicly pose questions they'd like answered by the MetaFilter community. AskMeFi launched in 2003—two years before Yahoo Answers copied it—and was the main driver of traffic to MetaFilter by 2006.
AskMeFi wasn't designed as a spammy SEO magnet, but it ended up providing a pretty good model for all of those that sprung up in its wake: People who didn't otherwise use MetaFilter googled stuff like " life practicalities" or "a book everyone should read," found a popular AskMeFi thread as the first or second result, and clicked in—a process that serendipitously invited the entire internet into an otherwise fairly intimate community. According to a 2014 blog post by MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey, ads sold against AskMe are responsible for 90% of MetaFilter's revenue, despite the Q&A section serving a relatively minor functional role within MetaFilter at large.
Leaning on Google search traffic was good business for Haughey, but only for as long as his site stayed within the giant's fickle good graces. The same blog post illustrates the potentially devastating pitfalls of the approach. One day in November 2012, Haughey writes, he woke up to find that a whopping 40% of MetaFilter's traffic had been cleaved away overnight, never to return, thanks to a seemingly arbitrary update to Google's ranking algorithm—the arcane mechanism by which the search engine decides which results go on which pages, and where. The change nearly upended Haughey's business.
As Winter 2012 became Spring 2013, traffic remained flat and we all took big pay cuts to make ends meet... For the last year and a half, MetaFilter's revenues have continued to decrease and traffic has slipped a bit as well...On average, every 3-6 months for the past year and a half we've seen additional ~20% drop-offs in traffic and revenue, and that's been a challenge to deal with.
The occasion for the blog post: days before, Haughey had reluctantly announced the first layoffs in MetaFilter's history. Three full-time employees were out of their jobs, and they had the inexplicable whims of Google's search robots to thank.
Genius, whose traffic largely depends on music fans googling snippets of lyrics, had its traffic similarly nuked in 2013 when it ran afoul of Google's anti-spam policies (fortunately for them, the exile was temporary). wikiHow itself may have fallen victim as well. The traffic analytics sites Alexa and Quantcast both show wikiHow's traffic falling precipitously over the past year—Quantcast estimates that its number of U.S. visitor fell by about half—and the striking graph from Alexa above might show why.
The blue line represents the estimated percentage of wikiHow visitors who arrived to the site via a search engine, a number that jumped off a small cliff in late May 2014, from over 50% to near its current spot at 36%— just as Google rolled out a "major update" to its search engine algorithm.
But wikiHow is far from dead. Hypothetically, let's say that in hopes of rebuilding his site's standing with the algorithm, Jack Herrick googled "how to get on the first page of Google" sometime this week. If he did, he'd be greeted with a familiar page as the very first result: a wikiHow tutorial.
But who supports this business? Who is googling How to Cope When No One Cares About You? (A wikiHow tutorial that, for what it's worth, has rough analogs on Quora, Thought Catalog, and some website called Health Central.) Who is the person who, in a time of harrowing insecurity and despair, has no one to turn to but a search engine? Who clicks a wikiHow link and thinks not I bet there's gonna be some funny shit in here, but god I hope this is where I finally find some answers?
Based on the stunning volume of wikiHow articles about crushes and popularity, we can say with some certainty that a large portion of its audience is teen, and many of those teens are probably lonely and depressed. Those teens, if their search histories are to be believed, feel like they are utterly alone on Earth. In the dark night of their souls, desperate for any validation at all, they ask of the internet: What the hell am I supposed to do about this terrible feeling? The internet hears their cries, and in return, the internet gives them...wikiHow's article on How to Cope When No One Cares About You, which has 404,000 pageviews:
Even if it's cold outside, the fresh air and peace really does help. If it's cold, a fleece blanket does wonders to keep you warm. Plus, they're not heavy.
If you have a pet (preferably one you like), take it outside with you. You don't have to constrain it, just watch it. That is, if that's something that makes you happy. Oh, and if you're crying, don't forget tissues.
Now that you're done throwing a fit (you have to admit, that's what you're doing, and it's okay), take a few calming breaths.
wikiHow doesn't deign to be anyone's trusted confidant or suicide hotline, nor does it have any obligation to be. For all its silliness and vague aspirations to charity, it's just another refuse barge in a vast ocean of them—albeit a particularly weird one. But there is something oddly moving about the fact that—filtered though the result is through profit motivation and search-result brokering—someone took the time to write this out, for free.
"Someone does care," reads another tip listed near the bottom of the How to Cope When No One Cares article. "If you really think not a single person on this Earth cares about you, the community that has contributed to this article cares about you."
This is where my cynicism stops. I do believe that the community cares. My experience writing and publishing on wikiHow wouldn't have gone nearly as smoothly as it did without the help of Krystle and Anna, two wikiHow employees who were happy to answer my questions about formatting and shepherd my article through the site's review process. I didn't announce myself as a reporter when contacting them through wikiHow's messaging system, so it's safe to assume all new contributors get similarly friendly treatment.
With such a seamless user experience and sweet and knowledgeable staff and community, it's easy to forget the for-profit part and get caught up in wikiHow's wide-eyed enthusiasm about spreading knowledge over the internet.
I still have a hard time imagining the poor, lexically challenged soul who will Google "how to describe the sound of a foghorn" and magically solve their conversational plight, but if they look hard enough, they'll find my wikiHow article right there waiting for them.