Spend enough time looking stuff up on the Internet, and you’ll eventually run into the weird, fascinating, addictive, and surprisingly poignant world known as wikiHow. Want to know How to Be Sophisticated, Become a Writer, Survive in Federal Prison, Make the Letters of the English Alphabet, Kiss, or Get Six Pack Abs? Here is a place where a wondrous amalgam of human experience can show you the way. You may, in fact, be asked to share your own expertise in, say, dating, grilling zucchini, annoying your brother, or seizing opportunities, to name a few. It may be inevitable that you’ll be sucked in still further by hitting the “random article” button and find yourself learning How to Become a Musician, Survive a Long Fall, Concentrate on Studies, Make Candelabras from Old Bottles, or Treat a Migraine.
Tech entrepreneur Jack Herrick launched the site ten years ago after selling his previous venture, eHow. He had a clear mission—to “help anyone on the planet learn how to do anything”—which he decided couldn’t be achieved through content farming. Instead, he launched the wiki site, allowing for as many volunteers as possible to share their hard-won experiential knowledge. Now, the site has more than a million users, 183,000 articles, and 22 paid staffers. (The most thorough articles might have dozens or hundreds of “co-authors.”) It has turned down multiple venture capital offers in order to stay focused on its mission, instead making its profits mostly from Google ads and by remaining headquartered in a house in Palo Alto, California.
In honor of its decade anniversary, here’s a look at wikiHow’s history, told through seven of its biggest, best, strangest, and most useful posts.
Matt Garcia may be only 19, but he’s had plenty of life experiences to share via wikiHow articles. The 21 articles started by the Canadian biology student include this very specific set of instructions, which he wrote while recovering from surgery. He has a heart condition and ended up on life support after having a heart attack in his mid-teens. One of the tubes required for the machines caused nerve damage to his left leg, putting him in a cast and on crutches. “It did feel really good to share that knowledge,” Garcia says.
In fact, many posts come out of users’ real-life experiences. One of community manager Krystle Chung’s favorite articles tackles How to Toilet Train Your Cat: “The part that I get a kick out of is one of the tips is, ‘Do not teach your cat to flush.’ It turns out your cat will flush all day long. You couldn’t hire someone to research that tip. Somebody actually found out the hard way.”
2. How to Love
The home improvement, cooking, and health articles make sense: They are clear processes with specific steps or problems with straightforward solutions. But some of wikiHow’s most popular posts might as well be titled How to Be Human: They address kissing, getting a girl to like you, getting over a breakup, and knowing if a guy likes you, among other emotional topics. If only a computer could spit out answers to all of life’s dilemmas, right? Maybe it can’t exactly do that, but it can at least help. “It’s almost as if you have a friend to talk to when you read these,” says wikiHow COO Elizabeth Douglas. “Wikipedia is all factual information, things that are true or false. You don’t find the depth and the breadth and the empathy and the understanding of humans there. wikiHow is about people sharing their experience with others.”
Nicole Willson, a 33-year-old in Portland, Oregon, has been active on wikiHow since its earliest days, attracted to the idea because of her master’s degree in library science. And though she’s started more than 100 articles, her research standards and expertise make her even better at improving others’ work. When she first encountered the post on helping a spouse with depression, for example, it included tips about taking your partner out for a nice dinner. “If someone is chronically depressed,” she says, “that’s not going to help.” With her edits and others’, it’s become a thorough guide with an eye toward legitimate mental health resources.
In another article, about how to treat a common cold, she spotted a recommendation to get a Slurpee from 7-Eleven. “In those cases, I look for reliable sources for information to add,” she says. “It’s about information literacy. You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”
Of course, that’s exactly why wikiHow—or any wiki—engenders skepticism. The site does have rules about what kinds of topics can be posted (in short, nothing that can cause harm) and has hundreds of volunteers as well as a few paid staffers reviewing every post. But Willson is also proof that the system mostly works: Some users might have good ideas for posts, even if they don’t have the knowledge to back them up. Others can come along and add their knowledge. As contributor Betsy Megas says, “The fastest way to a good page is a bad page.”
Willson has also used her research skills for less healthy topics, like contributing to wikiHow’s vast Jello Shot oeuvre. (Besides this introductory article that Willson started, there are also separate entries on specific kinds of Jello shots, from those including caffeine to various flavors to theme-party ideas.) “That’s what I like about wikiHow,” she says. “You’re not going to see this stuff in Martha Stewart Living. You don’t have to just do articles around what gets you ads.”
Maybe Martha Stewart and her ilk should reconsider, though, given the readership such entries attract. “It’s fun to see how the traffic changes as days and weeks go on,” Herrick says. “On New Year’s Eve you see How to Make Jello Shots spike, then like clockwork the next morning it’s How to Get Rid of a Hangover.”
Lois Wade made her first edit as a registered wikiHow user in 2007 and soon found herself relying on the site for what she calls her “frugal-to-a-fault” lifestyle. (Not surprisingly, she makes her living as a bookkeeper, based in Rancho Cordova, Calif.) She helped her teenaged son make a duct-tape wallet using wikiHow instructions, then started writing on the site herself with How to Sew a Cloth Baseball. (Her son wanted a pin cushion for home ec class that wasn’t that standard tomato-with-attached-strawberry.) Since then, she’s started more than 200 articles, including How to Make a Kitchen Towel Angel and How to Design and Sew Cold Weather Mitts for Drop Handlebars. “It’s dumbfounding,” she says of the online feedback she’s gotten. “If I advertised in my home area, ‘Come Learn How to Make a Towel Angel,’ I might, if I were lucky, get 10 or 15 people to come over. But on wikiHow, I’ve got millions.” That’s all the motivation she and many others like her need: “I just like helping people. I don’t watch a lot of TV. This is my entertainment, and I don’t have to wait for this show to come on.”
“It’s one of those things where you’d think it’s a joke article,” Herrick says, “but it turns out this actually happens pretty frequently.” About 400 people die this way every year, and it’s a particular problem in Canada, where 10 percent of drowning deaths happen in vehicles. “We get a lot of people writing and saying that reading about what to do in this situation eases their anxiety,” he says.
These response-to-emergencies articles have demonstrated real results: wikiHow staff knows of at least two babies who have been delivered using wikiHow instructions, and one person who got critical medical attention thanks to How to Recognize the Warning Signs of a Stroke. Such articles have prompted wikiHow to invest in careful translation of the site into 12 other languages. How to Recognize the Symptoms of Appendicitis, for example, is particularly popular in Spanish.
Megyas, a mechanical engineer in Santa Clara, California, has started lots of practical articles, tackling everything from fixing a running toilet to couch-surfing. Despite the seemingly straightforward nature of such topics, she’s encountered a surprising number of heated debates among contributors: When she edited an article on How to Change the Oil in Your Car, for instance, she found out “how many people have strong opinions about how long you should let the oil drip out.” All of the frequent users have encountered clashes with others over article edits, but also say wikiHow is known for its sanguine approach to “edit wars.” The company’s leaders have worked to instill a culture of niceness—which emphasizes positive feedback and personal contact—that frequent users cite as the reason they’ve contributed so much. “We are nice to our community members,” Douglas says, “and we encourage them to be nice.” They even hold yearly gatherings for the active contributors, and the frequent users often speak of the site as “we” in conversation. “I find it hard to be offline for very long because of the community,” Garcia says. “It’s so hard to not be with them.”
All images via wikiHow.