Terrible husbands and homicidal in-laws: why online advice columns are so addictive

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Josephine Tovey  –  The  Guardian

Agony aunts are having a renaissance, but this generation of advisers look nothing like their forebears

Online advice columns are an antidote to our polished lives on social media. Photograph: Farknot Architect/Alamy Stock Photo

This week it was a man objecting to his wife cooking herself a comfort meal. “Am I the asshole?” he asked the internet. She was sick, he explained, in the grip of an endometriosis flare up, and made bolognese to cheer herself up. The problem is he’s vegetarian and would either have to cook for himself or go hungry for one whole night.

“I argued calmly I felt like I was being cheated out of a nice meal,” the most un-self-aware man on the planet wrote on Reddit’s AITA (Am I the Asshole?) forum, a modern crowd-sourced advice column where people seek arbitration on their behaviour.

“She burst into tears and asked why I was being so fucking difficult about this. Now I feel like a dick. So, Reddit, AITA?”

It was screenshot, reposted and discussed in a frenzy of can-you-believe-this.

Before him it was a father wondering if it was so wrong he and his wife let their “active” four-year-old “explore” a “medium-nice” restaurant while they ate. He was upset when a waitress juggling a tray of food reprimanded their precious child.

“I felt it was completely uncalled for,” the second most un-self-aware man on the planet wrote to Slate’s parenting advice column, Care and Feeding.

Each of these viral problems achieved something seemingly impossible in our divided, hyper-partisan online world

Flash back further and you’ll find a woman with a potentially fatal allergy to mushrooms grappling with parents-in-law who were sneaking mushrooms – even mushroom powder – into almost every meal.

“Short of taking them a doctor’s note, telling them my allergy is real, I’m not sure what to do,” she lamented to New York Magazine’s Ask Polly.

Each of these viral problems achieved something seemingly impossible in our divided, hyper-partisan online world. They provided rare moments of unity and moral clarity.

“In these difficult times, I’m glad we can all come together and agree that this man objectively sucks,” the feminist writer Jessica Valenti tweeted about the first problem.

We are living in a new golden age of advice columns. They’re everywhere – thanks to readers like me who can’t get enough – and they’re better than ever.

They range from the pithy (Reddit) and the utilitarian (Ask a Manager) to the genuinely philosophical. When I can’t sleep at night, sometimes I turn on the Dear Sugar podcast – the smooth voices, wisdom and empathy of hosts Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond is a weighted blanket for the soul.

The first golden age of agony aunts, as they were once known, began in the mid 19th century and was powered by technological and cultural change: mass media and mass literacy converging with shifting social mores. Cheap to produce and compulsive to read, these columns proliferated in newspapers and magazines, instructing anonymous readers – frequently concerned women – how to behave properly and, often, be good wives.

The new boom is similarly made possible by technological shifts. Asking for, sharing and bingeing on advice is ever more accessible.

The irresistible allure of other people’s problems remains a big drawcard. “They’re even more assuring these days because they’re an antidote to the angst of observing everyone’s polished social media,” one friend and fellow addict observed. “They’re a reminder that everyone doesn’t have their shit together.”

They’re also an affirmation of the indignities and frustrations we all endure. It’s little surprise the genre of AITA problems that often strike a chord with women are those that highlight the cluelessness of some men about the imbalance of labour, both domestic and emotional, in heterosexual relationships (like the aforementioned vegetarian left to fend for himself for one meal). Many women share these questions as if to say “see what we have to put up with out here?”

But there’s more to the new gilded age than that.

In a world where traditional moral structures and authorities have crumbled and real-world communities have fractured, these corners of the internet offer rare, ordered space to collectively process who we are today, and what an ethical, satisfying life might look like. From the most irritating minutiae of modern life (Help! My Sister’s Fiancée Has a Fake Service Dog) to the biggest questions (I’m Paralysed by Anxiety About Climate Change), someone has asked – and someone has answered.

For me, it’s the answers more than the questions that keep me coming back.

There’s less moral absolutism, and more, let’s figure this out

Advice columns are no longer just a place to ask questions we can’t broach with family or friends for fear of embarrassment. Many now serve to answer questions that would be wholly foreign to our parents.

The unimpeachable, all knowing (and usually straight, white and prim) agony aunt has given way to a more diverse generation of writers who openly discuss their own faults and lives, or crowds coming together in comment threads and forums. There’s less moral absolutism and more let’s figure this out.

Since coming out as trans, Dear Prudence’s Daniel Mallory Ortberg frequently helps his readers navigate coming out to their families or how to be a good ally. Consent in the age of #MeToo was explored across three moving episodes of Dear Sugar, where the hosts reckoned with their sexual histories alongside their listeners. Ask Polly has become something of a beacon to listless, anxious and broke millennials seeking reassurance that they’re doing OK. “Learn to treat yourself the way a loving older parent would,” she told one questioner. “Tell yourself: this reckoning serves a purpose.”

Maybe it’s because we live in such uncertain times – an era marked by the absence, indeed the refusal, to commit to solutions to the big problems threatening our very existence. Reading about climate change, inequality and rising extremism can make us feel hopeless and adrift.

Is it any wonder that a place where problems, however small, are earnestly shared and thoughtfully resolved is so alluring, and can maybe even help us sleep at night?

 

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