r/Relationships is fascinating, and not just because the subreddit is a miles-deep reservoir of roiling drama. It’s also, by the food-fight standards of online discourse, a finely oiled machine. A team of volunteer moderators categorizes each post—there are many hundreds on a typical day—into groupings like “infidelity,” “breakups,” or “non-romantic,” makes sure each is tagged with the ages and genders of the parties involved, and patrols the comment sections diligently for incivility.
Astonishingly, the whole mechanism manages to dispense fairly level-headed advice. This might be due to the structure of Reddit itself, where “upvotes” buoy the most popular comments to the top of each post. This system has often been accused of promoting groupthink, but r/Relationships seems to be the rare example of a subreddit where the phenomenon works to the reader’s advantage. The most visible advice tends to be pretty solid, if arguably a bit obvious: communicate clearly, be forgiving, respect people’s boundaries, and trust your instincts.
The subreddit owes a lot to the syndicated advice columns of yesteryear—a genre with which I have an embarrassingly long history. My parents eschewed television, so before the internet had really penetrated rural Vermont, I’d flip past the reporting and classified ads in my hometown newspaper, The Bennington Banner, to Pauline Phillips’ and her daughter Jeane’s snippy, vaguely sex-negative Dear Abby for what seemed, at the time, like a tiny dose of cosmopolitanism.
I haven’t read Dear Abby in years, but I’ve experimented with various replacements ever since: Slate's Dear Prudence, mainly during the Emily Yoffe era; Jack Terricloth’s irregular web column during the mid-2000s; Dan Savage’s ribald Savage Love, which, though it often deals frankly with sex, Savage sees as carrying on the tradition of the advice columnist (in 2002, he purchased Ann Landers’ desk and typewriter at auction for $200 and $175, respectively).
Of course, I wasn’t the only reader migrating from print to web in the mid-2000s. The internet proved to be fertile ground for a generation of hipper columnists, from Cheryl Strayed and Heather Havrilesky to Mallory Ortberg and the pseudonymous Captain Awkward. In small ways, r/Relationships reflects the influence of each of those columnists; sometimes it even feels as though the subreddit’s contributors are collectively deconstructing their work and reassembling it into some great simulacrum of the agony aunt, using bits of persona like producers assembling a beat from samples.
To be fair, David Gudelunas, the author of Confidential to America: Newspaper Advice Columns and Sexual Education, doesn’t see a strong connection between classic advice columnists and forums like r/Relationships. In his view, the social role of advice columnists had started to shift long before the web, from that of a central authority like Dear Abby to the more specialized columnists who emerged in her wake. “I think that Landers and [Abigail] Van Buren were, perhaps, the last of the great authoritative columnists,” he says. “They served as a type of ‘supreme court’ that had the respect of a wide reading public. They could greatly influence opinion in that they were arbiters on issues including relationships.”