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A 'Scandalous Club' for the 21st Century: The Messy Ethics of the Modern Advice Column

Internet forums have diminished the authority of the advice columnist—and raised new questions about who's qualified to counsel strangers.
The advice forum's rituals of confession, counsel, and penitence go back centuries. (Photo: Mike Licht/Flickr)

The advice forum's rituals of confession, counsel, and penitence go back centuries. (Photo: Mike Licht/Flickr)

One fall evening two years ago, I stumbled upon Reddit's Relationships page and fell into a never-ending rabbit hole of other people's problems. At first, my fascination was admittedly lurid: Who doesn't love a train wreck? The forum's topics included cheaters, age gaps, in-laws, and divorce. Stories were replenished often by its subscriber base of over 400,000. Entertaining myself with the details of people's inner lives seemed as good a way as any to pass the time.

Soon, however, I found myself visiting the site once, twice, or three times daily, eagerly reading multi-thread updates that spanned weeks at a time. I turned to the archives whenever I was having a problem of my own, searching previous threads to consult what other people had done when confronted with roommate troubles or the quarter-life crisis. Though some threads looked, to my eyes, fake—trolls stuck to particular themes, like incest—most were about disarmingly small, everyday topics, such as childhood sweethearts growing apart or spats over wedding budgets. Little of these ordinary items would have been printed in a traditional advice column—The Stranger's weekly column Savage Love alone, columnist Dan Savage revealed in 2004, receives over 8,000 emails per week.

As my own relationship with Reddit Relationships deepened, part of me worried about the ethics of this whole advice-giving business. I wondered who was commenting, and what compelled them to think that they had the answers. Did the commenters, like me, get hooked by reading the old newspaper columns, or were they new to the advice-giving business? Did their answers come from a place of curiosity, nosiness, sheer arrogance, or some combination of all three? Online, advice-givers didn't need credentials; the only requirement, it seemed, was a willingness to listen.


The advice column is a relatively recent genre, and yet there's something ancient about its appeal. The rituals of confession, counsel, and penitence go back centuries—which may explain the sheer number of advice columns that have cropped up since the form's inception in late 17th-century London. In the 1690s, readers of The Athenian Mercury wondered if dancing could be considered a sin, and what love was; in the early 18th century, Daniel Defoe borrowed the idea for his pamphlet, the Review, under a section called "Advice From a Scandalous Club." As the centuries passed, the advice column became a print media staple, encompassing topics from etiquette (in Miss Manners) to sex (Savage Love). The Internet led to a proliferation of increasingly niche advice columns and columnists, as Hannah Finnie pointed out in the Atlantic last monthAsk a Clean Person, Ask a Queer Chick, and Ask Baba Yaga all focus on women's issues on the Hairpin; Paging Dr. Nerdlove attempts to advise self-professed geeks in the intricacies of modern courtship at the video game website Kotaku; Coke Talk and Dear Coquette, meanwhile, serve the Tumblr readership.

In each of its iterations, the advice column perpetuates an old tradition: It gives readers a secular space to bear witness to sin. "Newspapers," communications historian Daniel Gudelunas wrote in his 2008 study of the advice column, Confidential to America: Advice Columns and Sexual Education, "provided a secular translation of the age-old tradition of advisor and confessor. With the advent of the newspaper confessional, no longer did the Church hold a monopoly as the site of penitence." In the 20th century, some worried that this freely given, secular advice might not be ethically sound. Early on in Nathanael West's 1933 black-comedy novella Miss Lonelyhearts, the editor of the anonymous, male, Depression-era Lonelyhearts character, Shrike, notes, "The Susan Cheevers, the Beatrice Fairfaxes, and the Miss Lonelyhearts are the priests of twentieth-century America." Indeed, Lonelyhearts looks down on his letter-writers' ordinary problems, apparently deep in the throes of a savior complex. He eventually pays the price for it: The book ends with his death, shortly after he begins sleeping with one of his readers.

In each of its iterations, the advice column perpetuates an old tradition: It gives readers a secular space to bear witness to sin.

Today, social media has challenged the authority of the print advice column in new and intriguing ways. Advice-focused forums and websites, such as AskMetafilter or advice-related subreddits, allow users to crowdsource advice instead of solicit one columnist's point of view. Some, like Reddit's Relationships or Relationship_Advice subreddits, focus conversation on topics that are traditional for advice columns—such as love, sex, and friendship—while others, like AskReddit, AskHistorians, or LegalAdvice, host question-and-answer sessions between users that may or may not result in the exchange of advice and life stories. In these forums, anyone with an Internet connection can dispense advice to virtual strangers, and even the most obscure conundrums find an audience of readers and advisers.

Forum contributors are often motivated by the desire to right injustices, according to one moderator of Reddit Relationships. "Most people are here because they see real people hurting across the world, needing answers at a desperate or vulnerable time in their lives," the moderator told me in a series of private Reddit messages. (In agreeing to be interviewed for this story, Relationship moderators—who are all anonymous volunteers—requested their usernames, and the usernames of their contributors, not be used). "They wish someone had been there for them when they had similar experiences, so they want more for the people they help than they ever received. Or, they got that help and they wish to pay it forward."

Wanting to help is how I began contributing my own advice on Relationships. One year ago, armed with a few glasses of wine, I made a Reddit account and began responding to other people's problems. People's bodies change, I pointed out to one man complaining about his girlfriend's small weight gain between their teens and late twenties; he, undoubtedly, looked different too. In one thread, I was scolded by another user for making my response to one question—about whether a woman's unusual fashion choices were disrespectful to her boyfriend—all about myself and my own experiences. In retrospect, the complaint was 100 percent true: More often than not, when I dispensed advice, I used the opportunity to talk about myself, as though I could atone for my past transgressions by catching another person's mistakes in time. A kind of deception, I realized, sometimes takes place between the advice seeker and the advice giver, a swindle that perhaps only the very best advice-givers avoid completely.

Studies have shown that people give and take advice for complicated reasons. In 2001 a team of three researchers posited in Social Networks, an academic journal dedicated to social structures and behaviors, that there are five main categories of advice: solutions, meta-knowledge, problem reformulation, validation, and legitimization. Those who write about their problems in long letters directed toward the advice columnist seek to legitimize their worries in a public forum (such as a newspaper, magazine, or blog), the researchers wrote. Those who post online seek advice from a jury of their peers, instead of the singular, authoritative columnist.

Reddit writers and readers may be attracted by the promise of this private give-and-take, where their concerns can be validated far away from the reproachful eyes of co-workers or hyper-stylized newspaper agony aunts. "With the questioners, I think a lot of the time they might not feel that their problem is something they can discuss face-to-face with someone," one moderator told me when I asked why someone would post on the site. "Everyone is more or less faceless on Reddit, so when they can get a few thousand responses from people whose facial expressions they don't have to track, it might be soothing." Of course, some online commenters pick battles and harass questioners with advice designed to prove a political point. These commenters "don't see the poster as a person, but instead an opportunity to trumpet their beliefs to as many people as they can get arguing with them," the moderator said, adding that moderators keep tabs on these users and occasionally remove them from the community. In general, though, "I think that in general the people who comment hope to help, and I think that a lot of the time they do a pretty good job of it."

Not every commenter can be so confident though. Shortly after I began leaving advice on the Relationships subreddit, I stopped. Somehow, I still felt guilty—as though I had hoodwinked all those I had left advice for into thinking I had my life together. Considering the times I had gotten into arguments with roommates over sponges in the sink, or stalked exes on dating websites, or said cruel things to loved ones without knowing why, the idea that I had any sort of answer to any sort of question started to seem laughable. None of us responding had the answers, I thought; all of us were fallible. The reason I was reading and answering these posts, I reasoned with myself, was not out of a desire to help, but because I liked the drama of it all, the secrecy.

It took me a bit longer to recognize that, for many leaving questions and advice online, there's freedom in that secrecy. Forums like the Relationships subreddit are a "Scandalous Club" for the 21st century, littered with secrets and their keepers. For those of us who give advice, and for those of us who take it, that the Internet allows us to crowdsource the opinions of others creates new opportunity. When commenters give advice, one of Relationships' moderators told me, they might add a perspective that no one else has.

"Personally, I started commenting here at the beginning because I saw a thread where a poster was being chewed on a bit.... I wanted to tell her that she was OK, that she wasn't screwed up, that she was in a bad situation and had made a couple of mistaken choices but they were pretty common mistakes and didn't change who she was at her core." Who better to offer advice without judgment than an audience as imperfect as the one asking the question? Each of us commenters, current and former, in the end, is another Miss Lonelyhearts, both soothsayer and fraud. We answer not to any hope of the divine but to each other. We have only ourselves to judge.