While there’s no telling exactly how many people have learned to French-kiss from wikiHow, we know for sure that more than 22 million people have viewed the article that teaches that particular lesson.
The post includes a section explaining how to keep your lips soft, and another called “Mastering Advanced Techniques.” The information is supplemented with GIF sets of a man and a woman “breaking the touch barrier.” There are illustrations of how to brush your teeth and bare them (in a nice way), accompanied by graphics telling you to use breath mints and not eat garlic. In the article’s sidebar, readers contribute “success stories,” ranging from cute (“It was awesome! My first kiss from my boyfriend, and the sweetest!”) to practical (“I’ve been wondering for a long time how to French kiss, but now my problem has been solved”) to graphic ([redacted]).
For most of history, this was the type of information a young person might glean from sloppy experience or convoluted slumber-party advice. Or, after the postwar rise of teen magazines, from an entity with a vested interest in teaching her about the world through the lens of consumerism. I’m sure the first (and possibly only) lessons I had in kissing came from the pages of CosmoGIRL! (RIP), which probably obliquely suggested that it would be easier if I invested my allowance in Hilary Duff’s favorite boho-chic staples first. But today’s teens get to learn from wikiHow, the 14-year-old, crowdsourced web platform known for irony-free step-by-step guides to tasks as practical as setting up a Google Chromecast and as wildly inadvisable as stopping a wedding.
“If you’re under 25, you learned a lot of stuff on wikiHow,” the site’s cofounder Jack Herrick tells me over the phone. “A lot of the questions you asked wikiHow were the things you were too embarrassed to ask anyone else.”
As a result, wikiHow’s readers have a complicated relationship with the site, like you might have with your parents or anyone else who’s helped you through humiliating times. There’s real feeling there, Herrick believes, and that’s why there are also so many memes at wikihow’s expense: The best way to disguise your most sincere feelings is to make rude jokes. On Reddit, 500,000 people contribute to a subreddit solely devoted to ripping wikiHow illustrations from their context and recaptioning them, often bleakly: An image of a person choking themselves is labeled “How to punish the person ruining your life.” An illustration of a gravestone is titled “How to celebrate your unvaccinated child’s 5th birthday.”
On TikTok, hundreds of videos with millions of views act out wikiHow posts hyper-literally over a grating, heavy bass line: Get a boyfriend by elbowing him into a refrigerator; become immediately more talented at Ping-Pong by cracking your knuckles at the ball; stop a sneeze by licking a table. The joke is always the same, but watching bendy teenagers flop their bodies around into unlikely shapes and scenarios never really gets old. This month, I watched at least 30 of these TikToks before it occurred to me that this was the most time I’d ever spent engaging with wikiHow.
wikiHow is a website no one thinks about until they need something. I’d forgotten—or maybe I’d never considered—that this green-and-gray running joke of a company is part of the shared language of the social web. It’s one of very few common resources that have been remixed mostly for fun and almost never for evil, and it may be the largest commercial platform in existence that hasn’t been accused of exploiting its users. It’s an explainer site that also, through the fact of its continued existence, explains how to run a website.
“When [the memes] started, I was probably a little bit sad. We work so hard to do a good job for people, and here they are making fun of us,” says the 50-year-old Herrick. “But now I love it. I’m just so happy some of the most clever, funny, creative people on the internet are talking about wikiHow.”
This is another way in which wikiHow is like a parent: Parents have to let you make fun of them, and they give you plenty of material with which to do so. That’s why, according to the internet personality and artist Leon Chang, “the wikihow illustrator is the greatest artist of our time.” Of course, there isn’t just one wikiHow illustrator. But there is one wikiHow aesthetic—’90s-textbook-style line drawings in washed-out tones—and millions upon millions of illustrations made by thousands of contributors. “We’re probably the largest illustrator on the web at this point,” Herrick says. The illustrations are full of happy-looking people dressed in soothing pastels, here to tell you that learning is a walk in the park and anyone can do it. These competent cartoon characters in their doodled J.Crew staples are just like you, performing tasks that you too can perform. “They seem to be well minable for comedic gold” as well, Herrick admits.
Whether they’re there to rip fodder for memes or to learn actual skills, about 125 million people come to wikiHow every month, according to Google Analytics. On Valentine’s Day, they ask how to keep roses fresh and how to microwave steak. On Super Bowl Sunday, 100,000 people ask how to melt Velveeta cheese, CEO Elizabeth Douglas tells me. “‘How to prepare for nuclear war’ sometimes trends depending on what’s going on in the news,” Douglas says. “Right now, it’s ‘How to get rid of stink bugs naturally.’”
It wouldn’t have occurred to me that there is any particular way to melt Velveeta cheese, but now that I’ve read the wikiHow page on it, I know there is a trick (milk). wikiHow is devoted to the pursuit of information for its own sake, no matter how small or superficial the topic. It’s an ethos made clear through Herrick’s “very long version” of the wikiHow story, which starts in the early ’90s, with him living in his pickup truck and collecting books in a milk crate he calls “the knowledge box.”
“I taught myself tons and tons of stuff that way, which was the greatest thing ever,” he says. “And I thought, Can I help create a world where people can learn how to do anything?”
But he didn’t build wikiHow right away. He “did a bunch of random stuff,” sold restaurant supplies, worked on a semiconductor business—boring. Then, in 2004, with an early Quora funder, Josh Hannah, he bought eHow for $100,000. It had been one of the most popular sites on the internet in 1999, but it went bankrupt in 2003 for reasons that would shock anyone running an internet business now. (The owners blocked Google from pulling their site links into search results because they wanted direct traffic and not search traffic, for one. It was also paywalled content-farm garbage.)
Herrick built eHow back up. Eventually, it became one of the most popular sites on the web again, but that wasn’t good enough for a man who wanted to teach “every single person on the planet” how to do anything they could imagine. “eHow was limited by its business model to really only English and only topics that were commercially viable to advertisers,” Herrick says. “The world is much bigger than advertising-based topics.”
In 2004, he discovered Wikipedia and learned that it was powered by open-source software. Using his earnings from eHow, he spent a year re-outfitting that software to function for a how-to site, a simpler and more workmanlike encyclopedia of common sense and DIY tips. wikiHow launched on January 15, 2005—the fourth anniversary of the birth of Wikipedia, to “honor their gift.” By the end of the month, fewer than 3,000 unique visitors had come to the site, and only nine of those people had made a significant number of edits.
“Nobody cared. Nobody came,” Herrick says, laughing. He papered eHow with links and ads for wikiHow, but hardly anyone clicked over. “I think if we were running a venture-backed business, we would have seen this as a disaster and I would have been fired as CEO.”
wikiHow was born in sunnier days online, around the same time as all those early web 2.0 dreams—Flickr, Tumblr, Delicious, Etsy, WordPress—and, unlike many of its peers, it never took any outside investment, never changed hands, never sold itself to Yahoo. The staff was four people, including two cofounders, one engineer, and one part-time community manager. In the early days of the site, Herrick wrote personal notes to all of the volunteer editors and contributors, he says. “It established this culture of treating people as you’d hope to be treated.”
It took a long time to get big, and in December 2009, TechCrunch wrote that while wikiHow was still tiny compared to competitors like About.com, crossing the 20 million monthly viewers mark with just six employees and no venture capital was “nothing to sniff at.”
At that point, the web as we know it was coalescing around a similar set of profit incentives: Commercial social media was booming. By early 2010, Twitter users were posting 50 million tweets a day. Four hundred million people were on Facebook. Pinterest launched that January, and Instagram that October.
wikiHow differentiated itself with a quaint loyalty to some of the earliest principles of the open web. Chief among them is the right to portability—the general idea that what you post online still belongs to you, and that you should be able to give or rescind access to it and move it easily from one platform to another. It has now been codified in privacy laws in the Europen Union (and included in a very recently proposed law in the U.S.), but for Herrick, it’s a philosophical issue. “If our volunteers don’t like the way we’re running wikiHow,” he says, “they can literally take all the software, all the content they’ve created, and go somewhere else. They can leave with everything we’ve built over the last 15 years.”
He calls this an important check on an internet company’s power and argues that if Facebook users had the right to take all of their content to another platform, they would have left a long time ago. “We wouldn’t have been treated like cows milked for data, and the world would be a better place,” Herrick says. “That’s not what happened, because Facebook’s software is proprietary and all the content you post to Facebook belongs to Facebook. It doesn’t belong to you.”
In the last several years, the manipulation and exploitation inherent in certain forms of online advertising have become a huge topic of mainstream discussion. Facebook may not sell your personal data, but it does sell its own ability to market to you, based on the most intimate details of your life. Small businesses with less sophisticated ad targeting can be easily crushed by ad blockers. Power continues to consolidate in a handful of gigantic tech companies. Almost anyone who wants to publish anything online is increasingly reliant on at least one of the big platforms that are funded, like it or not, by advertising.
wikiHow is not a nonprofit, and it does need to make money off its users’ attention. But while it makes all its revenue from advertising, it does so in a slightly different way from most of the commercial web.
First, Herrick points out, wikiHow has had ads from the beginning, unlike Facebook, which marketed itself as a completely free product for years. (Those years feel incredibly distant, now that you can be served Instagram-sponsored posts for a bathing suit you clicked on one time six months ago, or Facebook sidebar ads for an algorithmically generated T-shirt proclaiming that your family’s bloodline is superior to all others.)
“I wanted to be clear with people, this is how we’re going to pay for this thing. I didn’t want to trick anyone,” Herrick says. “Back in the day, with venture-funded companies, it was common to start off as these free services, pretend they’re these lovely huggy bears, and then they turn into big monsters and turn on the ads and start abusing users.”
In 2005, wikiHow started experimenting with opt-out advertising, presenting site visitors with a button that turned off individual ads. Herrick expanded the idea in 2008 with a button that turned off all ads for 24 hours at a time. A few months later, he told The Wall Street Journal that revenue had fallen less than 1 percent, and that opt-out advertising was simply a “good netizen thing to do.”
Now, anyone who registers for a wikiHow account automatically has all of the site’s ads turned off for them, forever. The site makes its profit from casual readers who don’t register, and still see ads, and it sources its content from the invested readers who’ve turned them off, but then add value to the site by writing and editing.
The company never releases financial information, Herrick says, even to employees. He alternately refers to venture capital as “the wizard behind the curtain” and “Doritos.” As in, the idea that venture capitalists know anything that he can’t figure out himself is a myth. As in, once you eat one Dorito, you want more Doritos, forever. He started two venture-funded companies before wikiHow and says he learned his lesson, which is why it was only ever funded by eHow profits before it became profitable itself.
Over the years, plenty of would-be investors have taken Herrick out to fancy restaurants in San Francisco and praised his vision, he says, but have never quite put it in writing that they’d let him stay focused on it if they came on board. Networkers have wandered away awkwardly at cocktail parties when Herrick has responded to their questions about selling or going public by telling the truth—that he can’t think of anyone who would be able to run wikiHow better than his team can. “When you sign up for these growth incentives,” he says, “you have to do the wrong thing eventually.”
“Technology industry people tend to reduce websites down to their technology,” the programmer and activist Aaron Swartz wrote on his blog in 2006. “Wikipedia’s real innovation was much more than simply starting a community to build an encyclopedia or using wiki software to do it. Wikipedia’s real innovation was the idea of radical collaboration.”
Swartz proposed that more people become, metaphorically, “Wikipedians,” and creators of more “Wikipedias”—meaning that the internet would be a better place if developers and users dedicated themselves not just to duplicating and modifying wiki software but also to collaboration, which he argued was the core principle of the social web. wikiHow already existed when he wrote that piece, and he didn’t mention it. A little funny, given that it was already applying Swartz’s thesis to something even more interesting than an encyclopedia. While Wikipedia uses “radical collaboration” to assemble a history of the world, wikiHow is about radical collaboration to assemble a model for how to live a life.
In 2007, back when we were still tinkering with the idea of what the internet was for, Herrick was among the group of people who advocated for the implementation of a “Universal Edit Button,” an easy-to-recognize icon that could be added to any website that wanted to invite user contributions. In a mission statement, they wrote, “We hope that this button catalyzes the acceleration of the editable web, and helps accelerate society’s trend toward building valued common resources.”
This wasn’t so long ago, but it sounds like another internet altogether. Almost everything about the wikiHow story feels this way—strange, but not unpleasant, like taking a sip of seltzer and realizing it’s Sprite.
The guiding principle of the site is that more is more, even when it scans as unnecessary. “Having an article is better than not having an article, even if the topic is a little out there,” Elizabeth Douglas tells me when I ask about a post I stumbled upon shortly before our call: “How to Survive a Scandal in High School.” “What if you’re hurting and you look for that article and there isn’t one there?” Better to be safe. Better to answer a million questions nobody has asked than risk leaving someone in the lurch. Even if a drive-by site vandal starts an article as a joke, it can be edited until it’s actually useful. Even if a question seems stupid, you can sit with it until you realize that you’ve asked something even more ridiculous at one time or another, and it really is absurd how much stuff a person needs to know just to get through the day.
“My favorite trend is on Valentine’s Day, there’s always an article at the very, very top which is how to react when you didn’t receive a gift for Valentine’s Day,” Douglas says. “That’s sad, but if you think about the people who are feeling that way, it’s a lot of people. The fact that we have an article and we’re able to be there with them in that moment of sort of awkward sadness actually makes me really happy. I don’t know if another article like that exists on the internet.”
wikiHow iterates on the revolutionary idea of Wikipedia by making it funny and flexible and even easier to contribute. In some ways, it is obviously lower stakes—as Herrick puts it, Wikipedia has to decide who Jesus Christ is, while wikiHow typically does not get much more heated than bickering over the best way to make a soufflé.
But with thousands of people contributing and hundreds of people empowered to make decisions in a very loosely structured bureaucracy, “the intuition is that the quality is going to go to zero,” Herrick tells me. “But the quality actually improves. It’s one of those things that doesn’t work in theory; it only works in practice.”
New articles on wikiHow are de-indexed from search results and blurred out for casual readers, visible only to logged-in contributors until they’ve been reviewed. Experienced editors have access to “New Article Booster” tools and can also choose to mark a particularly exciting new article as a “Rising Star,” promoting it onto the homepage.
The vast majority of contributions are “bad,” Herrick says—but the majority doesn’t matter. “What matters is the gems that get floated to the top. We have so many people who care about wikiHow, reviewing the edits constantly, that the bad edits get removed from the site. The reader never finds them.”
Lois Wade has been volunteering her time writing and editing wikiHow for the last 12 years. She came to the site by accident while looking for instructions on how to make her son a duct-tape wallet. She experimented with writing a few craft tutorials of her own and got hooked. To this day, she says, she finds working on the site more enjoyable than watching television. “Somebody got killed or somebody had an affair. I can really do without that. I don’t need to hear somebody call something ‘effing,’” she tells me. “wikiHow is a way to spend the time that is productive, that is helpful.”
As an early wikiHow editor, Wade used to play what she calls “whack-a-troll,” chasing people around and scolding them for “vandalizing” pages, getting angrier and more bitter every time she logged on. When Herrick offered to pay for nonviolent communication coursework for the top 20-or-so editors, she rolled her eyes.
“I thought, Oh, for heaven’s sake. That’s not going to do anything,” she remembers. “But I became a convert, because my blood pressure when editing dropped down. You find a lot of these vandals, generally they’re boys age 10, 11, 12, who think it’s the funniest thing to throw in the most four-letter words they can. If you yell at them, woohoo, they got attention. If you’re nice to them, they feel kind of bad because they were trying to be mean and these people are just nice.”
Wade says some of the site’s “wilder vandals” have also been converted and are now respected members of the community. At least two that she can name were so bad that other editors would dread seeing their names, but they are now admins themselves. One former hooligan, Zachary Rainey, told me in an email that his early articles were all nominated for deletion, but he was impressed with “the kindness and openness of Jack Herrick and the wikiHow community.” They asked him to contribute in more helpful ways, and he’s been doing so for more than a decade, in between his day-job duties as a minister.
Researchers have conducted multiple studies of contributors to wiki projects, trying to discern what exactly makes someone spend time on something that doesn’t have immediate material rewards. What they typically find is that some people are interested in the social aspect of the work, or in showing off their knowledge, but most want to be part of something that makes a difference. It’s not that it’s totally egoless, but it is totally not about the individual.
When I was a teenager I spent my free hours toggling between StumbleUpon and the Tumblr dashboard, looking for something good, finding blogs to comment on, and thinking of things I wanted to say. It was directionless, but I was also learning new things all the time. This was before I was tempted (or obligated) to spend all of my time on sites that were expert at turning that time into emotionally high-stakes situations that can be converted into lots of money—and, maybe not coincidentally, before the whole thing started feeling like a trick. So, recently, at the recommendation of an old post on The Awl, I installed a Chrome extension that would load random wikiHow pages every time I opened a new browser tab, and I set myself up to get a fresh how-to pulled from the pile of millions every few minutes.
“How to relieve constipation with castor oil” was first, then “How to eat tamarind,” “How to work out your abs while pregnant,” and “How to start a new life when you’re at rock bottom.” (What!) “How to give a rectal exam” seemed mostly useless for my day-to-day experience, as did “How to breed super worms.” Then there were things like, “How to talk easily to your crush without hesitation,” and “How to be patient with kids,” which made me nod as if swallowing a pill.
To be honest, it wasn’t as fun as scrolling through Instagram, which is where I typically go to learn about how I should be. It was practical advice, not aesthetic advice—meaning that it was more work to follow it, and also (sorry) pretty boring. It forced me to think about what I already know how to do and how that knowledge could be of use to someone else, and also to wonder whether I even care. If Instagram is a fashion show and a sex party and a million dollars and a cute dog, wikiHow is making a bowl of oatmeal and doing a series of mundane favors. If I wanted to enjoy it, I would have to rerig my brain. If I wanted to contribute, I’d have to try to think about someone other than myself.
wikiHow has worked with Amazon on Alexa skills and Facebook on its Free Basics program, so it’s not totally removed from the Goliath-owned web Herrick is so set against. Still, it’s nice that someone is still so excited about the internet; the uniform despair has always hurt my feelings a bit, as one of the internet’s creatures—and also has been starting, recently, to sound kind of dumb.
“The web offers us an opportunity to build whatever we want. We’ve chosen, by the way we’ve put the incentives, and the way users behaved, to spend all of our time in four big web properties,” Herrick tells me. “We didn’t have to do that, and we still don’t have to do that. We can build this web of small towns. You can get your information from small providers that have your best interests at heart and aren’t trying to just mine you for data. The web could be a totally different place.”