Quick Fix

WikiHow is an ever-evolving collection of coping mechanisms

Two documents are open on your laptop: one, an article with a passage worth saving, the other, a Microsoft Word document where you’ve been assembling passages worth saving. You highlight the text in question, copy and paste it into the other document. A small clipboard materializes, offering a trio of “paste options,” the second of which invites you to “match destination formatting.” Upon clicking, the imported text trembles microscopically before presenting in the style of the native document. It’s a small, good feeling.

I was an unpopular child. More than unpopular, I was loathed. Emotional, feckless, obsessed with birds. I did everything I could to make friends, and of course that only caused me to be further reviled. Something changed when I turned 16, and it had to do with my first taxable job at a popular clothing store. In this new destination, there was a woman named Lindy who seemed well liked and normal, and I did whatever I could to copy her. Not copy — match. It was an adjustment of my entire format, rather than a replication of her style. I told jokes in her casual tone, suppressing my own laughter as she did. Her compliments were finely observed: I learned to watch and listen more closely so I could also offer true praise. If she wore a burgundy hoodie, I wore a cobalt hoodie. Versions, alpha and beta. It helped that she was kind and (perhaps unconsciously) encouraged me to follow her example, gifting hand-me-downs; sharing her Fig Newtons. I began eating Fig Newtons.

Everywhere I went after that, I matched destination formatting to the best of my ability, and it worked. Immediately, people seemed more willing to talk to me. I examined everyone who seemed to be nicely ordered, at school and beyond, cobbling together an identity based on the data. I didn’t think about what it meant that my presentation was founded on an unstable calculation.

Destinations are subtler now, eluding the often observable categories that children and teenagers carry with them. Matching a pre-existing format has become intimately complex. I do it by accident, meaning that I have to be careful not to start speaking in someone else’s accent after talking to them for five minutes. Matching is a way of inducing sympathy between myself and another; of contriving a connection when aloneness is the default. It also means that being alone, freshly alone, takes me back to zero. The dissolution of a relationship, for example, feels like a deletion.

If you needed a really explicit reason to believe that humanity is embarrassing, wikiHow formalizes it in a judgment-free zone

In late July, I stopped seeing someone whom I loved, but couldn’t be with. Just before that, I stopped attending therapy, which over the years had brought my awareness to this matching tactic of mine. Why did I stop going? Hubris and economy combined. Why did I stop seeing someone I love? A variation of the same. We all cope in different ways at different times with common events. Fights, break-ups, crushing solitude. But after living through so many versions of the same thing, I wanted to manage this separation differently, without turning to an outside human source for instruction.

Anything, especially what ails you, can be framed as a do-it-yourself project. DIY gives a sense of agency over one’s needs; hand-stitching your split jeans its own grim reward. Adjacent to the DIY outlook is autodidacticism, learning that lends itself to notions of the self-made genius as well as the deluded fool. On the far side of DIY is self-help, the most remedial and voracious of the three. Where DIY suggests a barrel-chested confidence in one’s own ability to complete a task usually left for a paid expert, self-help instills in us not just the desire to fix all that’s wrong, but also a fear of what will happen if we don’t. I couldn’t afford therapy anymore, but I didn’t want to rot out from the inside like an old honeycrisp. I thought about what I did have: a terrible mood, wifi, and an uncontested impulse to do it myself.

I Googled in succession, How to stop thinking about someone, and How to stop missing someone, and How to be so lonely you could eat your own arm. No matter what combination of glum post-break-up sentiments I typed in, the top hit was almost always wikihow.com.

WikiHow Dot Com launched on January 15, 2005 in homage to Wikipedia: a potentially infinite platform tracked and edited by an impassioned, volunteer community. The site was created by web entrepreneur Jack Herrick, who had previously bought and sold eHow.com, and is, according to his own Wikipedia profile, a wiki enthusiast. The word wiki (which means “quick” in Hawaiian) refers to a collaborative mode of website production and maintenance that uses relatively simple markup language. Anyone with a desire to contribute, amend, or correct can do just that. Every adjustment is explicitly traceable, making each wiki a kind of slow-moving asteroid of information, always on its way from somewhere, trailing stardust. A wiki only stops changing when it is deleted.

WikiHow took the philosophy of many minds augmenting distinct but related knowledge sets, applying it to the active parts of human, animal, and mineral behavior. “I think that building a universal how-to manual would be a tremendous gift for the world,” Herrick said in a 2009 interview with Wikinews (“the free news source you can write!”). “Knowledge is power and wikiHow has the potential to make all of us a bit more powerful.” Accounting for the site’s popularity, he explains, “we had some articles of mixed quality, and editors joined to improve those articles, which in turn attracted more readers. We continue to depend on this same virtuous cycle.”

What Herrick means is that wikiHow’s badness is part of its appeal; part of what makes it a place where people, “mixed quality” as we are, want to be. A virtuous cycle — isn’t that what I’d also enjoyed, with Lindy and the countless others who helped me form an identity? I had imagined a process of folding myself into the prevailing document. WikiHow offered an alternative paradigm, along with the realization that there is no prevailing document: only a platform and the common language we use to mark it up.

Step one advises “Being Oneself” and step three proposes “Talking Like a Normal Person,” both of which sunk me into a morass of tautological thinking

Arriving at wikiHow’s homepage, you are greeted with a banner assertion: “We’re trying to help everyone on the planet learn how to do anything. Join us.” Like Wikipedia, wikiHow is a place where you’re never alone — each page includes its editing history, with a record of who did what. WikiHow adopts that as a gestalt, spotlighting editors’ names and avatars; giving them front-end identities. This offers the illusion of being around others from the comfort of your bedroom, missing someone in spite of your desire not to. Besides the articles, I liked reading the messages that users leave for one another, the jovial pedantry automatically logged to individual Talk Pages. Join us.

If Wikipedia is about infinite knowing and wikiHow is about infinite doing, it’s hard to discern which order is tallest. The guides can be as practical and specific as how to do a tuck jump or how to clean the mold out of your water bottle lid, low-stake DIYs in the scheme of things. But, sitting on my bedroom floor with two glasses of wine, the most fascinating articles are the ones offering instruction on how to relate to other people. Somewhere in my deep-dive, I came across a guide to Being a Normal and Well Liked Girl, a premise so controversial I couldn’t bear to leave it unread. Step one advises “Being Oneself” and step three proposes “Talking Like a Normal Person,” both of which sunk me into a morass of tautological thinking. Being myself was not an option, and I didn’t know what a normal person talked like. In my years of getting close enough to match formatting, I’d learned that no one is as Normal or Well Liked as they seem — Lindy was a recovering addict who stole clothes from the store that employed us, as a way of blowing off steam.

How to be a Normal and Well Liked Girl is tagged as a stub, which means “It’s off to a good start, but still has room to grow into a more helpful resource. Until the article reaches its full potential, it will be hidden from search results. Can you help it flourish?” This is why it doesn’t come up when you Google how to be a normal well liked girl. You can only access the page from inside the site.

Absorbing information and marking facts is what every human being does in some form or another, but tracking the incremental changes is not easy. Where relational matching uses assimilation, the wiki model both records and points to its own flaws, a public bid for help, lest it remain a stub. “Match destination formatting” assumes the destination format is secure. WikiHow imagines no such thing, and works accordingly. What a relief that so many of us want to know how to be normal — even if the answer itself is dubious as fuck.

When I lose someone, my first impulse is to go through the receipts — reading every email, every text on record, trying to remember the first moment that signified some piece of it coming apart. Emails can be read over and over again for answers that never reveal themselves, nor relieve the present discomfort. So I read something else. Young Adult novels, cereal boxes, anything that will keep my reading eyes engaged. WikiHow, with its artless multi-step process to dealing with both existential woe and horse maintenance, was absurd enough to be exactly what I needed, even when the wisdom it provided was either common sense or notably odd. For instance, a note deep in the edit history of How to Fix the Crotch Hole in Your Jeans suggests sewing with floss instead of thread, “cuz floss is stronger.” That might be true, but is it right?

Many of us have holes in our jeans, and we have even more opinions on exactly how to fix them. If you needed a really explicit reason to believe that humanity is embarrassing, wikiHow formalizes it in a judgment-free zone, enabling us to both ask and answer in relative anonymity. Additionally, it understands that for every person who needs to know how, there is at least one who needs to tell you. Coping mechanisms are reciprocal. They find partners among themselves, new ones emerging to feed off of/fulfill gaps created by those previous. WikiHow is a perfect ecology of diametric coping, and it has the receipts to prove it.

For most of August, I kept myself from doing things I would regret by reading hundreds of wikiHows, and using an odd dozen or so. The constant movement within WikiHow’s pages became a source of distraction and comfort, as did the tweets, complete with famously uncanny artwork — tableaux of people thinking about objects and symbols with an expression of puckish intent. During a hike with my brother, I found a feather on the ground, which I learned came from the tail of a Northern Yellow-Shafted Flicker. I washed my hands, thinking about whatever avian disease lay within its glistening yellow barbules. Then I opened one of the many wikiHow tabs at the top of my browser and typed in How do I clean a feather.

I had imagined a process of folding myself into the prevailing document. WikiHow offered the realization that there is no prevailing document

After neutralizing the feather and several household plastics, I learned how to stop thinking about someone through an extremely useful three-pronged methodology that could basically become your entire life’s work, if you wanted. Part one, “Engage in thought stopping,” includes the suggestion to scream STOP at yourself after three minutes of unwanted thought immersion. I love screaming, so this was fine. But the various steps involved in part two (keeping busy) and part three (using your brain) reminded me of my abysmal focusing skills. WikiHow’s tips, including turning off the internet for 30 minutes and setting a timer for everything I decided to do, worked better than Ritalin. Now that I had focus, I needed more time in which to do it. I learned how to wake up earlier, which again promoted a technique of incremental awareness of time. After a week I was getting up at 6 a.m., and by 10, having the kind of despair that I typically apprehend with lunch. I wondered if I could cry less, and it turned out that yes, I can.

Links are opened in new tabs until each tab is the width of a pinkie nail. They’re nice to refer to when I need something to refer to, but they’re even nicer to close. Despite oft-psychotically phrased insightsHaving toned shoulders can be very attractive and really well toned shoulders can even be seen through clothing. Impress your crush with some rocking shoulders the guides were helpful in the way that advice from a friend somehow isn’t. WikiHow writers can’t see you at your worst, and their tools are as impersonal as hammers. They seem like promises rather than platitudes, the extension of each URL scanning as an imperative: “clean-a-feather,” “elevate-your-self-esteem,” “fix-the-crotch-hole-in-your-jeans.” Still, thanks to the view count at the top of each page, I know that nearly a million people have wanted to stop thinking about someone, enough that they would punch it into a search bar.

For every article I used, I briefly felt like I was fixing something. In certain moments, I really thought I was making progress, nodding along to the patrol stream that users like Galactic Radiance and Hope0279 populated. But it was seeing that they’d been there less than a minute ago that made me feel better. I didn’t even care to see what they’d done.

Does wikiHow just give the illusion of doing something, a series of processes to no end? That isn’t a bad thing if it exercises our ability to care about the state of our tangible/intangible lives. The problem is that I got tired of caring as an exercise and wanted again to look in someone’s face. I called my therapist and asked if I could come back, which she generously agreed to. As much as I would like to be a self-sufficient, autonomous user, solitude is less hard when I pay someone to soften it every two weeks.

I don’t feel as achingly bad as I did a month ago, but it’s the passage of time that put what hurt at a distance. Like “match destination formatting,” wikiHow’s content is incidental. As coping mechanisms, both drew me close enough to other people to see that they were struggling too. In the end, wikiHow’s virtuous, virtual cycle wasn’t enough. I needed a real person who I could talk to without timestamps. There are no perfect solutions; just sweaty stardust from the labor of our efforts.

Match Destination Formatting. Join Us. Both of these commands require the individual to step into a community and in doing so, admit that alone is a sensation more than a reality. I turn on airplane mode and read until my phone emits an arpeggio of gentle harp notes, which even though untrue, I feel I did myself.

Naomi Skwarna is a writer and actor. Her work has appeared in the Believer, the Globe and Mail, the Hairpin, Hazlitt, the National Post, Toronto Life, and elsewhere. She lives in Toronto, where she takes pictures with her phone.