This post is part of Fusion's Teen Month series, a month-long dive into the lives, loves, and language of teenagers.
I was not, shall we say, a competent teen.
Not in a bumbling, tripping over myself sense, just in a way that meant a lot of embarrassing online searches: "good haircuts," "ways to make friends," "What's a good way to kiss?" (I was curious, OK). These were a few of the searches that as far as I know I managed to hide from my parents and brother by deleting my search history. The searches were mostly an exercise in curiosity rarely seen through, fortunately for me and everyone around me.
When I run a Google search for "What's a good way to kiss?" now, the second result is a wikiHow page: How to Kiss (with Pictures).
wikiHow was founded by Jack Herrick in 2005, when I was 13. But while I was enough of a doofus to search for something like, "What's a good way to kiss?" I was canny enough to avoid taking wikiHow's advice on the matter (or most matters). The site says its mission is to "empower every person on the planet to learn how to do anything."
In the intervening years, wikiHow's profile (and general Google ranking) has risen, although it's not known as somewhere to go for good advice (just the opposite is true), but you're still pretty likely to run into the site if you're searching for a question, especially one with the word "how" in the title (SEO!). As of this writing, the web ranking service Alexa estimates it's the 155th most popular site in the U.S., and 200th in the world. For reference, that puts it ahead of The Washington Post, Bloomberg, Groupon, Comcast, and the NFL.
My great fear is that, growing up in this new age where searching for anything involving "how" is likely to surface a wikiHow result would mean that as a gullible, hormonal teen in the same situation I might've actually followed some of the advice on those pages. So I decided to confront my fear (sort of). I decided to return to teendom, with help from wikiHow.
My "experiment" went as follows:
- I searched for "teen" and "teenager" on wikiHow.
- I weeded out guides I couldn't use ("How to Deal with Teen Pregnancy") and guides for those interacting with teens ("How to Deal with Troubled Teens").
- I picked general guides on how to be a teen from what was left (trying to obey the letter, more than the spirit, of the guides), spending several days trying to follow them.
To be clear, the spirit of the guides is not much better than what they say, but both are kind of terrifying. As my colleague Katie aptly put it after sharing the guide for "How to be a Cool Teen," it seemed less like what it claimed and more like "a fun guide for aliens who want to pretend to be teens until they kill all of us."
How to be Normal
In order to set a baseline, I started out following a guide on "How to Be a Normal Teenager," which has 71 co-authors (or, as wikiHow also calls them, "Knowledge Philanthropists"). Like many of the guides I ended up following, it was very broad. I was told the following right off the bat:
it's important to spend time around other people, socializing and learning from them, so you can interact more directly and easily get involved. Just being around a variety of people in a coffee shop, or at a restaurant, or at the movies, can help you learn about others and feel less isolated. This will make you more comfortable in your own skin, which in turn will make you more experienced at opening up and interacting.
Easy enough. I spent some time out, went to a coffee shop and then later a restaurant. "Maybe I will just end up doing everything I normally do," I thought.
It was, but I decided to give it another day. The next morning on the way to to work I decided to take the guide's advice to "mirror the behavior of others:"
Mirror the behavior of others, if it makes you comfortable. When you're in the library and everyone looks very studious, quiet, and absorbed in their work, it's probably not the best time to start cutting up and trying to make jokes. If everyone's dancing at a school dance, it might be normal to dance, but you don't have to. It's normal to feel both ways.
As everyone else sat at their laptops typing, so did I. I was tired and didn't really feel like cutting up, so…I didn't. Perhaps a little with some of my wonderfully incisive comments in inter-office chat, but otherwise, not so much. [Ed. note: Yeah, right.]
Since this was a guide I had unconsciously been following all my life, I scanned to make sure everything was there ("find like-minded people," check; "give some thought to the future," done) and decided to move beyond a baseline.
How to be Cool
Now that I was established as normal, teenaged 24-year old, I decided I wanted to be cool. wikiHow was well-equipped to help, and I started to pull from "How to be a Cool Teenager," a 27-step guide.
This was great at first. The guide told me to "Believe in yourself so that when you go out there, people admire your confidence and like who you are." It said to look good, so I dressed as (effortlessly) stylish as a could, in a green T-shirt that looked like a shirt I'd once seen in a wikiHow illustration, and in jeans that looked like jeans in a wikiHow illustration.
The guide also said to "Be as bad as you want to!" because "It's your life, so do what you want: nobody is your leader when you're cool!" This was very exciting. At work that day I was a little snarkier than usual. Following the guide's advice to "Always have something up" and to tell people about it, I explained to a friend my plans to visit my family's dogs, and also how I was going to be reporting on an event I was looking forward to. They seemed a little confused that I was explaining this in such depth over gchat, but it's hard to tell how deep that went.
Unfortunately, I missed the the 26th item on how to be cool until the end of the day: "Don't swear. This is NOT big, tough, or cool, and can get you into trouble." I had been swearing all day! Not a ton, but, y'know, just in the course of life. Was this making me uncool? I decided to switch to another list that night to try and recuperate.
I had been supplementing my teen life with "How to Pass Time As a Teen," and had decided to spend the week doing more housework. The guide said "it will definitely make your parents happy." I don't live with my parents, and I fell asleep shortly after cleaning my room that night, but the next day I decided to text my mom and ask her if it had made her happy:
Jackpot. I figured we could discuss the months before another time. Safely swaddled in the blanket of parental love, just like a teen who just cleaned his room might, I moved on to establishing a perfect life.
How to Have A Perfect Life
This, I thought, was the final hurdle. I was going to follow advice on "How to Have a Perfect Life As a Teenager," as prescribed by the 17 authors who had contributed to the article. But opening the article, I found it was much the same as the rest, if not closer to what I had already done. "Eat healthy?" Sure, I'm already doing that for the most part. "Tidy you room" I just did that! "Be in the know now!" I work for a news site, I like to think I'm pretty well informed.
The first item on the list was very different, though, and made me wonder if it had kept me from having a perfect life when I was actually a teen. It reads:
Carefully observe the apparently perfect people, (but don't make it obvious).Think about the things they do, and how they behave, what they say and how they respond to certain situations and try to copy them (but remember, you are your own person so you need to stay original so don't completely copy them!).
The next day, I went in to work ready to try. I don't believe in perfect people, and nor does the guide, which says: "No one has a perfect life. Not even the people who seem to, but you can come very close to perfect!" But my colleague Patrick seemed like an ideal person to observe (in a way that wouldn't make it obvious), especially since he sits right across from me.
I tried to copy him a little, but I mirrored it, to make it my own. When he moved an arm, I moved the opposite arm. When he sat down, I would stand up, and vice-versa. Same sorts of behaviors, but my own. If he made some sort of noise in reaction to something on screen I would make a different noise.
But nobody noticed. At the end of the day, having done my very best to imitate someone, it yielded nothing. My alien-esque teen mimicry hadn't even scratched the surface. Damn.
Then I remembered another tip from the perfect life guide:
This is not just a one day process! Takes time, for the first few days or weeks, you might fail with things such a organisation and keeping active! It's fine, just KEEP TRYING and you'll get there for sure.
I'd been at this just about a week (a business week, really), so what hope did I have of achieving a perfect life by imitating Patrick's movements. Satisfied that for the time being I had done all I could, I went home.
I came away from the whole teen wikiHow guide experience a little worried. I hadn't learned whether I would've followed wikiHow's advice as a teen (an impossible task anyway), but also didn't seem to have established what, if anything, people took away from me acting like a teen as described by wikiHow. These were, as my editor put it at one point, basically "guides to being human." But that isn't helpful for teens.
The way wikiHow approaches being human is too literal. Everyone, especially teens, has access to the sort of pablum about trying to enjoy life and eat well. It's in magazines, classrooms, and boring but well meaning TV shows. And that advice is true, but that doesn't mean it's helpful. The problem might be with the guide format itself, which is why "This is not just a one day process!" is telling. A useful guide for being a teen would require adaptation and finesse and the understanding that chunks of it could be wrong or unhelpful for any given moment of teen life. wikiHow can't provide that, which is fine, because it can still help people stretch a shirt or make french toast. But when it comes to guiding teens in living life it becomes vague and trite.
Late one night the weekend after I finished my teen experiment, I told three friends about my project, and they proceeded to tell me ideas for how to act like a teen. The ideas were good, too. About acting surly, or how to properly act bad. "You didn't take it far enough," one advised, telling me I should've told off a boss.
Though I'm not going to, they encouraged me to try to act like a teen more, like trying to listen to a bunch of bad hardcore music or a stick and poke tattoo (they may've had a very specific type of teen in mind), and I felt very teen-like. The teen advice I needed came in the form you might expect after all: peer pressure.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org