Blog Reviews: Advice Columns

While I am not typically someone who reads blogs or online newspapers (I mean, Tumblr doesn’t count, right?), for COMM232 I was asked to find a few blogs and study them. I chose to look at advice column blogs because I think they are very practical if done properly, and I enjoy reading them. If the author is a good columnist (and gives good advice), then reading a column will read like a little slice-of-life story, with hope for the future of a happy ending to “Anonymous’s” problems. The four columns I will review are as follows: Captain Awkward, DEAR SUGAR, Dear Prudence, and AdviceForYouAlways.

For this assignment, I have chosen to examine and review four advice column blogs based on their:

  • voice and writing style
  • transparency and disclosure
  • linking
  • usefulness
  • social media integration

Captain Awkward

Captain Awkward is an advice column blog written by indie film director Jennifer Peepas. She answers questions from confused and troubled internet readers on topics from writing and publishing, to family drama, and even health and fitness. She answers any question honestly, with a well thought-out and structured response that is humorous in nature but mostly very straight-forward.

Peepas’ writing style is very analytical, critical, but also non-judgmental. She likes to break down the problems described to her and put them in a new perspective for her readers by shining a more emotionally aware light on the topic. Her approach to problems is to help Anonymous understand their own situations and what they can control, but to give them realistic options for how to solve their issues themselves. She is humorous and witty, but she does not make fun of her readers or their problems.

Peepas says on her “About Me” page that “I can’t tell you what to do. But I can try to tell you what to say, or lend you some courage in saying it.” She outright tells her audience the perspective she is approaching her readers’ problems- from the point of view of a film director. She always ensures her readers that her advice is not meant to be taken as a statement of facts, or of a “correct” approach to any situation. She sometimes includes personal anecdotes to supplement her responses, and she leaves the final decisions on what Anonymous should do for them.

The blog’s overall structure allows for easy navigation- there are numerous specified links at the top of the page for readers to hunt down information, and there are links to similar columns and related tags whenever a reader chooses to read a particular article.

I would say the blog is useful, because readers (and Anonymous) usually find what they are looking for in her answers- either they know what they should do, or they are reassured in their choices. A reader can easily search through tags to find articles that are related to their own issues and glean advice from Peepas even if they do not write in to her themselves.

Peepas has social media capabilities available all over the website. Readers can follow her via email updates or WordPress, and they can share links to her blog via Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and more. She also has a link to fan moderated forums if readers want to continue conversations about her articles.


DEAR SUGAR

DEAR SUGAR is an advice column hosted on The Rumpus, with a mystery columnist named Sugar (recently revealed to be Cheryl Strayed). This blog is known for the very real, very specific advice given to anyone that can stomach the truth.

Sugar is a pseudonym that Strayed operates under in order to give the nitty-gritty advice her readers ask for. Her voice and writing style are a bit caricatured- she reads like a kind Southern belle or a mother hen that wants to make you feel better but also will give you a slap of reality. She like to frame her responses in a very personal way by including long anecdotes that create a sense of kinship with the reader. Then she ties her story in with Anonymous’ story, and gives her two-cents on the subject. Her readers like how relateable she is, and most likely read her columns to see what interesting tidbits of her life they can find out.

As far as transparency and disclosure go, she originally used her pseudonym to maintain privacy. She did not want to share her identity- which is a convention of advice columns (both the columnist and the readers use pseudonyms), but in a post from 2012 she addresses her decision to come public with her identity: “I want to tell you who I am because it feels like the right thing to do, like we’ve reached a point of intimacy where I really ought to introduce myself. I want to see what happens next, to experience the column as the Sugar who doesn’t have to keep that one big secret that hundreds of you have been told or figured out on your own by now anyway.”

DEAR SUGAR, because it is hosted on another website, does not have independence in the set-up of its blog. Individual articles have links to related posts and tags, but the general interface does not lend itself to organizing and sorting through articles by topic; the front page is a list of articles in recent chronological order. Within each article, Sugar includes links to people and websites she talks about however, and makes reading her column interactive.

DEAR SUGAR is a useful blog because of its painfully direct advice approach. People read her column because they want the straight-up truth; should you break up with him/her? Yes. Are you being creepy? Yes. How do you do this sex thing? Here’s how. However, if you do not want to muddle through all of Sugar’s personal feels and just need the packaged answer, her blog is not for you. Everything she writes is personal to her.

Sugar’s column is not the most social media enabled. Readers like to place comments at the end of articles and discuss things in-house, usually. There are social media sharing buttons at the top right corner of the page next to The Rumpus’ banner and just before the comments section below, but Sugar does not seem to communicate with her audience over social media so much. She prefers emailing.


Dear Prudence

Dear Prudence is an advice column run by Emily Yoffe, hosted on Slate. Yoffe tends to focus her blog on family and workplace relationships, and interpersonal conflicts more-so than dating advice.

Prudence takes a much more detached approach to writing her column than the other blogs I have read. She is calm and instructive in tone- if Anonymous has questions about something she will research and cite her answers, and she presents her responses to Anonymous in a very clinical, but caring way. Rarely does she share personal experiences in her columns, but she does her best to relate to her readers by explaining possible solutions to their problems in a very down-to-earth manner.

Prudence is a pseudonym, although Yoffe has revealed her identity to her readers. She is a journalist for Slate and part of her work is answering the Dear Prudence column. However, her detached writing style makes it difficult to gauge her motives as an advice columnist; not meaning that she is suspect, but that she gives her opinions on her readers’ problems without giving any context as to why she thinks X way is the right way to handle a situation. I feel that if she shared more of her beliefs and experiences, her readers would feel more confident in following her advice.

As far as linking goes, Dear Prudence does not make good use of hyperlinks within the text, and there are no tags with which to sort through and find similar articles that I can find. It is difficult to navigate the Slate website without using the browser back button, which is very annoying.

This leads into the blog’s usefulness- as far as the advice given goes, the blog is wonderful and very useful. As far as finding articles you can relate to in order to find answers… not so much. If tags were added to organize the articles, then readers could seek out specific articles that relate to their own issues without having to wait and see if Prudence will finally answer their question they’ve sent in five times already.

The social media interaction is acceptable, but there is always room for improvement. The Facebook and Twitter share buttons are at the very top of the articles, in plain site, but her comments section is linked in a separate location. Sometimes she live chats with her readers and answers question live. This is an innovative approach to an advice column, given the tradition of anonymity, and I think it drums up excitement for readers every time she schedules a video conference.


AdviceForYouAlways

AdviceForYouAlways is a column that is hosted on Tumblr by an anonymous user- most questions they get are about love and dating, although sometimes things touch on heavier issues like abuse, mental illness, sexuality, and drug problems. For the most part, it is about dating, though.

Advice is the least professional advice column on my list; Advice writes responses to readers’ problems in a very compassionate and commiserating tone, and focuses on encouraging Anonymous. In the “About Me” section, Advice says, “I’m here to listen and help. This blog is a place of safety, love, kindness, and a willingness for one person to help other people.” The approach is less technical and pushes emotional awareness and communication as the main solutions to most problems.

Advice is an entirely private, anonymous blog that operates with traditional advice column conventions (both columnist and readers are nameless). However, Advice does their best to answer readers’ questions with kindness and sensitivity. Because the column is on a private blog, it is run by an independent writer who is not paid to answer people’s questions all day. Readers are drawn to Advice because the column feels more genuine and relateable; Advice is a regular person that does not have an agenda in answering your questions other than they want to help.

Linking is a particular weakness to Advice’s column. Their answers may contain a link to a website every now and then that helps guide Anonymous in their problem, but otherwise there are no links anywhere. There are no social media outlets, no tags, and no comments section. The only interaction with Advice is to go into the ask box directly. There is a link to various help hotlines on the right under “Services,” as well as a link to the blog’s archives.

This blog, due to its informal structure, is not as useful to people that want long, article length answers to their questions. For the Tumblr community, it is not as useful as blogs that have a more narrow focus, or that use tags, and that include other ways to communicate with their readers. Not to say that Advice is a useless column, because Advice certainly reaches a wide audience and has helped many readers that perhaps would feel intimidated by going to a “professional” advice column instead. Advice reaches a specific demographic, and they know their audience well.

The social media aspect of Advice is, again, almost nonexistent. Besides Skype links to help hotlines and possibly reaching out to individual readers via private message, Advice does not have social media interaction enabling.


My favorite column was Captain Awkward. I felt like I really related to her sense of humor, and the website was very easy to navigate. I read through article after article like it was a book. Easy to understand, highly structured responses, and a sense that not only did I learn how to handle a specific situation, but I learned how to deal with emotions (my own and other peoples).

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