Stephen Chao has his mother to thank for his career path: instead of studying ancient Greek and Latin texts, he spends his time watching online videos. Before inventing the Fox reality TV series “Cops” and cofounding the video Web site “Wonder How To,” Chao was all set to accept a full scholarship to Yale to get his PhD in Classics. That is, until his mother insisted he take a break from academia and go work, “At least for a little while.” So, Chao took the first of many quirky jobs: he became a UFO tracker in Bolivia for the National Enquirer. He was also hired to chase Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors, though they were apparently nearly as elusive as unidentified flying objects.
When Chao returned from South America, he found his job prospects stark, and decided to go to Harvard Business School. “I was a pariah,” he explained, “No one would hire me.” After graduating, his prospects improved, and he became a major executive at Fox. His tenure ended with a misinterpreted prank that embarrassed Rupert Murdoch in front of Dick Cheney.
The unusual path that led Chao to where he is today is very much reflected in the type of work he does now. His understanding of the “how to” video as an “anthropological window on the world,” didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at first. How can instructional clips ranging from “Hacking a Nerf gun for superior firepower” to “Conning people into buying you dinner” really reflect a cultural zeitgeist?
But when I checked out the thousands of videos available on the site and saw the excitement and knowledge of many of my would-be instructors, I understood exactly what Chao was talking about. These clips aren’t just about what you can learn to do. Instead, they’re a reflection of how delighted and enthusiastic people can be about nitpicky details. The “wonder” part of Wonder How To is equally important as the instructional element.
After hearing about all of Chao’s adventures and experiences, and his capacity to appreciate a wide variety of things, (from dead languages to smut magazines to corporate media) it became clear that his latest endeavor is simply an extension of his zeal for the zany. And, by offering Internet users a platform to express their own gusto through clips that range from the extraordinary to the inane, he’s turned his love of online video into a shared adventure. Wonder How To is a trip into the imagination of anyone who cares to contribute: an anthropological experience, indeed.