The Sham of “Knowledge Philanthropy”: WikiHow and the Rise of the New Precariat

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WikiHow claims to be a community of “knowledge philanthropists.” It’s a for-profit enterprise founded by Jack Herrick in 2005 that is designed for a social end: teach people how to do almost anything. To this end, Herrick and the staff at wikiHow wanted to create the best content possible, so they hired and are hiring Ph.D.s and Ph.D. candidates on a contractual basis for around $15 an hour to edit their website, to develop content, and to root out utter nonsense planted by internet trolls. They hired me on for a period of time, but don’t be mistaken—I was no philanthropist. I was a laborer in the internet mines.

WikiHow’s pitch to potential editors is well-crafted, persuasive, and ultimately sets one up for disappointment. Educate the world. Gain editing experience. And get paid a decent amount to work from home or your local coffee house. It hit all the sweet spots. On an ideological and pedagogical level, it spoke to the very reason I pursued a doctoral degree in history in the first place. I believe that everyone can benefit from some level of higher education or at least a greater level of technical knowledge.

On a professional level, their promise of editing experience checked the next box. If “plan A”—a tenure-track gig in academia—didn’t work out and I needed to take a “track B” job, then at least I’d be able to boast a modicum of experience editing “wiki” style. Or if one day, I wanted to run a collaborative blog, edit a print journal, or craft an edited collection, I’d have the wikiHow experience to guide me. And lastly, $15 an hour is nothing to scoff at when you don’t have a mortgage or children. As Bernie Sanders argues at every interview and political rally, $15 is a living wage. (As a contract worker, I didn’t get any benefits.) All this said, while I didn’t see myself as a wikiHow lifer, I at least could gain some experience in the mean time.

So I created content and edited others’ content every day. Each article took me around two to three hours to work over. I scoured the internet for other “reputable” sources and guides. The higher-ups told me to focus on journals from “respectable” sources. I took the time then to look up medical, sociological, legal, and psychology journals. I found ideal sources, added steps to the “how-to” guide I was working on, and then uploaded it to the site.

A hierarchy exists behind the façade of open source, digitized democracy that is wikiHow. After “finishing” a piece, I got feedback from another layer of editors. They were self-described “nit-pickers.” Having worked with academics before, I took it all in stride. They stripped most of my pieces of any kind of color. When I made efforts to gender-neutral articles, they regurgitated their stereotypes back at me under the guise of “readability.” All doctors and dogs became guys. Articles would go back and forth once or twice. On occasion, I’d get further comments, a couple of weeks or a month down the line, asking for further revision.

In the end, the same three hopes that brought me into the wikiHow family drove me out. In some cases, I bought into the mission statement — to educate the world — and other times, I tasted vomit in the back of my throat. WikiHow is beholden to its free editing community. So its mission to better its site by paying Ph.D.s like me seemed rather fruitless.

Around two months into my time at wikiHow, I completed an article — I think it was “How to Break a Car Lease” — and I had one of the strangest experiences. It took me around two and a half hours to complete. I uploaded it to the site and when I returned to review it later that day, all my changes had disappeared. I panicked. “I must have forgotten to save it to the site” I thought. So I uploaded my text again, which set off a raging storm of complaints.

Apparently, one of the wikiHowians out there in the universe took special pride in this specific guide. He had “rolled back” my edits to his clearly inferior earlier draft. When I inquired about the future of this page, the higher-ups said that they couldn’t take a chance alienating their community of free contributors, so my work was basically null and void. If memory serves me right, they ended up finding some kind of middle ground — posting a Frankenstein monster of an article composited together of the earlier content and my “scholarly” edits.

On another occasion, a person just went through my article and changed all the warnings to suggestions. “Don’t splash this chemical in your eye” became “DO splash this chemical in your eye.” Clearly a “hilarious” prank by the world of wikiHow trolls went unnoticed by the “self-policing” site for months—the effects of which could have been disastrous.

After dozens of instances like these, I realized that the structure of the wikiWorld only truly valued my work when it was kept in the dark. The pseudo-democratic nature of wikiHow did not value my education as much as it valued the site’s free labor. Can you blame them? If the majority of their content is created by free-time authors, the only way they can compensate them is by protecting their content. But, again, doesn’t this simply go against the open-source dogma of wikis? And, again, what’s the point of hiring Ph.D.s to develop content?

In the long run, I became distanced from the content I was creating. There are only so many articles you can write and edit on veterinary medicine, pop cultural nonsense (like making Mountain Dew glow in the dark), or cooking. I became alienated from my writing. I wasn’t educating the world. I was just cranking out content that instantaneously lost any connection to me.

“You’ll gain valuable editing experience!” they said. “You’ll pick up a transferable skill!” they insisted. “You’ll get a line on your CV/resume!” they prodded on. But, here is the problem with that: I’m not exactly proud of my time there. I don’t boast, “I edited wikiHow articles” at academic conferences or during job interviews. Revealing this experience is like showing someone the scarlet “W” emblazoned on my soul. It’s looked down on in academia. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. I began to internalize this stigma. I was simply wasting my time, since my end goal was to break into academia.

More importantly, this editing experience came at the expense of my own scholarship. Shouldn’t I actually get on to my own professional work? It is nearly impossible to conjure the motivation to work on wikiHow articles for hours and then to turn around and write on your own parochial cul-de-sac of academia. You would think that you’d just become a better, more expedient writer and editor of your own work. You’d be wrong. The mindless writing you do for wikiHow seeps into your academic writing.

So I was alienated from the content I created and every time I visited the wikiHow site, I was reminded that I had “better” things to do — better things that didn’t pay anything, but might unlock some future employment opportunity. When you’re broke $15 dollars is nice, but with no ideological or professional reason to go on, the meager financial gain quickly lost its luster. As soon as I found other employment, I left wikiHow behind. When your work is a trifle—or worse—it’s time to move on. When you recognize that your work is not really valued, when the complaints of the uneducated, less qualified “Trump” your own, you lose hope in democracy—particularly the so-called democracy of the Web 2.0.

The author is an academic and former WikiHow contractor, but you already knew that.

Clarification (12/1/2015):

The point of this post is to underscore how the “structure of the wikiWorld” — a kind of collaborative writing needed for this endeavor — alienated my individual voice and drove me to become disenchanted with the mission statement of the site. This piece is about my experience and isn’t a reflection of those individuals at wikiHow who strive for the best collaborative experience and product. I respect many of those people I worked with and alongside for their dedication and their drive to create a better Web 2.0. 

In the process, I gave a notable example of how this collaborative writing structure led to an undesirable end. In the original piece, I note that an edit went unnoticed and could “have been disastrous.” I’m not sure how long that edit had been on the site. It had been months since I last looked at the piece. This example was not the norm, but it was an important landmark in my gradual disenchantment with the site. It was not my intention to argue that wikiHow’s policing policies were ineffective or even led to dangerous ends. They review their content for accuracy quite effectively. The sentence that begins with “After dozens of instances like these” is not meant to refer to the negative ramifications of “trolls” on the site, but rather refers to the various ways that I became alienated from my own words through the editing process and interaction with the wikiHow community of “philanthropists.”