How the Internet Changed Advice Columns

It’s easier than ever for people to dispense advice to strangers—and to see themselves reflected in the letter-writers asking for help.

The famous advice columnist Ann Landers at home in 1990 (Mark Elias / AP)

In the earliest days of the Bintel Brief, an advice column geared towards Eastern European Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, one advice-seeker wrote: “Ah, my home, my beloved home. My heart is heavy for my parents whom I left behind. I want to run back, but I am powerless ... I am lonely in my homesickness and I beg you to be my counsel as to how to act.”

In his reply, the column’s author, Abraham Cahan, counseled the writer to be patient: “All immigrants yearn deeply for dear ones and home at first,” he advised. “At first it seems that they are withering, but in time most of them revive and take root in new earth.”

The exchange was a typical one for the Bintel Brief, published in the Yiddish newspaper Forverts (the paper is now also printed in English as The Jewish Daily Forward). Geared toward people new to the U.S., the column frequently dealt with questions about what it meant to be an immigrant and what it meant to be an American.

“Back then, people wanted to blend in,” said Jeanne Phillips, better known as Dear Abby. “What they wanted to do was be the best American they could be, and that’s how the column evolved.”

For most of the 20th century, that was the typical advice-column model: Write into a newspaper, wait for an authority figure to address your query. Not all had the Bintel Brief’s focus on immigration, but all generally had the same sort of hierarchical concept—here was an institution, helping people conform to a certain idea of a good life.

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.