The Problem of Advice Columns in the Age of Twitter, Yelp and 24/7 Digital Access

Rachael Jennings


We all need advice, at some point: We have questions that we preface with a verbal or eye-browed, “So, I know this is really personal;” we debate how to ask the would yous, the have yous, the should yous; we are pulled by an urge to talk over our own madness, melancholy, and mishaps with someone besides the steering wheel.


And at some point — in an elevator, outside an office, in the copy room or a friend’s library carrel — hearing someone else indulge in the have yous and the what should I dos has been enough to whet an appetite for eavesdropping. We are curious. We snoop. We compare. We answer private questions in our heads, we nod, we laugh — we want to hear more.


In W. Clark Hendley’s 1977 “Dear Abby, Miss Lonelyhearts, and the Eighteenth Century: The Origins of the Newspaper Advice Column” in The Journal of Popular Culture, Hendley cites the universality of both advice-seeking and inherent nosiness as roots for the development of newspaper advice columns, which ran almost parallel to the birth of papers themselves. He notes that these columns “cater to both advice seekers and the curious.”


Curious historians, cultural fanatics, stumped friends, and inquisitive introverts alike may turn to advice columns. In the age in which columns are run by anonymous “therapists,” in which answers are archived and extremely accessible, and in which screens can be more frequented than friends or professionals, the columns hold a contradictory positive support and easy avoidance.


Historical Relevance, Cultural Attentiveness

The original British Agony Aunt has come a long way. Along with that anonymous aunt, Dear Abby, Dear Sugar, and other favorites, advice columns — catalogued so clearly online — provide a cultural narrative. Especially when columnists take followings across the span of years, these forums provide a rich framework of news, pop culture, changing laws and legalizations — they capture where both individuals and groups focus their concern.


“Dear Prudence,” a column initiated in 1997 by author Herbert Stein, was taken over shortly after its origin by Margo Howard, whose last column appeared in Slate in February of 2006. Dear Prudence is now covered by Emily Yoffe, and those who write in to “Prudie” ask questions that range from: “Help! My friend thinks she got pregnant by sitting on sperm!” and questions about an affair revealed via a Facebook message inbox, to a woman realizing that her husband is closeted and another trying to solve a gun control issue with her husband.


Covering nearly a decade, Prudie’s advice column — along with and especially considering the anonymous comments that viewers can leave below the column — highlights cultural and societal issues and trends: gun control, same-sex marriage, abortion, date-rape — the topics of a time, complicated by the responses of individuals from different backgrounds, regions and opinions.

Online primary sources — columns like Prudie’s that include viewer comments — stand as the modern public journal entries and letters of a rapidly moving, fighting and deciding culture.


Being Vulnerable or Introspective in the Age of Access

Research yields that individuals who read and ask questions from advice columnists are those who would not go elsewhere for advice, as well as those who are in the process of finding more “professionally trained” practitioners — for psychological or personal advice (“Newspaper Advice Columns as a Mental Health Resource,” Susan Schmidt Dibner).


Given that an individual might not feel comfortable going “elsewhere,” two options are left in the age of access: searching within yourself for answers, or going to another anonymous and confidential person.


In one of the infamously fabulous artist formally known as “Dear Coke Talk”s advice columns, “Coquette,” the self-proclaimed “raging bitch” dishes out opinions, fun-sized zingers and supportive and reflective — though harshly straightforward — responses to online advice-seekers. A recent reader wrote in: “What is this website? Why isn’t there an easy-to-find introduction?” Though the question appears as far less juicy than Coquette’s usual range of severely personal queries, her answer is striking:


“If you’re a little confused, it’s probably because you’ve spent your life being hand-held and spoon-fed in a world filled with picture menus, warning labels, and easy payments of $19.95. That’s fine, but it’s not what I do here. Please, by all means, stay and read for a while. It shouldn’t take long before you can answer your own questions. It may not be easy, but it’s always better to find them yourself. That’s the point, really.”


Culturally, many are familiar with — if not accustomed to — quick anecdotes, copy and pasting, instant solutions, extreme cleanses, and high-speed streaming. Coquette’s response to this inquiry highlights the instant demand that online advice column submitters possess — instead of waiting for a newspaper shining with answers a week later, many online bloggers have a swift turn-around -- quite appetizing for those used to high demand and straight-away supply.


However, her response complicates the nature of her own forum. In essence, she states that a person should be able to answer his or her own questions — even if it is challenging. “That’s the point, really,” she writes.


In a way, avid readers of online advice columns may be training themselves towards being assertive and introspective enough to form their own answers. Yet, frankly, readers and contributors are missing the point Coquette raises — they are depending on someone else to tell them some of the many quips that Coquette offers: your college degree doesn’t matter if you have drive; you will get past your fear of immortality; you need to be honest with her if you want to be respectable and respectful; do not let your stepmother cripple the relationship you have with your father; and, when necessary: you are a creep.


Online contributors to these sites may feel like they are being vulnerable by spinning their narratives, compulsions, confusions and challenges into a question that others may one day find insightful — or hilarious — but truly, vulnerability and time-consuming, genuine approaches to answers can only be found by the more complicated form of vulnerability: introspection and time.

Sacredness in the Age of Memes, Trends and Followings

“Your opinion is important to me.” How important, exactly?


Many online advice columns have taken on unparalleled followings — as print advice columns circulated cities or regions, these ghost advice-writers circulate the endlessness of the Web.


Take “Dear Sugar,” whose most current writer spins responses about the “thicket of shit” of her 20s, being jealous, and writing. Her “essential truths” boil down to “the hard choice is often the best one” — a maxim that most columnists pound into their readers, that parents tell children, that we tell ourselves again and again in an attempt to sidestep the action of a decision.


In an interview with Matt Davis of The Awl, Sugar says that “the love [from readers and fans] is unbelievable. The way that people…people write to me and say ‘you changed my life, I thought of you when I was thinking about doing this, you helped me understand something that I’ve been going to therapy for years trying to understand.’”


Advice coming from a writer who freelances her way into the hearts of readers — similar to Coquette — is genuine, and thus, genuinely inspiring. So inspiring that online “therapists” like these have become celebrities. Sugar-inspired “Write Like a Mother F***er” mugs cost around $13 as they run across the country: as birthday gifts, coffee depositories in newsrooms and keepsakes on the shelves of writers.


Coquette’s site has a “Testimonial” section with remarks such as:

“[Finding your column]’s like finding a religion.” One testimonial reads: “I’m a mental health counselor, your advice is amazing. You are solving in 4 paragraphs or less what it takes up to 5 sessions to work through. Move to Dallas, TX and open up shop, the bitches here need you.”

The opinion of these columnists, in their accessibility, frankness and clarity — that perhaps can only come from a removed third-party — have established cult-like followings: from young teenagers to seasoned therapists.


While responding to individuals, these writers are creating groups — groups that may be estranged and connected by only similar “like” buttons and supportive comments. Their groups may have invisible and anonymous leaders, but they leave cultural, emotional and inquisitive trails that linger beyond a closed browser.


Do they stunt individual introspection? Do they prevent the freedom and fear of expression that comes with sharing at in-person emotional support groups? Maybe — if used as a cult-like source of truth.


But if readers get “the point,” it may be more about sharing and thinking than avoiding the difficulty that is introspection. It may be more about realizing that only the truest answers can come from the self, even if it means having Sugar, Coquette or an avatared viewer spell out what you already know.


Author Bio:

Rachael Jennings is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


​Image of Dear Prudence: Podcast.TV

​Photo of Cheryl Strayed: Knopf

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