Is Reddit the World's Best Advice Column?

Even relationship troubles can be crowdsourced.

The twin sisters Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers, both famous advice columnists, in 1986 (John Gaps III / Reuters)

A 30-year-old man had a problem with his wife: She farted relentlessly.

She’d been more discreet back in the salad days of the romance, but ever since, the trajectory of the relationship had been toward flatus. By the time things came to a head, he reported, she would “literally lift a cheek off the couch and rip one so hard it scares the cat.” Belching, regrettably, was a related source of tension; taken together, it was even putting a damper on the couple’s intimate life.

Fed up, the man turned to r/Relationships, a popular discussion page—or subreddit—on the website Reddit, where he posted a pseudonymous account of his woes to solicit the wisdom of the crowd. Soon, a swarm of amateur relationship counselors descended to dissect the post and proffer advice. The majority sided with the husband, though most were sympathetic to the wife as well: They suggested, miscellaneously, that the husband’s own emissions might be less subtle than he believed, that his attempts at communicating the issue might have been too lighthearted in tone to be taken seriously, or that the wife might unknowingly suffer from lactose intolerance or some other undiagnosed medical issue.

The husband appeared to follow this analysis of his marriage closely. “Everyone suggesting I need to do a better job of communicating is 100 percent correct,” he wrote. “I grew up in a household where we weren't good about sharing our feelings, and it's something I'm working on.”

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.”

r/Relationships shines, by the way, in dealing with abusive relationships. When a pregnant 22-year-old posted about how her boyfriend punched holes in the walls and threw things at her, the top comments were empowering and informative, and some responders even offered to pay for a flight to her parents’ home state. In an even darker recurring phenomenon, someone will post about something they frame as a lesser issue, but readers will pick up on signs of controlling or abusive behavior and try to convince them to flee. Sometimes they succeed, and I feel a little thrill of relief each time.

Of course, Reddit’s fundamental pseudonymity means it’s impossible to verify that any particular post is authentic—though, to be fair, that’s not a guarantee Savage or Phillips can make, either. The posts that attract the most attention tend to be so sensational, like a father whose teenage daughter had bullied a schoolmate until she attempted suicide, or endearing, like a 17-year-old boy who asked for tips on asking out a crush who happened to be deaf, that I do sometimes harbor doubts.

Others, admittedly, cross into soap opera territory. A 22-year-old factory worker posted that she’d been experiencing disturbing hallucinations. “I'm so scared,” she wrote. “I feel like my mind is slowly melting.” The unanimous response was that she should seek medical attention; she posted again later the same week to report that doctors had found a tumor in her brain and scheduled her for surgery the next day. She never posted again.

Fretting about the truthfulness of each post, though, might be missing the point. Advice columns, traditionally, feel more like catechism than journalism; like tea leaves or tarot cards, the letters columnists choose to respond to publicly are jumping off points for examining the ethical choices that all readers might confront in their own lives. In a 1958 profile, Life magazine reported that the elder Phillips selected letters for publication that served as “keyhole glimpses” of contemporary life. Fundamentally, I think, nothing has changed; we’re still finding meaning in the lives of online strangers.

The most popular r/Relationships post of all time was by a woman whose husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Doctors had given up on chemo, so she turned to r/Relationships for ideas about how to make their last month together count. Suggestions poured in, from the romantic to the practical: do things they’d always meant to do together; collect the husband's passwords and pin numbers, and finalize his will; take pictures and videos to serve as long-term memories.

The woman posted again later that summer that her husband had passed away. “In the comments of my original post, a lot of you wrote that you cried and told your [significant other] you loved them or gave them a random hug much to their surprise,” she wrote. “I'll admit that those comments made me happier than anything else.”