Today, the advice-column field feels both more populated and more intimate. While traditional staples like Dear Abby and Ask Amy remain, other, newer columns have proliferated across the Internet to cater to a wide diversity of readers. Even celebrities like Molly Ringwald and Lena Dunham are doling out advice of their own. Whereas columns previously reached their audiences through well-established channels—specifically, newspaper syndication—the Internet has democratized the act of giving advice.
In a 2010 article for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.” In the same way, prospective advice columnists no longer need the support of a printed publication or the approval of an editor for their work. Social media and free or low-cost publishing platforms paired with social media mean that any column has the potential to reach an audience, with or without institutional backing.
“The Internet has removed a lot of the gatekeeping, a lot of the barriers for advice columns, and that’s had predictable results,” says S. Bear Bergman, author of the “Ask Bear” column on The Butter. “A lot more people who couldn’t get heard now are a lot more able to publish, participate, and engage in the process.”
That includes the advice-seekers as well as the advice-givers. “There are many more niche columns than there used to be,” said Esther Bloom, who writes the “Aunt Acid” column on The Toast. “People don’t have to struggle to see themselves in Ann Landers and/or the folks who wrote to her now. They have more opportunities to be more accurately represented.” Sometimes that means writing to often-marginalized populations—like the Facebook-based column “Ask Angy,” which is written by and for undocumented youth in the U.S., or “Savage Love,” which tackles questions on sexuality and LGBT issues. Other times, it means quite literally making space for a multitude of voices in one column, like Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” which hosts weekly live chats where readers can chime in to respond to one another’s questions.
Though advice columns have changed significantly over the years, one aspect has remained the same: the delicate balance columnists must strike between engaging with an individual letter-writer and appealing to a wider audience.
“You are inherently performing for an audience,” said Mallory Ortberg, who writes “Dear Prudence.” “There are ways that answers get phrased or get posed that has a larger audience in mind. It’s not a therapy session. I’m not individually counseling people.”
“All writing is a performance,” Bloom agreed. But at the same time, “You have to show that you take your audience seriously. Otherwise why should they take you seriously?”
That’s not to say it’s always a serious business, though. A piece of advice from Ortberg: “Advice-giving is fun. Everyone should do it.” Now, everyone can, in a very public way—and anyone can listen.