Weisberg: Well, first of all, the early advice-givers in America are all white, male, and straight. Over time you see that changing some. Definitely, you see more women doing it in the 20th century. And today, even though the big national perches are still largely occupied by white cisgendered people, there are more opportunities for other people as our culture changes.
And how much vulnerability the advice-givers are giving of themselves—that changes a lot over time. Like, Benjamin Franklin is not admitting his own struggles with fidelity. Whereas you read later advice-givers and they’re talking about their own challenges with their marriages. Now, we don’t trust people unless they admit to their own mistakes, at least a little bit. Whereas there was a sense of objectivity and authority that advice-givers from many years ago tried to present.
Beck: It seems like now we’re in an era of preferring relatability in our advice.
Weisberg: There’s still that tension. I think advice-givers still need to present both qualities. I just think vulnerability is the more salable quality, more than it used to be, and more than expertise at this point.
Beck: What does that say about what we are actually looking for from advice? It seems like if we wanted the right answer to our question, we’d turn to experts. So is it more that we’re looking to feel like something is right, which is kind of a squishier thing?
Weisberg: Throughout time, when people are looking for advice, they’re really looking for someone to be vulnerable with. I think that’s why, even in the earliest days of advice-giving, it was mostly anonymous. People are just creating this space to be vulnerable. And anonymity is the technology for it. The internet allows for that [even more], there’s a certain level of distancing in our communications online and I think this privileging of vulnerability feeds into that as well.
Beck: So we want this space to be vulnerable. Is it maybe less about getting the right answer and more about being reassured that what we already think and do is normal, or at least acceptable?
Weisberg: I think so. I think when people are looking at advice they’re often looking for affirmation. In advice before the internet, advice columns sort of functioned as a Reddit channel. It was a way for people to chime in and have an anonymized community where they can share their deepest secrets, maybe get some feedback on it and hopefully feel affirmed in their choices.
Beck: I want to talk about another tension, which is the community versus the individual. Whether you privilege community over yourself, or be true to yourself and who cares what everyone else thinks—has that changed over time?
Weisberg: Early advice is so much more concerned with how other people perceive you and contemporary advice is much more individually oriented. That reflects a change in our culture. But I think people certainly still crave affirmation from their community. I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive, but it’s interesting what people were preaching when. They were preaching cultural acceptance, and societal acceptance, and how to make your boss happy, in earlier generations. And now people are saying, focus on you. But I know I as an individual I certainly crave both, and I think most people do.