From popular forums on Reddit, to websites like Ask a Manager, to blogs written by internet personalities, there’s been a boom in the availability and popularity of online advice columns in the last several years. While the availability of anonymous internet strangers willing to offer input on our personal problems is somewhat new, the tactic of casting your experiences into the void and asking for guidance predates even the popular “Dear Abby” and “Ask Ann Landers” syndicated newspaper columns that launched in the 1950s.

Other people’s questions about proposals, career gaffes, in-law etiquette, and child-rearing have always fascinated us (and probably always will). Watching other people get a slew of advice about their personal problems is timelessly compelling. If you’ve found yourself tumbling down a rabbit hole of other people’s tangled problems, know that you’re in good company: The internet, for better or for worse, has become awash in a bevy of armchair psychiatrists. Even The New York Times recently launched a brand-new advice column space headed by novelist, essayist, and critic Roxane Gay.

A woman drinks coffee as she reads the newspaper

This trend might have something to do with our continual search for ways to perform our lives differently in online spaces. “Psychoanalyst Donnel Stern reminds us that we become more fully ourselves by witnessing and being witnessed,” says Dr. Michael Alcee, a clinical psychologist practicing out of Tarrytown, NY. “In reading about others, we can more safely explore and experiment with the other sides of ourselves that might be difficult to acknowledge otherwise.” Typing out a question — whether for the consumption of the masses in a free-for-all forum or sending it directly to a so-called “relationship expert” — is a way to narrate our experience. In doing so, we take control of the form that the story takes, deciding on the most important details and making choices about what can be left out. When we tell others our story, we go from being a person a problem is happening to, to a person who is influencing the way that the story happens. Just the simple act of sharing our experience from that driver’s seat narrator perspective can be enough to help us sort through what’s going on.

But it’s the camaraderie of a community of commenters — combined with the opportunity to be an “expert” on somebody else’s life — that attracts the majority of advice forum and column aficionados. As Alcee explains it, these platforms “allow us to witness others and ourselves simultaneously, providing us with a richer and more complex narrative with which to work.” When we recognize a problem that we’re intimately familiar with happening in a stranger’s life, we’re able to peek into the judgments that other people might have about that particular scenario. We can also offer help to people who are going through a struggle we’ve had in the past or warn them away from mistakes we regret.

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There’s admittedly a strong aspect of voyeurism in advice column culture. “In addition to the sheer curiosity we have about others’ inner lives,” Alcee admits, “we also get to benefit from finding the very answers or inspiration we are searching for as well.” We can’t help but be fascinated by the intimate, the bizarre, and the downright inexplicable behavior of our fellow human beings. It’s fun to speculate about what we might do in different situations and evaluate our own reactions through the lens of our personal background. Advice columns give us a quick hit of empathy without asking too much out of us: It’s practice in listening, without requiring much of us in return.

For some people, reading advice offered to other people is to flirt with our own trigger mechanisms. “People can definitely go too far in reading into advice columns, forgetting about the importance and value of consulting with oneself and keeping in mind the complexities of your situation,” Dr. Alcee agrees. “It’s important to keep in mind that advice columns are ‘static’ and not tailored to the complex individual situation. They can often be a useful starting point or a new way of thinking about things, but they aren’t panaceas.” And while advice column culture has a vast appeal to those of us who enjoy situational analysis (we’re looking at you, INFJ, INFPs, and ENFPs), it’s critical to understand not only the limits of advice that’s addressed to an audience, but your own limits as well. “People who are prone to strongly doubting themselves — such as those with OCD, perfectionism, hypochondriasis or any other severe anxiety condition — may read too much into advice columns and discount their own experience and inner compass,” cautions Dr. Alcee. “Given that so many common disorders have wide and varied presentations and circumstances, those with depression or in bereavement may find some points helpful and others less applicable.”

A couple looks at a website together

Ultimately, voraciously reading advice columns and forums is a habit that doesn’t have to fall into the category of “guilty pleasure.” There’s personal growth to be found in sharing the experiences of others and contributing good vibes and kind advice to strangers through the screen. While it’s not a replacement for a personal therapist, participating in advice column culture gives us a barometer for how society responds to specific problems while offering different ways of thinking about ourselves as individuals deserving of safety and fulfillment. Reading back through the hardships, triumphs, indiscretions, and prudence of others can shed some light on the motivations behind our own behavior. These readings can be a starting point for personal growth, Alcee encourages: “The right advice from the right source can open your eyes and heart to something truly transformative.”

What online advice column or forum do you love to binge-read? Tell us on Twitter @BritandCo!

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