Three things to learn from a WikiHow prank

I just had an interesting experience. I was doing a quick scan of my iGoogle page for news and a WikiHow article caught my eye. It was “How To Save A Choking Cat.” Now, I don’t have a cat, but I have several cat-loving friends and thought I’d take a moment to pass on the info.

When I looked at the article, I was surprised. It looked legit from the intro paragraph, but there was only one step: “Break it’s neck.”

It was immediately obvious that someone was playing a prank. It’s easy to do with user-edited content as in wikis.

The event brings out three important points:

1. This is an example of why legislation like SOPA and PIPA could kill great sites.

Just think about wikis and about comment area in blogs. If someone wants to get a site in trouble, he can make edits in a wiki or make a comment in a blog that contains copyrighted or banned material. Then he can report that material to the newly legislated “powers that be.” The site can be blacklisted before you can say “due process.”

User contributed material, when done honestly, is a great boon to society. And pranks like this are more than merely annoying.

2. Contact information is critical.

My first thought after “this is a prank” was “how do I report this.” It took more time than I wanted to spend, and the best thing I could do was find the comments section.

Apparently, a number of other readers were commenting, and someone who knew how to remedy the situation did so. It was cleared up in about ten minutes after I first noticed it.

However, until I decided to write this post, I still didn’t know how to contact the right person. I have found out. It only took me another five minutes to find the correct “about” page for WikiHow (there are at least 2) and then read the directions on how to make contact with the article’s primary author. It isn’t easy or intuitive.

What it made me realize is that I need to make my contact details more prominent. I have an “about” page with my contact info on it and I have it referenced on my home page under “Contact.” But folks have to look for it. Furthermore, I have no contact information other than “comments” on my blog.

Most good sites have contact details featured on every page. I can’t re-do every page instantly, but I’m going to make it easier.

3. There are plenty of nasty folks that have fun hurting you, but there are plenty of others who, given the chance, will help.

In the comments on the cat article, there were a mixture of complaints, confusion, concern, explanations, suggestions to help and some action. Some folks wanted to help but didn’t know how and one knowledgable person just went in and made an edit to restore it.

If you’re a web publisher or blogger, you’ve noticed that you are constantly fighting spam in email and in comments. Additionally, there are the people who write in and say hurtful things, to you or to other commenters. Most people read your posts and get your knowledge and information, but don’t bother to comment, leaving you wondering if you are actually reaching anyone. People hack your servers. Spoof your email address. Play all kinds of pranks. I could go on and on about the stuff I’ve seen happen (or heard about) to website owners and publishers.

Remember this. The reason that statistics show a bell-shaped curve in measuring human behavior is that behavior in any category always “averages out” in the long run. There are as many very good behaviors as very bad. Most people are in the middle — they aren’t all that interested in hurting or helping you. They’re just interested in themselves, and when they show up on your site, they’ll be happy to use what you offer without any show of appreciation.

But, at the top end of the scale, there are others, millions of others, who will say “thanks,” “good job,” or best of all “yes, I’ll pay you for that.” There are more than enough folks who will help you and empathize with you. In the long run, it will make up for the nasties, the pranksters and the great, average “who-are-you-I-don’t-care-and-what-have-you-done-for-me-in-the-last-five-minutes” folks.

You’ve met all of these face to face since kindergarten. Don’t be surprised when they all show up on your website, in forums or in “comments” sections.