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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

In Celebration of the Internet’s True Angels

The internet is made up of givers and takers. The vast majority of users appear to be the latter: They click through instruction videos on how to fix broken toilets, pore over reviews before investing in air purifiers, and are delighted to find that someone has uploaded a clip of their favorite old children’s TV show. The givers are the ones who make all of this possible: They film themselves fixing toilets, write 1,000-word reviews of air purifiers, and digitize their VHS tapes before sharing the results with the world. Without the givers, the internet would not be anywhere near as helpful or useful a place—without the givers, many toilets would still be broken.

Sure, pretty much all of us give something online from time to time—a recommendation on a community Facebook page, a review on a new restaurant’s TripAdvisor, a reply to a “Does anyone remember…” query tweeted into the void. Yet some people log on every day and give and give and give—they restore people’s old family photos for free, they spend hours tracking down the manufacturer of a little boy’s lost teddy bear, they leave detailed reviews for dull but useful products. What motivates these people? Why are they so helpful? What keeps them giving when the rest of us just take, take, take? WIRED tracked them down to ask.

The Finder

Someone wanted a vintage cooking pot—someone else wanted a specific style of wrap dress. Another person wanted help identifying an artist, while yet another was looking for an obscure set of unique, bark-textured drinking glasses. Over the course of one December week—a perfectly ordinary week—forensic art student Michelle Spalding helped them all. Almost every day, Spalding responds to requests on the subreddit Help Me Find, a place where people beg for help sourcing things they can’t find anywhere else online. “HOLY CRAP HOWWWW did you find that so fast, I’m amazed. Thank you!!!” wrote one user after Spalding linked to the exact drinking glasses they wanted. “You’re welcome,” was all she replied.

Spalding has been a Redditor for roughly nine years; as well as posting on Help Me Find, she also likes to solve mysteries on What Is This Thing, a subreddit where people post pictures of unusual objects they’ve stumbled upon. Two years ago, Spalding was able to help a Redditor identify a ring they’d found in their backyard—it was an almost 200-year-old “mourning ring” that once commemorated a lost loved one. “Dude, in the last 24 hours you correctly identified: a dog’s breed, a cat’s breed, a single deer bone, a very specific men’s suit, this Victorian mourning ring, and gave well-founded advice on drawing tablets,” one commenter replied. “Don’t get me wrong: I’m very impressed. But, who are you?”

Colorado-based Spalding is in her fifties and is a “compulsive” watcher of Antiques Roadshow. She collects antiques herself, and is an artist who decided to return to studying during the pandemic. “If I have a window of time where I would be goofing off online, watching videos or something, my way to relax is to go on those Reddit forums and browse around and Google around to try and find things,” she says. “It’s kind of like a treasure hunt.”

For Spalding, solving mysteries and sourcing objects is just a way to chill out. She doesn’t even mind if people forget to be grateful. She particularly enjoys helping people find sentimental items, and in the past has even used her art skills to restore strangers’ old, damaged family photographs for free. “That really kind of gets to me,” she says of the sentimental stuff, “I just love the idea that you could help replace a favorite toy or a broken ornament. It gives me warm fuzzies I guess.”

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When asked why she regularly uses her spare scrolling time to help strangers out, rather than watch Gordon Ramsay TikToks or snoop on enemy Instagram pages like the rest of us, Spalding says that’s exactly it—she helps because other people don’t. “I feel like there just aren’t that many people out there who would take the time, or have the time necessarily. My life is not that busy, I’m not 9-to-5-ing and I don’t have kids,” she says. “It’s kind of more of a selfish thing, because it gives me a sense of satisfaction that I’m able to tie up loose ends for people.”

The Reviewer

After all his work for the day is done and his wife is fast asleep, 43-year-old civil engineering estimator Craig Laws takes out his iPad and writes Amazon reviews. Laws is currently the 25th top reviewer on Amazon UK, a place he earned after other users marked his reviews as “helpful” a total of 10,873 times. The Derby resident has reviewed everything from boxing gloves to air purifiers to dog treats to artist paint palettes, and is currently testing out a laser hair removal device on his shoulders, painstakingly monitoring its progress over the course of a few months. “You do suffer for your art sometimes,” he says.

Laws has been writing Amazon reviews since his first purchase on the site: a Fujifilm digital camera back in 2001. He started leaving reviews because he relied upon them himself. “You get hooked,” he says, “and you start to give back.” Two years ago, Laws was invited to be part of Amazon’s Vine program, meaning he is now regularly offered free products to review. So is all of this less altruistic than it seems? A way to get some free goods? In actual fact, Laws often selects items to review that he doesn’t personally want, so he can give “real, proper impartial advice” (hence the state of his shoulder blades). He also gets “at least one message a day” directly from manufacturers asking him to review their products for money or freebies and ignores “absolutely all of them.” He can’t be bought.

So what keeps this hyper-reviewer going? At any one time, Laws is testing out between five and 10 products—he also takes photos and videos to attach to his reviews in order to make them as detailed as possible. He isn’t remotely motivated by his place in the Amazon reviewer rankings—he likes that his work is recognized, but doesn’t write extra reviews in the hopes of making his way up to number one (unlike some others on the site). Instead, Laws simply likes to help people out, and he has fun doing it.

“It’s nice to have some kind of platform where people listen to you. If I was to say this in a shop corner, no one would listen to me,” he says. Laws doesn’t like using social media because it’s inherently argumentative—“you can just watch people imploding on the internet a lot.” Instead, he uses Amazon to get his voice heard. “You’re never going to change someone’s opinion on the internet,” he says of politics and sport and news. “But if someone is actively looking for an opinion when choosing something, then that’s an opinion that people might listen to.”

The Fixer

There are thousands of YouTube channels dedicated to showing you how to fix this microwave or troubleshoot that computer. The people behind them are nice enough, sure, but they make money and promote their own repair businesses via the videos, so their motives aren’t entirely altruistic. Far more interesting are those who upload one-off videos after they themselves have finally figured out how to repair something that’s been tormenting them. Take, for example, the mystery man behind the wonderfully titled, “HOW TO FIX A SLOW FLUSH. No rambling just a quick answer. *Contains adult language*,” which has been viewed more than 100,000 times. In September 2018, 35-year-old homemaker Jenna Quinlan from California uploaded one such video: “How to Fix an Ironing Board Lever! I Finally figured it out!”

Quinlan didn’t create a YouTube channel in order to post the video—she’d started one earlier that year as a place to share her love of essential oils, and over the years she’s accumulated slightly more than 400 subscribers. She knew an ironing board video wasn’t what her small community wanted or needed, but when she finally fixed her own board after a “super frustrating” couple of months, she just had to share her knowledge with the world. Naturally, she had previously looked on YouTube for tips on how to fix the board, but had found the videos there to have “dark videography, really obscure descriptions, no close-ups to see what’s going on.”

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“One guy I think just broke his even more to force it shut,” she says. “I was able to piece together the information I needed, but the whole time I was fixing my board, I was thinking, Why didn’t anyone talk about that part? Or, Why didn’t they show this bit? I had so many ideas of how I’d do it better that I finally just decided to do a video of my own.”

Commenters are exceptionally grateful for Quinlan’s video: “There are several YouTube videos of varying quality showing how to fix an ironing board's mechanism, but this is far and away the best,” writes one, while another says, “This was awesome! I thought I was going to have to throw my 30 yr old ironing board away.” Quinlan says she was motivated to make the video simply to “help others who went through the same frustration I did,” but when most of us figure out a fix, we don’t take time out of our day to share it with the world. Quinlan says that perhaps her experience with YouTube made her more likely to make the ironing board video—she’s also made videos on how to fix a diffuser and a motorcycle belt, though her channel is not large enough to be monetized so she receives no financial reward.

“For the people they’ve helped, I feel it’s worth the effort,” she says of the videos. “I think the motivation comes from the ‘ah-ha’ moments I get, and feeling like it’s a valuable bit of information that could help someone else. It’s also info that I couldn’t easily find online, so I feel like it’s filling in a hole in the internet somehow.”

The Problem-Solver

What’s that song that goes la la la la la la la la la la la la la? Does anyone remember that movie with that guy that does that thing in that place? These are the kinds of queries that are almost impossible to Google, but thankfully almost 2 million people are willing to help out over on the subreddit Tip of My Tongue. Here, users have figured out the song that goes “Do do do doo doo,” the toy that goes “AAAAEEEEEEEUUUU,” and the “actor who looks like Michael Douglas but with more hair.” But there’s one user in particular who’s arguably the most helpful of the lot, someone who has solved more than 5,000 queries on the sub.

Karen, who asked WIRED not to print her surname so it is not connected with her prolific Reddit account, is in her forties and based in New York. She likes Tip of My Tongue because it’s a “cute, friendly space on Reddit, which can often be not so cute and not so friendly.” Any time she takes a break during her working day, she’ll visit the sub: “It’s like background noise, the way a soap opera or game show would’ve been 20 years ago.” She’s drawn to queries about ’80s music or trashy reality TV, but ignores questions around anime, which isn’t her area of expertise. In her four years on the sub, she’s done everything from help a man find an old horror movie to identifying a font based on a brief description, and shared a fascinatingly precise literary term.

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“It’s fun to dig, and sometimes the really fun ones trigger your own memory that you can’t remember and now you’ve got to scratch your own itch,” she says of her motivations. “It’s not like a huge tax on my life or my day, it’s not like I’m spending five hours in the British Library perusing the OED kind of thing, I’ll spend a couple of minutes max.” Karen says she gets a “little buzz” when she helps people retrieve their lost memories, particularly if they’re sentimental ones. “Sometimes people will say they’ve been looking for a movie for 20 years or their grandma used to listen to this song … That’s what I like doing, helping someone else out. It’s not about my buzz moment, it’s about their buzz moment,” she says.

On Tip of My Tongue, a little number next to each username lets you know how many problems the user in question has solved—but Karen isn’t motivated by a desire to get that number to climb ever higher and higher. “I think it detracts … anyone can help, whether you have 5,000 or you have zero. In an ideal world, there’d be no number, and we’d all be equal detectives,” she says. All Karen wants, it seems, is to help people out and have fun doing it. “If I get to help a couple of people out while sipping my coffee,” she says, “that’s a win.”


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