How to do absolutely everything
Want to stop laughing inappropriately, give a hamster a bath, do a backflip? Visit wikiHow
REBECCA ADDELMAN | Oct 16, 2006
Sondra Crane is a 75-year-old retired great-grandmother living alone in Altamonte Springs, Fla. Every morning, she gets up, prepares breakfast, and heads to her computer, where she spends the next eight hours teaching the world how to do everything from making low-cal coleslaw to running up a wall and backflipping. Crane is the biggest contributor to the Internet's newest and most collaborative how-to manual, wikiHow -- a website that relies on volunteers like her to write and edit its content.
WikiHow(www.wikihow.com)was born when Jack Herrick and Josh Hannah, the former owners and operators of eHow.com, the Internet's largest how-to manual, became interested in the wiki model -- an approach to the Web relying on communal authorship that had made a household name out of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. They decided to jettison the successful eHow, and its staff of professional writers, in favour of a "whoever wants to contribute can" wiki. "The goal I'd always had was this massive how-to manual with everything in it," says Herrick, "but I became frustrated running eHow. You could pay writers to write about a topic that is valuable to an advertiser. For example, we wrote about mortgages and online education. But I also wanted stuff about how to give a small pet a bath."
The wiki community has delivered. Search "small pet bath" on wikiHow and you'll hit dozens of articles, including "Give a small dog a bath," "Give your hamster a bath," and "Give your cat a bath without fear." Less than two years in, wikiHow clocks more than two million visitors every month, and though it's still smaller than eHow, it lends itself to rapid expansion -- it already has over 12,000 articles(versus eHow's 17,000)-- and to diversity. There is an impressive variety of topics: how to fold a shirt, how to make an origami swan, how to stop laughing when you laugh at inappropriate times, how to survive a panic attack, how to survive a freestyle rap battle. One current favourite is, "How to grow old without feeling old." Herrick is already working on French, Spanish, German, Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew versions. "What you're getting," says Travis Derouin, wikiHow's Perth, Ont.-born engineer, "is this collaboration from people from all around the world and different backgrounds. It's really exciting."
The wiki model is an idealistic vision of the Internet, where everyone gets together and shares. Derouin believes that volunteers with first-hand knowledge contribute better articles than professional writers. For Herrick, the editing is what counts. "Instead of a group of editors that sit in New York City, it's everyone who's reading the wiki whose job becomes one of quality management," he says. Deletion is done by committee. Unless the content is blatantly offensive or illegal, a bad article is put up to a vote to decide if it stays or goes. Some articles the wikiHow community has ousted: "Succeeding with drunk chicks at parties," "How to hate yourself," and "How to run in tight circles," cut because it was "useless." Some they've kept? "Be the prettiest girl in school and get all the guys," and "How to act like Steven Seagal."
But credibility is even more crucial here than it is for Wikipedia. It's one thing for an encyclopedia to get, say, Winston Churchill's birthdate wrong. It's another to give shoddy advice on how to live with bipolar disorder. The most popular article by Crane, a former newspaper copy editor who has written 69 of wikiHow's instructional guides, is "How to stop cutting yourself." "I have never known a cutter," says the Florida retiree, "I have never seen a cutter. But by listening to them and using my own common sense, I'm able to help them." But as Leslie Regan Shade, associate professor of communications at Concordia University, points out, "Why go here for health information when I can go to an excellent resource such as the Mayo online?"
Relevance is an even bigger issue, says Marco Adria, a professor in communications and technology at the University of Alberta. He thinks wikiHow's advice is too niche and fragmented for most people to find useful. "Their 10,000th article was 'How to eat dark chocolate,'" he says. "While there is probably a community of chocolate connoisseurs, what one person finds interesting may be of no interest to even that person's closest friends." Adria predicts that as wikiHow grows, it will become more and more specialized, making it increasingly irrelevant. On the other hand, if you're a Steven Seagal fan, count yourself lucky.
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