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The Internet Can't Help You With Everything

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The internet's tagline should be this: "An everyday tool to help everyone with everything." And this for a blurb: "If there's a topic that needs researching, a gig that needs advertising, or a classmate that needs bullying, the internet makes it all so much easier for you! Intellectual improvement? Event promotion? Spiteful persecution of the vulnerable? We didn't invent these, but we can certainly help to speed them all up!"

Discounting forum trolls and kohl-eyed teenagers belting Jessie J into their webcams, the internet seems to thrive on help. Prolific users are either desperate for advice on things they can't achieve by themselves, or willing to advise others less fortunate on achieving those things, like Glinda the Good Witch. (If you've not seen the musical Wicked, picture the offspring of Paris Hilton and Piers Morgan.) The first group - "helpees" - often gravitate towards communist sites like WikiHow or Yahoo! Answers, where you really can find posts entitled "How do I know if a girl likes me enough to go on a date with me?" and answers such as "If she is staring at you, then this means she doesn't like you, or she does like you, but if she's looking at you in a mean way, you should check your teeth."

The second type, much more offensive to my sensibilities - "helpers" - regularly write list-based articles detailing how to improve at something, or how to avoid making common mistakes. "Calling all budding film critics! Here's how not to review a movie..." followed by five inflexible rules of thumb telling you not to write in the first person, not to use foreign phrases, and not to be yourself. "Consider yourself an artist? Well, read these ten definitions of art I've just made up on the spot, and then stop considering yourself an artist..." Now, Heaven knows there are some horrifying things on the web - deviant pornography, terrorist chatrooms, online anorexia tributes, anything by Richard Littlejohn... But these 'How-to' articles, some sanctioned by mainstream publications, are among the most insidious. They purport to be precious nuggets of invaluable advice bequeathed by a higher power, inscribed on sacred tablets as irrefutable fact. They're like that similarly-bogus 'How-to' guide, the Bible, with an equally dangerous ability to do great harm under the guise of charitable good.

It should be made explicit to all internet users that these articles are mostly commissioned by the publisher to acquire some content, and written by the author to acquire some payment. The moment each writer was approached to write a five-step guide on getting ahead in their profession was probably the moment they started thinking "How did I get ahead?" They didn't consciously follow this neatly-summarised gameplan they're laying out for you now so assuredly. Their article is a backdated invoice. Or, if they did happen to make a miraculous forecast, 100% realised, then there's little to no chance you will be able to do the same. It's not a science. Unless the five-step guide in question is about something scientific, in which case it probably is a science.

It's a self-serving thing, this 'How-to' business. I wouldn't say it's about helping others at all. I mean, it's got to be flattering to be considered successful enough to impart your wisdom, even when that may have been the last thing to do with your arrival at a position of superiority. And certainty is so attractive, isn't it? It's positively encouraged in writing. Academics chastise students for essays containing the words "probably," "in my opinion," "it could be argued"... "No! Weak! If you need to excuse it, don't include it." A 'How-to' guide, by its very definition, should not be about lucky flukes. "How did I become Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs? Oh, well, I mean I was in the canteen at Whitehall, and they just kind of said, 'Oi! You, with the macaroni cheese! Get over here.' So my main recommendation would have to be: 1) Don't bring a packed lunch." Of course there's no point even writing one if you're not going to break it down into the most simplified, failsafe instructions for eager young readers. There's no point! I repeat, no point.

Think what might have been lost if certain luminaries had paid any attention to a casually tossed-off 'How-to' guide. "Thinking of becoming a composer? As long as you're not deaf, check out our top five tips below... No, no, Ludwig, you may as well stop reading. Not for you, mate." "If you want to be a motion picture director, the first thing you need to have done is attended a good film school... You've been rejected three times? Oh God. Hmm. Well, have you thought about trying a cookery course, Mr. Spielberg?" Oprah, Fred Astaire, J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates - just a few people who overcame the prissy protests of the "That's not how you do it!" brigade to earn huge entries in biographical dictionaries, in ways unreplicatable. You really want a 'How to' guide? Here's one: 1) participate in a reality television series, 2) demonstrate shocking ignorance of geography, 3) don't finish the London Marathon, 4) hurl racial abuse at an Indian woman on live television, 5) release an autobiography and a fragrance, 6) become a dignified inspiration to women coping with cervical cancer. And if you really think emulating Jade Goody's path to legend would work just as well for you, best of luck with it.

By all means, use the internet for help with the things described in the opening paragraph: intellectual improvement, event promotion and spiteful persecution. I have. I just Googled the official job title of Foreign Secretary to make my joke better, after which I tweeted a link to one of my articles, and wrote a bitchy comment about some girl's hair on her Bebo profile. When it comes to relying on the internet to help you with your career, though, bear this in mind: it's one thing for someone to look back on their journey and retrospectively wax lyrical about how they read the map, but to someone on the brink of their personal odyssey, these stone-carved 'How-to's might just throw their instincts off the scent. Trust yourself to some degree, and be a bit cynical about rules. If you do something that flagrantly mocks all the conventions and ends up working, you could be the exception to the rule. Then, if you happen to get asked to write your own 'How-to', you won't need to frantically search the web for a 'How-to' on 'How-to's.

And yes, I am conscious of the wave of irony engulfing this article, a 'How-to' guide in itself. I should have called it "How to not let other 'How-to's mislead you into thinking there's only one 'How-to'..." but I just wouldn't be able to bring myself to bullet-point it, though. If you found this article narrow-minded and insufferably arrogant, then I might have written a really good 'How-to'... No, that's weak. "This is the definitive 'How-to'." Yes.