For several months Yamini Karanam, an Indiana University Ph.D. student, had been plagued by neurological distress: forgetfulness, difficulty understanding simple writing, and headaches so severe that she couldn’t read.
For several months Yamini Karanam, an Indiana University Ph.D. student, had been plagued by neurological distress: forgetfulness, difficulty understanding simple writing, and headaches so severe that she couldn’t read.
Violence, inflicted by guards and among prisoners, is simply part of the fabric of daily life at Rikers Island. Thanks to tireless reporting by the likes of Michael Winerip and Michael Schwartz at the New York Times, we know this, but we know it in an abstract sense—told through broad statistics and quoted anecdotes. Here’s what it actually looks like.
Three cheers and a who’s a good boy you’re a good boy yes you are for Don, a Scottish collie who piloted a tractor down a hillock, through a split-rail fence, and across the busy commuter road below, all without even barking or getting upset even once. I hope Don’s master gives him some green beans as a treat!
Bet you woke up this morning feeling all smug about being a “person,”with “rights” just like any other Tom, Dick or duly incorporated S Corp. Well too bad, sucker, because chimps have rights now too.
A Manhattan Supreme Court judge made the ruling—the first of its kind in America—on Monday, holding that two chimpanzees living at a university medical lab qualify as “legal persons” for the purpose of a habeas corpus writ.
Habeas corpus petitions—essentially hearings to determine whether or not an imprisonment is lawful—can only be brought on behalf of persons and not—a critical distinction—on behalf of things. By issuing the order to show cause, the judge essentially reclassified chimps as persons within the legal definition.
Is it the worst idea, though? Eh. The line of cases so far aren’t trying to set the wild animals free (an issue already plaguing the New York metropolitan area)—just to regulate the care of arguably self-aware species. It’s a moral argument, and not an unpopular one.
Now the school—Stony Brook University in Long Island—will have to file papers with the court arguing that keeping the chimps in their medical lab is lawful.
Attorneys from the Non Human Rights Project representing the chimps say they’d like to see them moved to a sanctuary in Florida. Arguments in the case are expected to continue in May.
[h/t Buzzfeed, image via AP]
Clowns automatically win any PR fight
Lord Nelson, a horse who was also a Rutgers professor and a former cop, died Sunday. He was 42.
Nelson’s storied career at Rutgers began in 1978, when he was purchased from Roosevelt Sales Stables at the approximate age of five years. After commuting daily from Jersey to train at the esteemed New York Mounted Patrol in New York City, Lord Nelson was hired by Rutgers as its first-ever police horse.
The horse worked for the university for more than 37 years, according to the Hunterdon County Democrat, first as the sole member of the Rutger's police department's mounted patrol unit, then as part of the student-run patrol group, and later as an equine professor emeritus who taught children about horses. But it was Lord Nelson’s job carrying the school's Scarlet Knight mascot during football games that would earn him his place in history.
During a 1994 Rutgers-Army game, Lord Nelson bolted down the sideline of Giants Stadium and onto the field, drawing the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Historians believe this is the first and only time a horse has received a penalty during an NCAA football game.
Nelson retired from Rutgers in 2000 and moved to a local farm. The retired life, however, was not for Nelson and in 2009, he unretired to work on the the "Scoop on Poop" campaign created to educate animal farmers in New Jersey. Later that same year, he became the mascot for Equine Science 4 Kids. In February, Nelson received a long-overdue award for “Horse Personality of the Year.”
RIP Lord Nelson. You were a better man than I'll ever be.
Though the Kardashian-Wests are comfortably back in their second home, Gay Paree, they've been given a perfect scrapbook souvenir by which to remember their tour of the Middle East. When a photo of the royal family with Jerusalem's mayor Nir Barkat appeared online, an ultra-Orthodox publication cleverly obfuscated Kim Kardashian by plastering a huge receipt over her body (even though she was dressed quite demurely).
The AP reports that the publication, Kikar HaShabbat, blurred Kim from the image because "she is a pornographic symbol" who contradicts ultra-Orthodox values. In the article, Kardashian was referred to as "West's wife."
Images via AP. Contact the author at email@example.com.
Like building a fire or doing your taxes , knowing how to drive stick is a life skill that's no less useful if your life is one of crime. That's the lesson a South Carolina man learned this week when his kidnapping attempt was thwarted by a manual transmission, the Associated Press reports.
It's been nearly a year since last year's audit detailing just how dire things are for veterans in need of medical attention , and apparently, not all that much has changed. According to veteran Ted Koran, he recently called the VA's suicide hotline only to be be put on hold for up to ten minutes at a time—multiple times.
A casual observer might take note of Darren Sharper's pending plea agreement in rape charges spread across at least four years and four different states for any number of the obvious reasons—this is, after all, a case involving a former NFL All-Pro being revealed as a serial rapist. One of those reasons, though, would clearly be the "penis monitoring" attached to Sharper's lifetime probation in Arizona, whereby instruments will be attached to his penis to measure how sexually arousing he finds various graphic images. This makes for some obvious enough jokes, but it's also based on ridiculous science.
Rand Paul 2016?
Almost two years after Edward Snowden climbed the world stage, the intelligence community is just now putting the finishing touches on a computer-driven system for catching insider threats– one that promises not just to detect future Snowdens and Mannings in the act, but also to predict who the next leakers will be.
The new method, meant to identify leakers of classified information but also homegrown terrorists, drug financiers, school ground shooters, and even sexual predators, builds the security equivalent of a "credit score." It would secretly attach to every individual, while automatically generating and changing scores as behaviors and associations trigger indicators of anomalous activity.
The initial "security scores" would be applied to insider threats (or "InThs" as they are now being called internally)—that is, people "affiliated" with the federal government. But the definition of who qualifies as being an insider is already so broad, and the methods of activity monitoring so widespread and promising, that it's only a matter of time before some kind of security score system is applied universally.
After Snowden accessed and then downloaded over 1.5 million Top Secret documents from internal networks, some immediate changes were made in intelligence community practices. According to NextGov:
Any piece of data ingested by NSA systems over the last two years has been meta-tagged with bits of information, including where it came from and who is authorized to see…
Tagging both the data and the individual user, NSA thinks, will expose what data any individual accesses and what they do with it. It sounds definitive and big brotherish, except that there are hundreds of thousands of workers and part of the analytic process requires them to legitimately access huge amounts of data to do their jobs. Automated, real-time deterrents are the hope of deterring all but the most fervent and sneaky insider, intelligence sources say. But to catch the next Snowdens?
That's where the credit score-like tool enters the picture. Every user, based upon clearances, time in service, personnel evaluations, derogatory information, anomalous transactions, credit score, etc., etc., will be churned in the temple of big data to detect the InThs who pose the most risk to an organization.
A credit score, according to the federal government, is defined as: "The result of a calculation based on a consumer's credit history that is intended to predict future credit performance for that consumer. It is a numerical estimation of the likelihood that the consumer will meet his or her debt obligation(s)."
Though most people come into contact with their credit scores when applying for a home loan or attempting to secure even more credit, the industry behind scoring and detection of fraudulent activity is constantly active. And given the proliferation of the use of government purchase cards (GPCs)—credit cards—by federal and local agencies, the feds have become some of the biggest players.
Add to that the post 9/11 mania to intercept and dry up terrorist financing as an element of U.S. strategy and you have a robust, far-flung apparatus looking everywhere.
The score, of course, is merely a static and final indicator, and the algorithm is so flawed that there's another industry for people to challenge their scores. Fraud detection is big business because fraud is so prevalent and the means of financial fraud so varied.
Same goes for security threat detection. As an example, according to an internal intelligence community report on insider threats and obtained by Gawker, the initial movement to Third-Party Payment Merchants (e.g., PayPal) in the mid-2000s triggered a whole set of automated alerts to supposed high-risk transitions—because one or both parties were hidden from both audit and data mining screening. The entire world of transactional security needed to change their algorithms to dig deeper into transactions.
Then came Wikileaks. Chelsea Manning was convicted for crimes associated with downloading thousands of documents from the Defense Department's Secret-level internal network (SIPRNet), an activity that was only detected once the material was published. The response of the security types was to plumb the log-ons and logs in more real-time to flag similar behavior in the future.
The wheels of government being square, nothing happened that prevented Edward Snowden from accessing and downloading over a million documents from the Top Secret internal NSA network (NSANet). There's no evidence that anyone in the multi-billion dollar security industry was fired for failing to detect and thwart Snowden's act, but the damage assessments done identified not just the means for how to do so in the future but also what additional measures (and authorities) would be needed to prevent future Snowdens.
Enter the Senior Information Sharing and Safeguarding Steering Committee (SISSSC) of the National Security Council, and the IC Deputies Executive Committee (DEXCOM) dealing with the InTh, the National Insider Threat Task Force (NITTF), under the joint chairmanship of the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence; and the implementing agencies: The National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX) working for the DNI and the FBI for the AG, both co-directing the daily activities of the NITTF. And a new National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) was created consolidating the security components of the office of the DNI and the NCIX, reorganization being the impulse of government to any problem.
The mandates also flowed:
All of this spawned more. An Intelligence Community (IC) Insider Threat Executive Advisory Group (ITAG) to identify and coordinate solutions and policies. The Pentagon established the DOD Insider Threat Working Group under the auspices of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence in August 2013. Information Security breaches were one thing, but when Army Major Nidal Hassan opened fire at Ft. Hood, Texas killing four and injuring sixteen, the InTh and the measures necessary separated on different tracks. The Defense Department Insider Threat Working Group (InTWG) was given three areas to focus on: workplace violence, terrorism, and general security threats (including espionage and threats to information systems).
In response to the post-Wikileaks and post-Snowden directives, virtually every agency of the federal government scrambled to establish its own InTh program.
From the Department of Agriculture to the National Reconnaissance Office, insider threat detection systems and software programs were unleashed like a pack of hunting dogs, monitoring internal network activity for behaviors and events that were anomalous in nature; detecting, identifying; and investigating suspected threats; developing new capabilities to monitor, detect, crunch, catch, crush, etc.
The scope of insider threats ballooned, and the Pentagon set the definition to include: counterintelligence (CI), cybersecurity, physical security, civilian and military personnel management, workplace violence, emergency management, law enforcement (LE), and antiterrorism (AT) risk management. Meanwhile, the Defense Security Service broadened the definition of an insider as:
Any person with authorized access (by virtue of statutory, regulatory, or contractual authority or any other person who has been granted access) to any U.S. government resources to include personnel, facilities, information, equipment, networks, systems and operations. An insider could also include family members, friends, or associates who have access to resources by virtue of their relationship to an employee or contractor of the agency.
And the 2014 directive adds: "Individuals who volunteer and donate their services" to the military. In other words, if you are related to or associated with someone in the military or intelligence community (or any contractor for them), or if you visit a federal government facility or website, you are an insider. That's an overly broad definition that could encompass millions upon millions of people who have access to nothing of value but are at the same time subject to special monitoring for the purposes of InTh.
The security industry is already churning on a new process to replace the standard Security Clearance Background investigation, not a surprise given how ineffectual that the records check and talking-to-neighbors process has been over the years in catching the really big fish.
A combination of smart card credentialing, tagged activity and location within the network—both for people and documents and data—plus real time intelligence reporting of communications, the security goons think, will finally close all the side and back doors. It sort of makes me think of a nightclub that has bolted all of the exits: Super security; everybody inside dies.
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow us at @gawkerphasezero. If you are into the theater of being underground, you can anonymously deliver tips through the Gawker Media SecureDrop. I've got a book on drones coming out in July called Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare. I'm open to your input and your questions, tough questions.
[Gattaca screenshot courtesy of Columbia Pictures; Snowden photo courtesy of AP Images]
U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage seems to spend half of his time asserting that Ukip is "not a racist party" and the other half apologizing for his party's racism. Ukip's anti-immigrant rhetoric has many critics, but one of the most vocal and most sword-owning of them is Yanek Zylinski, a self-described Polish prince who literally challenged Farage to a duel over the weekend.
In a YouTube video posted this weekend, Zylinksi brandishes a sword he says belonged to his father, a Polish aristocrat and war hero. He explains he's finally had it with Ukip, and would like to cut down their leader on behalf of Britain's Polish population.
"I've had enough of the discrimination against Polish people in this country. The most idiotic example I've heard of has been Mr. Nigel Farage blaming migrants for traffic jams on the M4," he says.
He's inviting Farage to settle their dispute like gentlemen, with swords in Hyde Park some morning.
But, perhaps sensing that Farage is not a gentleman, he offers up the alternative of a debate before next month's general election, in which Ukip is projected to pick up around 15% of the vote.
Farage, an asshole, took the opportunity to remind everyone he thinks it would be better if Poles just stayed in Poland:
"I would have thought that a Polish prince with a long Polish lineage would rather agree with me that it's a complete tragedy for Poland that it's lost so many of its brightest and best young people."
"It is an impressive sword. I don't have one but I'm sure we could find one if we had to. But I'm not intending to accept the offer," he added, according to Sky News.
It's a shame, too, because I imagine a lot of people would have paid good money to see that. Forget Mayweather-Pacquiao—that's just two rich guys getting richer by beating each other up. This is a prince trying to beat racism with an enormous sword.
[h/t Sky News]
Last week, we posed a question . This week, we have an answer: "Senator Tom Cotton," Republican of Arkansas, is in fact not a natural human organism, but a hybrid experiment in which the brain of German general Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff has been grafted onto the frame of a pugnacious giraffe.
I just snorted so hard in the middle of a restaurant
my personal highlight of april fools 2015 was youtube recommending darude sandstorm whenever you searched a song name
they also added a little music logo on some videos and if you clicked it, it would play darude sandstorm
all in all this is one of my favourite april fools jokes because it’s so subtle. it’s not huge and in your face like fucking coppy, it’s just a really small joke and it’s so much funnier because of that
*flips a coin* ok, so, a boy, who is in love with a girl who *spins a wheel* collects secondhand journals, meet and *rolls dice* go on a cruise with the main character’s *throws dart* albino friend who likes *picks a card out of a hat* 11th century Norwegian poetry.
A+++, Would be burned by this user again.
The man who shot himself at the M Resort this past Sunday blamed his suicide on being banned from the buffet that had once promised him free meals for life, according to an indexed, 270-page suicide note mailed to the Las Vegas Review Journal.
His final message, which was supplemented by both photographs and DVDs, attributes his depression to the "M Resort Spa Casino and its employees," who had awarded him free meals for life before banning him once he began to harass some of the hotel's female employees. From the Review Journal:
“Today, I end my life due to the M Resort Spa Casino and its employees,” Noble wrote in one of two suicide notes he included with an obsessively detailed dossier on the people he blamed for destroying his life....
The second to last page, titled “The Curse,” spells out all the harm he wishes on those he believed wronged him. Included on the list are several women who worked at M Resort’s Studio B Buffet and who Noble showered with gifts and unwanted attention after he won meals for life there in September 2010.
The note also describes a suicide threat he'd made back on Easter of 2013, just a few weeks after he first lost his buffet privileges, which resulted in brief stay at a state psychiatric hospital.
No one else was injured during the shooting, though witnesses were obviously traumatized.
"Families must have been terrified," one bystander said. "Kids shouldn’t have to experience that, no one should."
Image via Yelp.
Contact the author at email@example.com.
How do you make a tuna fish sandwich? After you've finished eating it, how do you wash the dishes? How do you tie the shoes you'll be wearing that day, and what are the five steps for correctly buttoning a shirt? How do you avoid being creepy if you run into your crush? (Step 1: Don't linger.)
How do you be cool? How do you smoke a cigarette? How do you stop caring about what other people think? How do you dress like Ryan Gosling in Drive? How do you listen to punk rock music, or gangsta rap, and how do you do a sexy dance? How do you kiss? How do you be the best you can be?
How do you get a job? How do you buy a house? How do you get a promotion? How do you afford expensive stuff? How do you know if you're ready to have sex? How do you afford designer clothing? How do you become a billionaire (in 15 easy steps), and how do you buy a private island?
How do you be more down to Earth? How do you reconnect with old friends? How do you get out of a boring conversation? How do you handle haters and jealous people? How do you confront a backstabber? How do you deal with an intruder in your home? How do you react after shooting a home intruder? How do you hide from a murderer? How do you run away? How do you fake your own death?
Consult Google for answers to any of those and many more of life's most pressing questions, and chances are you'll quickly find yourself perusing the informative and deeply strange tutorials of wikiHow. Making a tuna fish sandwich—you'll learn at wikiHow—involves being careful not to cut yourself when you open the can. Being cool means you don't "act like you'll die if you have to spend a Friday night alone." To hide from a murderer, first "plan beforehand." ("Because if this ever happens to you, you may need to find a hiding place.")
To spend any time reading the delirious, encouraging tutorials of wikiHow's school of volunteer editors is to climb the Jacob's ladder of dilemmas that make a life, with the voice of a Valium-addled pre-school teacher as your guide. On wikihow, there is no distinction between the pragmatic concerns of day-to-day life and the deathless fears that live in the bottom of your belly. The problem of keeping new leather shoelaces from coming untied is treated with the same effervescence as the problem of dying in peace; treating blisters taught with no more or less cheer than treating prostate cancer. No question is too small (How to Pick a Good YouTube Name), too large (How to Understand—that's not any particular subject, just understanding in general), or too laser-focused on its target demographic (How to Act Like Hatake Kakashi, a guide to exuding the relaxed cool of a fan-favorite character on the anime series Naruto). For wikiHow, there isn't a problem on Earth that can't be solved in four numbered steps, a sprinkling of nested bullet points, and a positive attitude.
All of which adds up to a uniquely enchanting publishing voice, as evidenced by the frequency and enthusiasm with which particularly uncanny wikiHow links are traded on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. But the reason for wikiHow's existence—the millions of people searching Google for advice on issues from the laughably mundane to the heartbreakingly existential—is poignant. Its unflagging, blank cheerfulness can be as affecting as it is disconcerting.
Therein lies the tension that makes wikiHow so spellbinding. It's a bare-bones SEO play, living and dying on the search queries of frustrated homemakers and maladjusted teens, but it's also, for better and often for worse, one of the web's foremost resources for the frustrated, annoyed, sad, or depressed. It lacks the scruples to compensate the army of contributors without whom its for-profit business model would quickly crumble, but thanks to the infinite idealism of those volunteer editors and a bounty of articles on navigating the terrors of adolescent social life, it is a place of startling warmth. It's one of those magical places where the collision between the web's structuring algorithms and its users' idiosyncratic humanity is on full display.
It is also very funny.
wikiHow launched in 2005, with the stated intent of creating the world's most helpful how-to guides. It quickly assumed internet infamy thanks to relentlessly earnest tutorials like " How to Dress Goth for a Casual Party," "4 Ways to Be Really Sexy With Your Boyfriend," and "How to Be Smart and Cool at the Same Time." Its editorial and visual style—always yearning for something, fantastical or mundane, that seems to be just out of its reach—has been skewered on BuzzFeed (The 17 Most Perfect wikiHow Articles Ever Written), The Huffington Post (11 Bizarre Life Skills You Could Only Learn From wikiHow), and Jezebel (15 Utterly Deranged wikiHow How-To Guides).
A reputation for oddness and tragedy hasn't hurt wikiHow's business: Thanks largely to search traffic—Google a question beginning with "how" and wikiHow will likely be in your first few results—it is roughly the 118th-most popular website in the U.S. and the 177th-most popular in the world. (For reference, that traffic pales in comparison to Wikipedia's or BuzzFeed's, but is significantly higher than Gawker's, Vox's, or Vice's, especially internationally.)
Though wikiHow is a for-profit company with a small paid staff, it relies on Wikipedia-style volunteer contributors and editors to create most of its content. The feeling that many of its articles would be equally suited as field instructions for aliens learning to assimilate on Earth is probably a result of that relatively open-ended approach.
The site hosts endless tutorials for transitioning from one high-school subculture to another and practical guides for repairing door frames and changing tires, but it is most striking when expressing a bodily ache for basic human connection. Who is googling How to Socialize, Be Funny and Make Friends? Or How to Get Your Friends to Stop Hating You? Or How to Start a Bromance? Or How to Love Your Kids? Or How to Cope When No One Cares About You? Many articles are obviously made for and by members of the world's most socially bewildered demographic group—teens—but others point to a deeper and more frightening despair. How do you feel better when you're lonely? Failing that, how do you survive alone?
The first thing you notice upon entering the wikiHow community is its overwhelming friendliness. Unlike Wikipedia, whose infamously complicated user experience can be intimidating, wikiHow goes out of its way to make you feel comfortable. Easy-to-follow instructions are readily available, and if you're not feeling bold enough to immediately dive in and write your own how-to, the site provides you with a few less challenging options to start with. (Alternately, you could consult the wikiHow article entitled How to Write a New Article on wikiHow.)
My first stop at wikiHow was one such sandbox called Knowledge Guardian, a crowdsourced system for approving or denying edit submissions to already existing articles. Knowledge Guardian gives you a sentence along with its corresponding tutorial and asks you to answer the question, "Could this information help someone improve this article?" After bouncing through a series of banal edits to "How to Wear Black Lipstick" and "How to Make a Wedding Dress," I landed on " How to Prank Your Mom." Juvenile, silly, addressing a question whose answers would seem self-evident—this was the wikiHow I've come to know and love. The proposed addition:
"One way to prank your mom could be to make a fake barf mess with oatmeal- make sure to add sound effects of you throwing up!"
Obviously, I gave a resounding yes.
After tooling around some more on Knowledge Guardian and a nearly identical tool called Quality Guardian, I was ready to write my first article. Rather than impose my own ego and biases onto wikiHow, I headed to a section of the site that catalogs readers' requests for new tutorials, hoping to fulfill someone else's wish. Amid "How to Start Your Own Clown Business," "How to Approach a Call Girl Through Texts," and "How to Show Your Parents the Benefits of Using wikiHow," I found my prize: "How to Describe the Sound of a Foghorn," a premise with the perfect cocktail of surreality and extreme specificity that makes for the best stuff on wikiHow. (See also: "How to Make People Respect Your Pet," "How to Chase Lizards out of Your House: 13 Steps.")
wikiHow's guidelines for editors expressly advise that articles based on "joke topics" are subject for deletion, so if the community is policing itself as it should, we can assume that even the most bizarre of its pages were created unironically and in good faith. With wikiHow's neighborly spirit in mind, I set out to create the internet's most sincere and useful guide for verbally communicating about a very particular auditory phenomenon.
Here's what I came up with:
You've found yourself in the company of friend who has never known a foghorn's sonorous bellow. "That quacking duck is as loud as a foghorn," you say, and your friend replies, "What does a foghorn sound like?" What do you say next?
- Consider your audience. Does the person have a fully functioning sense of hearing? Might they know the sound of a foghorn by some other name? Do you and the person share common experiences that might be drawn upon in your description?
- Try onomatopoeia. If the person has clear and unimpeded hearing, the best way to describe the sound of a foghorn might be to approximate the sound with your mouth. Say, "A foghorn sounds kind of like this," then: Purse your lips to form a "b" sound. Open your mouth, dropping your jaw low, and transition into an "ah," as in "father," adding a touch of nasal "honk" as you see fit. Sustain this nasal "ah" sound as loudly and for as long as your lungs will allow.
- Try metaphor and simile. Sometimes, simply replicating the sound of a foghorn may not be enough. In these cases, try comparing the sound of a foghorn to some other familiar sound. "A foghorn sounds like a tuba." "A foghorn sounds like a bass clarinet." "A foghorn sounds like a car horn or fire alarm, only much lower in pitch and more drawn out."
- Speak as clearly and as informatively as possible. If onomatopoeia and metaphor have failed, you may need to describe the sound of a foghorn without the crutches of figurative language. Say things like "The sound of a foghorn is very loud," "The sound of a foghorn has a very low, consistent pitch," and, "The sound of a foghorn can be overwhelming if you stand too close." Soon, your friend will know just what it's like to hear the sound of a foghorn.
When using onomatopoeia, consider the safety and comfort of the people around you. Do not imitate a foghorn so loudly that it might cause them annoyance or damage their hearing.
Pretty good, if I may say so myself. Concise, descriptive, peppy, uncondescending. If I lack the resources and talent to create a few of wikiHow's famously stilted illustrations, I make up for it, I hope, with clean copy and facility with the subject matter. I crossed my fingers and hit publish.
Considering that wikiHow's legions of contributors are doing unpaid and mostly thankless work in the service of a company that directly profits from their labor through advertising, my biggest question going into this experiment was not wikiHow but wikiWhy. Why spend your time writing lowest-common-denominator content with no guaranteed readers for a company that isn't even paying you? The answer, at least in my case: Writing a wikiHow is fun! The process is mildly challenging in the same way that performing charades is fun and mildly challenging: it forces you to consider a piece of knowledge that you take wholly for granted in new terms, breaking it into component parts for easy transmission.
There's also the collaborative aspect, which is rewarding and happens more quickly and frequently than I'd expected. Three days after I submitted my foghorn article, an editor named Cyber Fox added a tip to the bottom: "Air horns sound similar to most foghorns. If your friend is familiar with the sound of an air horn, you can describe it as sounding like an air horn, except deeper and louder." Staving off the strong proprietary urges that I was surprised to feel stirring within me—Wouldn't that make more sense in the metaphor and simile section, Cyber Fox?—I was forced to admit a helpful addition when I saw one.
On its various about pages, wikiHow describes itself and its mission using the messianic language of philanthropy. Users are known as "knowledge philanthropists," and the company self-identifies as a "hybrid organization"—"a for-profit company focused on creating a global public good in accordance with our mission." wikiHow is built on open-source software, and its articles are licensed under Creative Commons, meaning that users could theoretically replicate the entire site on another URL if they ever felt that the values of wikiHow the company were diverging from those of wikiHow the community. (In fact, this so-called "forking" is actively encouraged by the company.)
But the fact remains that wikiHow, emphatically a money-making enterprise, would be nearly worthless without its community of unpaid laborers. (This is true to some degree of almost all social networks and blogging platforms, Kinja included.) Jack Herrick, wikiHow's founder, funded the site in part with money he made from buying and selling eHow, a tutorial site whose business model differs from its successor's in one key sense: eHow pays its writers and wikiHow doesn't.
Here's how Herrick described his wikiHow aha moment in a 2012 interview with the business advice site Mixergy:
My goal was to build the world greatest how-to manual, every topic, highest quality page on the web to get started on that topic, and in multiple languages. The way we were producing content on eHow, we're not getting there. So the way we use content on eHow is we paid people $15 to write an article—freelance writers. And for $15...you got a $15 article. It can be pretty good. It's not always terrible, but it certainly not the best-on-the-web sort of quality.
And we realized it's not what's going to win long term. The best-on-the-web is going to win long term; the high quality stuff is going to win. So, how do I build that? And I looked around and if we'd had tons of money we probably would have figured out a way, like pay people more money. We didn't have tons of money. The reason we were paying people $15 is because that's what would pay back. So, like, geez, what else can we do, here? And I found Wikipedia. Wikipedia in 2004, when I was looking...if not already the best encyclopedia, was on the path to being the best encyclopedia. And I was like, geez, they have figured out the quality model that covers multiple languages, multiple topics...
So, the idea really came from inspiration from Wikipedia, and born out of the frustration of what eHow was doing. And so, starting late 2004 we started building it behind the scenes, launched it, and as soon as I launched it I realized that's the product I was in love with. I really fell out of love with eHow and my heart went into wikiHow from then on.
Though he doesn't put it in these terms, the specific point of inspiration that Herrick took from Wikipedia was the "wiki" model—content created collaboratively by a community of volunteers. But Wikipedia, for all its flaws, is the product of a non-profit organization; at least in theory, it exists solely to serve the public. Herrick's wiki spiel, put in less idealistic terms: wikiHow works well as a business because it uses the low-cost volunteer system behind non-profit Wikipedia as a means of generating revenue.
As a privately held company, wikiHow is not obligated to disclose its financials, so it's impossible to know just how much revenue is being generated. If wikiHow's staff page is up-to-date, it's at least enough to pay a team of 22 employees. (A wikiHow spokesperson was unable to give an interview in time for the filing of this article.) Herrick, for his part, is transparent about the company's interests. "In no way would I want people to think that I don't financially benefit from wikiHow," he wrote in a long post about money to the wikiHow forums last year. "All other things being equal, given the choice between making more money or making less, I'd rather make more. Just because wikiHow's financial success is not my only motivation doesn't mean that it isn't a motivation at all. As I've said all along, the combination of financial and non-financial motivations is why the hybrid business model works so well."
Wikipedia isn't the only website from which wikiHow draws inspiration. As a business that depends mostly on a specific type of Google search traffic to generate revenue, it has forebears in sites like Yahoo Answers—that other great repository of crowdsourced internet weirdness—and peers in more recent upstarts like Quora and Rap Genius.
According to Alexa's estimate, 36% of wikiHow's visitors come from search engines. That number seems low. Think about it: when was the last time you found yourself on a wikiHow article? How did you get there? Have you ever been on the front page? (My last time was asking Google for a safe and reliable way to open canned food without a can opener. wikiHow had answers, but none of them were very good. I went out and bought a new can opener.)
If viral abbatoir gutters like Distractify and ViralNova represent the now-dominant model for a Facebook-governed content industry, wikiHow is of the old rite, with another traffic idol, Google, and associated set of rituals, SEO.
The idea that you could keep a business afloat by providing answers to the assorted questions people ask through search engines was probably pioneered, almost accidentally, by MetaFilter. Though the site is mostly known for its famously civil and well-moderated message boards, its main source of revenue is a subsite called Ask MetaFilter (otherwise known as AskMeFi), where users can publicly pose questions they'd like answered by the MetaFilter community. AskMeFi launched in 2003—two years before Yahoo Answers copied it—and was the main driver of traffic to MetaFilter by 2006.
AskMeFi wasn't designed as a spammy SEO magnet, but it ended up providing a pretty good model for all of those that sprung up in its wake: People who didn't otherwise use MetaFilter googled stuff like " life practicalities" or "a book everyone should read," found a popular AskMeFi thread as the first or second result, and clicked in—a process that serendipitously invited the entire internet into an otherwise fairly intimate community. According to a 2014 blog post by MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey, ads sold against AskMe are responsible for 90% of MetaFilter's revenue, despite the Q&A section serving a relatively minor functional role within MetaFilter at large.
Leaning on Google search traffic was good business for Haughey, but only for as long as his site stayed within the giant's fickle good graces. The same blog post illustrates the potentially devastating pitfalls of the approach. One day in November 2012, Haughey writes, he woke up to find that a whopping 40% of MetaFilter's traffic had been cleaved away overnight, never to return, thanks to a seemingly arbitrary update to Google's ranking algorithm—the arcane mechanism by which the search engine decides which results go on which pages, and where. The change nearly upended Haughey's business.
As Winter 2012 became Spring 2013, traffic remained flat and we all took big pay cuts to make ends meet... For the last year and a half, MetaFilter's revenues have continued to decrease and traffic has slipped a bit as well...On average, every 3-6 months for the past year and a half we've seen additional ~20% drop-offs in traffic and revenue, and that's been a challenge to deal with.
The occasion for the blog post: days before, Haughey had reluctantly announced the first layoffs in MetaFilter's history. Three full-time employees were out of their jobs, and they had the inexplicable whims of Google's search robots to thank.
Genius, whose traffic largely depends on music fans googling snippets of lyrics, had its traffic similarly nuked in 2013 when it ran afoul of Google's anti-spam policies (fortunately for them, the exile was temporary). wikiHow itself may have fallen victim as well. The traffic analytics sites Alexa and Quantcast both show wikiHow's traffic falling precipitously over the past year—Quantcast estimates that its number of U.S. visitor fell by about half—and the striking graph from Alexa above might show why.
The blue line represents the estimated percentage of wikiHow visitors who arrived to the site via a search engine, a number that jumped off a small cliff in late May 2014, from over 50% to near its current spot at 36%— just as Google rolled out a "major update" to its search engine algorithm.
But wikiHow is far from dead. Hypothetically, let's say that in hopes of rebuilding his site's standing with the algorithm, Jack Herrick googled "how to get on the first page of Google" sometime this week. If he did, he'd be greeted with a familiar page as the very first result: a wikiHow tutorial.
But who supports this business? Who is googling How to Cope When No One Cares About You? (A wikiHow tutorial that, for what it's worth, has rough analogs on Quora, Thought Catalog, and some website called Health Central.) Who is the person who, in a time of harrowing insecurity and despair, has no one to turn to but a search engine? Who clicks a wikiHow link and thinks not I bet there's gonna be some funny shit in here, but god I hope this is where I finally find some answers?
Based on the stunning volume of wikiHow articles about crushes and popularity, we can say with some certainty that a large portion of its audience is teen, and many of those teens are probably lonely and depressed. Those teens, if their search histories are to be believed, feel like they are utterly alone on Earth. In the dark night of their souls, desperate for any validation at all, they ask of the internet: What the hell am I supposed to do about this terrible feeling? The internet hears their cries, and in return, the internet gives them...wikiHow's article on How to Cope When No One Cares About You, which has 404,000 pageviews:
Even if it's cold outside, the fresh air and peace really does help. If it's cold, a fleece blanket does wonders to keep you warm. Plus, they're not heavy.
If you have a pet (preferably one you like), take it outside with you. You don't have to constrain it, just watch it. That is, if that's something that makes you happy. Oh, and if you're crying, don't forget tissues.
Now that you're done throwing a fit (you have to admit, that's what you're doing, and it's okay), take a few calming breaths.
wikiHow doesn't deign to be anyone's trusted confidant or suicide hotline, nor does it have any obligation to be. For all its silliness and vague aspirations to charity, it's just another refuse barge in a vast ocean of them—albeit a particularly weird one. But there is something oddly moving about the fact that—filtered though the result is through profit motivation and search-result brokering—someone took the time to write this out, for free.
"Someone does care," reads another tip listed near the bottom of the How to Cope When No One Cares article. "If you really think not a single person on this Earth cares about you, the community that has contributed to this article cares about you."
This is where my cynicism stops. I do believe that the community cares. My experience writing and publishing on wikiHow wouldn't have gone nearly as smoothly as it did without the help of Krystle and Anna, two wikiHow employees who were happy to answer my questions about formatting and shepherd my article through the site's review process. I didn't announce myself as a reporter when contacting them through wikiHow's messaging system, so it's safe to assume all new contributors get similarly friendly treatment.
With such a seamless user experience and sweet and knowledgeable staff and community, it's easy to forget the for-profit part and get caught up in wikiHow's wide-eyed enthusiasm about spreading knowledge over the internet.
I still have a hard time imagining the poor, lexically challenged soul who will Google "how to describe the sound of a foghorn" and magically solve their conversational plight, but if they look hard enough, they'll find my wikiHow article right there waiting for them.
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember how Prince went from being Prince to the Artist Formerly Known as Prince (aka that symbol thing) to the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince (i.e. back to just Prince)? Same thing just happened to the brontosaurus — brontos are back and they're ready to rock the Super Bowl!
That is to say that new research has made it so that we again can call brontosauruses brontosauruses and not apatosauruses, as killjoys have been urging us to do for years. Rejoice! Saying words just got a little more fun.
Despite being iconic sauropods for many '80s children, it has long been the contention of the scientific community that brontosauruses, the thunder lizards of our hearts and imaginations, never actually existed, per se. You're supposed to call them apatosaurus, just like you're supposed to eat your vegetables and you're supposed to do your homework (yuck). It was in 1903 that a paleontologist named Elmer Riggs started shaming people into using a much less enjoyable word for brontos, explains Wired:
The mistake, he said, was in the number of sacrum bones (where the tail attaches to the spinal cord). The Apatosaurus sacrum was made of three bones, while the Brontosaurus had five. Rather than being different species, Riggs contended the Brontosaurus was just a younger version of the Apatosaurus, and the sacrum bones would have fused together as the dinosaur aged (bone fusing happens in many species, including humans). According to Riggs, the two skeletons were the same species.
It took decades for this to actually stick—in 1989, the U.S. Post Office issued a series of dinosaur stamps and was criticized by scientists for including the brontosaurus in its lineup.
The postal service responded to criticism in a statement: "Although now recognized by the scientific community as Apatosaurus, the name Brontosaurus was used for the stamp because it is more familiar to the general population."
Well fuck you all with a dino dick because the Post Office was right. It once again appears that brontosaurus is its own genus. From that same Wired piece:
By cross-referencing the digitized bones from hundreds of long-necked cousins, a team of European scientists now says that they’ve identified enough unique anatomical details to reinstate the Brontosaurus at the head of its own genus. That’s not all. “The real importance of this paper is this is the first time that this group of sauropods have been analyzed in a big fashion,” says Mark Norell, the top paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
The world is a slightly better place today than it was yesterday.
[Top image via Getty; Brontosaurus stamp image via Shutterstock.]
Fucked-up timeline notwithstanding, the most frustrating element of HBO's true-crime documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst was that we never got to see Durst in the drag he donned while hiding from Jeanine Pirro in Galveston, Texas. You know that whatever he looked like while impersonating a woman, it was an amazing sight to behold.
We still don't have a picture, but today we are a little closer to envisioning Durst as his female alter ego, Dorothy Ciner, thanks to Clair E. Schuler, who claims she was Durst's drag mother.
In an interview with the New York Post, Schuler says Durst's initial attempt at drag was straight-up booger:
He literally smeared blue eyeshadow and red lipstick on and called it a day. He wore a nasty, ratty wig. I think he was just trying to be more inconspicuous than noticeable. It didn’t work.
Sounds right to me. Eventually Schuler "taught Durst how to play up his killer, baby-blue eyes with brown eyeshadow and to contour his cheeks to look less masculine."
Schuler reports that Durst was popular at the local drag bar, but not because he was such a sparkling conversationalist:
We knew he was a good tipper, so we paid a little more attention to him. He tipped us really well, like 10, 20 dollar bills when we were doing our shows.
Tipped them all, of course.
[Image via AP]
In response to Memories Pizza's now infamous refusal to cater gay weddings, protected under Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Zach Braff and Donald Faison have promised, on Twitter, to make you pizza "if you really and truly want pizza for your gay wedding in Indiana." They should have to make this pizza.
It has been established, through documents uncovered during a federal probe, that the municipal government running Ferguson, Mo., is fundamentally racist. And now today, following public records requests made by the Guardian and other outlets, we have the full offensive emails sent between three Ferguson employees over the past seven years.http://gawker.com/justice-depart...
Behold! The Earth will rockblock the Moon from basking in sunshine for five minutes tonight. The islands in the Pacific will have the best view of the brief Earth Moon Shadow, but most of North America will see it, too, if you crawl out of bed early enough, but it's Saturday morning, and you won't do that.