Asking for help is one of the most vulnerable things a person can do. The act of finding words for despair, packaging trauma for someone else’s judgment, is a process that both reproduces the pain and risks diminishing it by seeming trite. Offering help is difficult in its own way: no matter what your intentions, giving unsolicited advice is a faux-pas that risks coming across as superior or all-knowing rather than sympathetic.

Yet there are entire communities formed around strangers asking for, and offering, advice. Advice forums like reddit’s /r/relationships are similar to newspaper advice columns — an anonymous reader writes in with a problem, and someone they’ve never met replies — except that any one of the forum’s 600,000+ members can fill the role of Abby. Posts can be “upvoted” or “downvoted,” which influences how likely the thread is to be seen — a dubious feature, perhaps — and, likewise, advice within the forum can be voted up or down, presenting a model of self-policing that ensures bad advice and trolls aren’t taken seriously. The forums extend self-improvement pursuits, which are typically solitary: we read self-help books and mediate, follow diets that promise higher energy, speak to therapists, and when we find something that works, we want to share. Reading /r/relationships was for me initially a guilty pleasure akin to binge-watching reality television, with the difference that I hoped it could teach me how to be a better person: I scavenged for advice that I could use. But the best advice had little to do with what was said, and more to do with the way it circulated.

I scavenged for advice that I could use. But the best advice had little to do with what was said, and more to do with the way it circulated

Anonymous advice varies in usefulness, but the popularity of these forums demonstrates a basic human impulse to share pain and request help, as well as to offer it, despite the proscriptions around doing so. Online advice forums provide a set of parameters within which to give and receive advice — a controlled arena for breaking a cultural taboo. The advice itself is often beside the point.

Advice forums have given rise to their own, call-and-response genre, with a set of rules and a narrative structure. The advice-seeker describes a problem typically in 500 words or less, condensing and cutting away the details of their life to leave familiar forms of trouble; advice-givers respond in recognizable tropes that, memorized, can filter down into day-to-day conversations.

Attractive one-liners litter advice forums; concrete and self-assured, they catch your attention and, in their declarative confidence, assert their rightness. It isn’t until you spend more time mulling the sentences over that you realize they don’t say much of anything. The generalizing quality of assertive advice makes it low-risk: the other person is able to attach their own meaning to it, so you’re less likely to be leading them astray. There’s a difference between giving good advice and being right.

The success of repetitious advice functions much like that of horoscopes, or personality tests, and has to do with the “Forer effect.” In 1948, the American psychologist Bertram Forer told his psychology students that they would receive feedback on their personality according to how they answered certain test questions. He gave them all the same boilerplate response, including:

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.

You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.

You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.

While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.

Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.

The students rated these statements as being extremely accurate.

Likewise, forums are full of statements advising advice-seekers to be mindful of their boundaries, limit engagement with people who aggravate them, reduce their social media intake, exercise, and seek professional help — all, in the majority of cases, good ideas. These horoscopic responses are used as advice so often they become memes: they provide no further context about how to achieve what they are advising, and rarely relate back to any details in the posts. This doesn’t make it bad advice per se. It demonstrates that humans often deal with similar problems, making advice-givers feel confident in rehashing the same advice ad nauseam.

Saying the right thing rarely solves a problem

Reading post after post, overarching patterns begin to emerge — certain archetypal problems and solutions that serve to unite forum members, no matter how disparate their circumstances might seem in particular. Carl Jung believed that archetypes were part of a collective unconscious: there are archetypal figures (mother, father, the devil, the hero, or in contemporary times, “the white knight” and “the narcissist”), archetypal events (birth, death, marriage, divorce), and archetypal motifs (the apocalypse). Horoscopes rotate these archetypes, which makes them appear as if they are speaking directly to you and referring to your life. You could dismiss them as fraudulent, but you would be ignoring the meaningful way people interact with Forer statements; it isn’t the words that matter, it’s their utility. Generic advice acts as a vessel for one’s own meaning, a catalyst for specialized knowledge of self that can be otherwise hard to access. Forums can help you act on what you already know.

In A Way of Being, psychologist Carl R. Rogers touched on the comfort that universality brings: 

There is another peculiar satisfaction in really hearing someone: It is like listening to the music of the spheres, because beyond the immediate message of the person, no matter what that might be, there is the universal. Hidden in all of the personal communications which I really hear there seem to be orderly psychological laws, aspects of the same order we find in the universe as a whole. So there is both satisfaction of hearing this person and also the satisfaction of feeling one’s self in touch with what is universally true.

Online advice forums express commonality through circulating the same problems and the same solutions — not advice, really, but more like a representation thereof, which serves a different function. There is comfort in such repetition: it tells you that you are not alone with your problem, and reminds you that connection is possible.

While formulaic advice has its benefits, it comes, of course, at the expense of complexity. The simplicity of writing a problem down can be therapeutic, but brevity is a pitfall of online advice forums — /r/relationships mandates that advice-seekers summarize their problems at the end of the post in an addendum labeled “tl;dr.” The result reads like a dystopian language textbook: my boyfriend flirts with other girls; I killed my friends poodle by accident; a woman at work is stalking me. The flattening of real problems into punchlines means that posts are read at face value, resulting in advice-cum-horoscopic one liners that barely acknowledge the complex nature of interpersonal relations. The process is comforting, but the results can be counterproductive. The possibility that someone has the right answer offers a temporary salve: it’s nice to think that such people exist, and to feel as though you are no longer the only one working towards a solution. But it hardly addresses what’s wrong; saying the right thing rarely solves a problem.

Just as language textbooks can’t teach the intricacies of humor or implied meaning, real advice requires interactive work, and the process is often less cathartic than it is frustrating. It takes time and patience, runs the risk of going awry, and doesn’t offer answers as much as it reveals that the problem may be different from originally thought. Real, as opposed to formulaic advice, requires what Rogers calls “hearing deeply”: listening for the subtext beneath the immediate message. In person, it’s hearing someone say they’re fine, with pain in their voice, and detecting the pain under the words. Online it involves reading closely, noting tone and detail, to intuit what the core of the problem is, and referring carefully to one’s own life experience as a guide. Complexity requires like solutions. 

These horoscopic responses are used as advice so often they become memes, making advice-givers feel confident in rehashing the same advice ad nauseam

Inserting yourself into the advice you give, leveling the playing field so that you and the person who needs help are equals, is a pillar of feminist therapy, which centers the viewpoint of marginalized, accounts for political and cultural oppression, and works to empower the person seeking advice. This kind of advice is trickier; it requires both deeper thought, and true vulnerability on the part of the advice-giver. Rather than taking a problem at face value, the good advice-giver asks questions, and offers examples toward a framework of possible options, without equating one experience with another.

Such engagement always runs the risk of giving offense; sharing stories and asking questions are anticlimactic compared to the declarative quick-fixes that forums often provide. But this approach is more likely to be useful. In one /r/relationship thread, a poster explained that he thought his landlord was entering his apartment and moving his furniture, leaving weird notes. The literal advice for this is: call the police, move out, call the local landlord association. Instead, a commenter suggested that the poster exit their apartment and call the fire department: they warned of the possibility of a carbon monoxide leak. In an update, it turned out this advice was correct — the poster was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, causing him to forget moving furniture and writing himself notes.

In another /r/relationship thread, a poster summarized an angry message she had sent her boyfriend, who was now ignoring her. The message she sent was extreme — but buried in her post was a small sentence about feeling as if he pressured her into having sex for the first time, followed by the quick dismissal that it was “her choice to make.” Commenters let the detail slip by and instead lectured her on her outburst, how she had completely messed up, that she should be nicer to people. Commenters, failing to detect the post’s nuance, gave, in my opinion, the wrong advice. Was it not possible that her anger was justified, and that she had a right to be angry?

Posts are most effective when the advice-giver takes an interest, points out knots in logic, examines from 360 degrees: Does your partner get angry at little things? Is this a pattern? Do you have a plan to leave? The advice often doesn’t look like advice at all. It involves peeling layers off a narrative that the poster has built — hearing deeply — and offering insight into what might actually be happening. It’s a conversation, in other words — one that reproduces the difficulties of engagement that make advice boards, almost fantastical in their simplicity, so cathartic in the first place.

Working on this essay at the library, a person sat across from me with a stack of books: When You Need a Miracle: stories to give you hope, Depression: the way out of your prison, a religious text. I imagined they were going through a hard time. I had no advice to give, but felt the overwhelming urge to provide comfort. The unwritten code of conduct told me my presumption would be uncouth, and self-consciousness held me back. My silence haunted me for the rest of the day.

Then I understood better why advice forums are so popular: they diminish the feelings of self-consciousness and frustration we feel at the prospect of interacting with someone else’s pain, or externalizing our own pain for somebody else. Advice forums provide a formulaic structure to the murky territory of demonstrating empathy.

The urge to share is trumped by the possibility of being stigmatized or rejected; the basic urge to provide comfort is trumped by the possibility of being intrusive or saying the wrong thing. Online advice forums offer relief from these anxieties, a platform to engage with our urges, if not each other — a relief from the difficulties of real interaction, which yield no easy solutions.