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Figuring Out How Stuff Works
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Link-Up Digital

How does a tornado get started, and why does it create so much damage? Why buy or avoid buying a hybrid car? What are the hidden ways to improve your wireless connection? How can you preserve your vintage jewelry?

Have you ever wondered about these topics or others like them? HowStuffWorks (www.howstuffworks.com) answers these questions and many more.

How useful are these articles? Are they written by experts or generalists? How much can you trust HowStuffWorks? In short, does HowStuffWorks really work? 

Rather than being stuffy or pedantic and written like an encyclopedia or Wikipedia, HowStuffWorks provides informative, pithy articles blended with playful, fun, and multi-dimensional online activities. It offers a lead story on its home page and then is organized into Adventure, Animals, Auto, Communication, Computers, Electronics, Entertainment, Food, Geography, Health, History, Home & Garden, Money, People, and Science. 

Besides its how-to stories, it adds quizzes, games, and puzzles, and a listing of Top 5’s such as Top 5 amazing rescues or Top 5 risks when driving with a pet. Moreover, there are podcasts, blogs, and outrageous videos posted each day.

Some of the lead articles at HowStuffWorks include “Can Seed Banks Save Threatened Plants?” written by Jessica Toolman, which gives a broad overview of the role of seed banks. While the article is informative, it’s rather sketchy and raises more questions than it answers. However, it includes useful links on crop diversity, rare plants, seeds to save a species, and a John Seabrook New Yorker article along with other HowStuffWorks articles on gene pool and genetically modified foods. Indeed, the links offer more substance than the article itself!

The aptly named Marshall Brain (who has a Master’s degree in electrical engineering from North Carolina State University) launched HowStuffWorks in 1998. After developing it into a popular site, Brain sold it to Discovery Communications in 2007 for $250 million. (He now hosts Factory Floor on the National Geographic channel.) 

When the site began, Brain wrote several HowStuffWorks pieces including “How Asphalt Works.” Brain discussed how asphalt begins with crude oil and when heated in a mix at 300 degrees turns into a liquid. He also noted that asphalt is one of the most recyclable materials around. Brain’s asphalt article, like many articles on the site, elicits a surprised “who knew?” reaction.

Certain HowStuffWorks topics such as “How Skydiving Works” are a good fit for 400-word explorations, but “How Evolution Works” clearly doesn’t. Hence, the article on the nature of evolution is glossed over and superficial, barely skimming the surface. But “How Viagra Works” does a credible job of explaining how this pill operates.

HowStuffWorks, which is based in Atlanta, GA, averages 18 million unique visitors a month and appeals to an audience split evenly between men and women. More than 60 percent of the audience is between the ages of 18 and 49, explained Tracy Wilson, the site director of HowStuffWorks.

Wilson cites the following stories (with links) as some of the most popular ones published on the site: 

 

• How Engines Work: http://auto.howstuffworks.com/engine.htm

• How Oil Drilling Works: http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/energy/oil-drilling.htm

• How Batteries Work: http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/battery.htm

• Quiz: The Ultimate Internet Myths Quiz: http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/tech-myths/internet-myths-quiz.htm

• List: 10 of the Biggest Lies in History: http://history.howstuffworks.com/american-history/10-biggest-lies-in-history.htm

 

Wilson explains that the articles are written by “trusted writers, editors, podcasters, and bloggers.” She notes that some writers have specific background in science or other areas but some are reporters who cover a wide range of topics. She said all “are skilled researchers who excel in taking a topic and presenting it clearly—whether it’s through a video, graphic, quiz, blog, article, or podcast.” 

However writing about seed banks and tornadoes require more expertise than general assignment reporters possess and sometimes doing research on the web isn’t sufficient. HowStuffWorks would be better served if experts played a greater role in writing the articles, but without turning it into a scholarly site. 

Wilson says that the tone of the articles is “like talking to the best teacher you ever had, the one who made you really excited to know more about what you were learning.” She added that articles on the site are written in a “conversational, accessible, and informative tone.” 

Even when exploring controversial topics, the site avoids bias and presents the issues in an objective way, Wilson says. She suggests that some articles have a humorous tone, others are more idiosyncratic, and others present just the facts. 

If the site is focused on informing people, why stray into games and outrageous videos, which seem more suited for adolescents? Wilson replied, “We want to keep people coming back for fresh, engaging content, and many things on our site lend themselves to sharing online.”

Owned by Discovery Communication, HowStuffWorks blends into what the Discovery Channel tries to accomplish on cable television. “Discovery empowers people to explore their world and satisfy their curiosity—across all platforms,” Wilson says. Synergy, a word often overused in corporate jargon, occurs since video clips from Discovery’s networks are used on HowStuffWorks to illustrate articles.

Like most web sites, HowStuffWorks’s business model derives from online advertising. Wilson stresses that editors have nothing to do with the sales department so editorial independence reins and articles aren’t influenced by advertisers.

For an initial entry into how tornadoes, batteries, and oil drilling work, HowStuffWorks gets the job done.  But readers beware: remember that experts aren’t always writing the articles.


 Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.


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