Is online advice actually useful, or just an ego trip? #HealthandFitnessWeek

A decade ago, almost everyone I knew on the internet had a blog. Now everywhere I look, I see a new advice column, vlog, or podcast popping up. Half the people I know want to start a new one; the other half is addicted to some self-appointed expert’s words of wisdom.

Even award-winning novelist Haruki Murakami, whose books have sold in the millions, is getting in on the action. He launched an agony uncle column a couple of weeks ago and has already addressed topics as varied as infidelity and a lost cat. An editor friend says she’s inundated with offers to write advice columns for her site, and have you seen Yahoo Answers these days? Millions of people every month are advising strangers on everything from homework assignments to family dramas, often horribly.

It’s easy to understand why we might want to read/hear/watch other people’s problems. First of all, they’re other people’s problems, making them automatically 100% more interesting (and in our minds, so much easier to solve) than our own. Sometimes they’re ridiculous and scandalous and that’s super-entertaining (again, when it’s not you). And, of course, you might actually relate to the issues in question and depending on the site/podcast/YouTube account, find some of the advice offered useful.

But why is everyone so keen to dispense their wisdom, exactly? Telling people what to do seems like a pretty big responsibility, especially if you’re not a trained psychologist. It’s hard enough to understand people you know and love, let alone internet strangers. I can’t help thinking that wanting to dish out advice on such a public platform is a way to say ‘look how clever and perceptive I am!’ at least as much as it is a way to genuinely reach out to other people. If you’re asking people to share personal details about their lives, you have a duty to make sure they don’t end up feeling worse. And while there’s definitely some solid advice out there, some of the most high-profile columns (etc) offer up insights that are irresponsible at best.

Slate’s Dear Prudie is renowned for it: in fact, I’d wager she’s read more for the ‘OMG did she really say that?’ factor than anything else. I can only hope that everyone who writes to her is part of an elaborate hoax, as otherwise that means she really did call a woman who believes she was raped by her husband ‘a parody of a gender studies catalog[ue]’ and continually refuse to recognise that being too drunk to consent to sex equals rape. Despite (or because of) perpetuating harmful and potentially dangerous ideas, her nonsense brings in a lot of traffic, so there’s no hope the site will ever stop publishing it.

xoJane widens the idea of self-appointed experts by letting readers offer advice as part of its ‘You Are the Advice Columnist’ series. This means they get sometimes controversial content, lots of comments , and by extension more money from advertisers – and they don’t have to spend staff time and effort on anything more than a quick copy/paste. But it turns out (surprise!) that this might not be such a good thing: earlier this month, they ran a letter from a 17 year-old who was self-harming and suicidal, where a more appropriate response would have been a private email urging her to seek help. They’ve since deleted the post and promised to do better next time, but I’m still boggling at the judgement of whoever okayed it in the first place – and I think it illustrates perfectly how the rush to pull in readers can push editors to make questionable choices at the expense of people in vulnerable situations.

This is something all publishers should be thinking about, not just editors or the advice-givers themselves. Any advice column/vlog/podcast should have links to 24-hour helplines for people who are suicidal on its website, alongside any other relevant resources. If that makes the whole thing too boring and serious for some people, then they should step aside and point people in the direction of actual mental health professionals instead of dabbling in issues they don’t understand.

Even unqualified advisors who are held up as good examples of the genre don’t always get it right. Savage Love is consistently in iTunes’ top twenty podcasts and often lauded for its LGBTQ-inclusive sex positivity, but host Dan Savage has used it to advance some pretty problematic opinions at times. Cheryl Strayed, whose Dear Sugar column shot her career into the stratosphere and who’s about as empathetic as they come, doesn’t (in my opinion) get it right all the time, sometimes skimming too lightly over issues she hasn’t personally dealt with. But the reason her advice often resonates is that she tells stories from her own life so that the message is less ‘this is what you should do’ and more ‘here’s the only way I know to handle this’.

It’s like a return to old-style blogging, where people would share their experiences and you’d infer the moral (whether it was that spa treatments in LA are brutal or that you can fly to Paris and not die. While I still prefer that kind of content to being told what to do, there are some sources of online advice I do endorse:

Heather Havrilevsky (‘Ask Polly’) writes with a mix of compassion and straight talk over at The Cut (and before that The Awl). Her wannabe cheat/lazy dad smackdown is a work of art.

Before I read it, I thought a women’s website having a column about cleaning would be a retrograde nightmare, but Jolie Kerr’s distinctly modern advice is charming and helpful to all genders.

Captain Awkward often addresses questions I haven’t seen elsewhere, like the difficulty of being asked what you do when an invisible disability prohibits work, or how to cope with an unfeminist boyfriend.

And of course, I’ve already mentioned Dear Sugar. You’re probably familiar with her unbelievably viral Write Like a [word we don’t use on ShinyShiny], but you should also check out her book Tiny Beautiful Things.

You know, if you want to. No obligation.

It’s #HealthAndFitnessWeek on ShinyShiny! We’re here to help you keep running, swimming, and nourishing your way to the healthier, happier self you imagined when you wrote your new year’s resolutions. See all the posts here

Image via Pixabay.

Diane Shipley