This post is part of Reading Reddit, a Slate pop-up blog about Reddit.
Midway through last week, I logged on to Reddit to try and stop a desperate stranger from making a terrible decision. “I am turning 20 next month,” the stranger had written in a Reddit thread titled “Should I join the army?” He went on to describe how he was alone and in debt, working a dead-end job to which he had to bicycle 12 miles each way because his car loan application was denied. “I always told my self when using credit cards ‘I deserve this, my friends and siblings get nice things for just being them. I deserve this,’ ” he continued. “Now I literally have nothing. If I join the army they would provide housing, I wouldn’t want to buy things, I’d pay off debt in no time.”
I am the last person to whom anyone should ever come for life advice. I’m sort of lazy. I drink too much. I walked around for a full three hours one day this July without noticing that my shirt was on backwards. Prudence I am not—but, then again, Dear Prudence this was not. This was r/Advice, the subreddit where all it takes to counsel strangers about their problems is a user account and an opinion—and it just so happens that I had very strong thoughts about the folly of treating military service as some sort of backdoor bankruptcy filing. I posted a comment on the thread:
IMO you shouldn’t join the army just to get out of debt. If you have other reasons for wanting to join also – a longstanding fascination with the military, a desire to learn a skill or to serve your country – then great, by all means consider it.
As far as I can tell, my advice was swiftly ignored. My comment was downvoted to the middle of the thread in favor of one that took a very different approach. “I think the military would be a good choice for you,” the highest-ranked comment currently reads. “Allows you to pay back your debts, won’t have to worry about costs of living. After you get out you’ll have the G.I bill to help with your tuition if you want to go back to school.” I thought that this was a bad take, but I didn’t press the point because I knew that my point was ultimately negligible. On r/Advice, no one really has any idea whether any commenter actually knows what they are talking about, and so everyone gets to assume the same authority on any topic as anyone else.
It’s safe to say that the internet hasn’t really worked out the way its creators intended. The pioneers of the internet—some of them, at least—dreamed that the global network would change the world by empowering strangers to collaborate with and learn from each other. It has done this, to an extent—and it has also eviscerated traditional hierarchies of expertise. “Because I said so” does not automatically confer authority on the internet; but neither do formal academic credentials, résumé lines, or other markers of status. Fair enough! I’ve met enough high-profile frauds in my life to know that it’s dumb to assume that a professor knows more than her students, that a news reporter knows more than his readers, or that a political commentator knows anything at all.
Part of what makes interest-based social networks like Reddit interesting is that they are powered by this suspicion of received wisdom and by a corresponding faith in the wisdom of the crowd. There is great merit in having a healthy disdain for received wisdom; there is also great chaos in subsequently presuming that expertise is a sham and that all opinions are equally valid. On Reddit, no one expert has all the answers; instead, everyone has an answer, and it is up to Redditors to determine which are good and which are bad.
This model hits its zenith on r/Advice, the most sincere place on Reddit, where the lonely and inept beseech the anonymous and unqualified for help with problems big and small. Rather than submit their life dilemmas to an individual advice columnist who will cull her mailbag to print only the most interesting or representative questions, the Redditors of r/Advice throw their problems to the cumulative wisdom of 148,000 advice givers, knowing that they will almost certainly get at least one response, and that that response might actually be good. “This is a place where you can ask for advice on any subject,” reads the subreddit’s self-description. Do you feel unloved, unappreciated, misunderstood? Are you unsure if your pants make your ass look big? Do you feel like life is passing you by? Wondering whether you should spend $2 to upgrade to sweet potato fries? Twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week, r/Advice is here for you: an endless, crowdsourced advice column where every question is valid, every respondent is valued, and most people try very hard to be their best selves.
Though Reddit’s up- and downvoting system nominally serves to surface interesting questions and relevant answers, in practice banal dilemmas—“Advice on what to wear to country style wedding?” “How do I tell my husband he smells?”—share space with harrowing ones—“was I sexually assaulted?” “Cousin killed herself on Monday and the husband will not let my Aunt view the body. Any options?”—and both are given equal weight. This interplay of the serious and the mundane is what animates the subreddit and makes it such an interesting community. This may be part of why it has such a devoted following: Though your particular problem might not mean much in the grand scheme of things, it means a lot to you. And r/Advice is dedicated to treating those problems with respect, no matter what they are.
Online anonymity emboldens people to speak more freely than they otherwise might—for better or for worse. Elsewhere on Reddit and across the internet, this freedom often begets abuse and misogyny and meanness, as anonymous trolls indulge their worst selves and attack those with whom they disagree. But in Advice, this freedom manifests as vulnerability. Remarkably, this vulnerability is rarely mocked or exploited. “Be nice” is the first rule of the subreddit, and users take that rule to heart. The volunteer columnists of the Advice subreddit are uniformly kind and empathetic, even if they are not always particularly helpful.
Last week I created a throwaway user account under a very dumb name—u/weekendatberniesbro; I don’t know, it seemed funny at the time—and proceeded to haunt Advice for a couple of days, answering as many questions as I could. Some questions were very easy to answer. Q: “I’m a 17 year old and atm, I have £630 in hand. Is it ok to buy £290 shoes or is it dumb?” A: “I don’t know anything about you or your situation – maybe you are rich! maybe you have no other debts or material needs – but, yes, this idea sounds very dumb.” Q: “Should I move to Chicago or Vermont?” A: “Take my advice for what it’s worth – which, as an Internet stranger who doesn’t know you, probably isn’t very much – but go to Chicago.” Q: “What drink from Starbucks … should I get?” A: “Coffee.”
Other questions required slightly more of an effort. “Help me make great lunches please,” one self-described “lazy and fat” Redditor wrote:
This wasn’t a particularly difficult question, but I still had no business answering it. I haven’t made my own lunch in years, and frankly have never, ever made any meal that could reasonably be deemed “great.” But with my own stomach rumbling, I replied with the foodstuff that I was craving at that particular moment.
“Learn to make burritos, dude!” I wrote, and although I have never made a burrito, that did not stop me from proposing a recipe. (“Saute the vegetables – peppers, onions, tomatoes, whatever else you can find – and meat in a pan. Put them in a tortilla, add some cheese and hot sauce, maybe some guacamole or whatever, and you’ll be full until dinner.”) If they didn’t know how to construct a burrito, I noted, then they could go down to the local Chipotle and take some notes. “Great suggestion,” my correspondent soon replied. Take that, Dear Prudence!
When I began this experiment, I thought I would end up using r/Advice as comic fodder, chiming in with dumb jokes and acting a fool. But I soon got swept up in the bighearted spirit of the subreddit. “High School graduated of Reddit, I’m starting High School tomorrow, any advice?” asked one user. “Avoid the soup in the cafeteria, that shit is toxic” was what I initially wanted to say. But then I thought better of my flip remark. This sincere question deserved a sincere response—and, besides, maybe their soup was actually good. I thought hard and replied with something that I wish I had understood when I was 14:
Remember that other people generally aren’t thinking and talking about you as much as you might assume that they are. Everyone else is wrapped up in their own insecurities just as much as you are, so don’t stop yourself from doing things or trying things because you’re afraid of what people might think. Odds are that they aren’t thinking about you at all.
As I spent more and more time on Advice, I realized that most of the advice-seekers there seemed to be children: teenagers and adolescents seeking tips on making friends, talking to girls, planning their futures. How do I ask a girl out? What do I do with my life? How do I resolve a conflict with my parents? Clearly, the guidance counselors and cool older siblings of the world had not been doing their jobs, so I resolved to fill the gap. The advice I offered almost always boiled down to the same point: Be direct. “I don’t know what to do,” wrote one 10th-grader who was in classes with a boy whom they had dated and broken up with back in 7th grade. “I think that he wants to talk to me and I want to talk to him. I’m very shy so It’s hard for me to talk to him. What should I do???”
I told the shy writer to talk to him! “Find a way to talk to him *about* something that is happening in the classes you share: a difficult homework assignment, for example, or a test/quiz you both took. ‘Did you get the answer to question 10,’ something like that. Then see how he responds and go from there,” I wrote.
“Should I ask her out?” asked one 16-year-old who went on to describe his close friendship with and romantic interest in a girl who seemed equally interested in him. Yes, I said. “You *want* to ask her out. She’s giving you signs that she would not be averse to you asking [her] out. At some point you are going to have to make a leap of faith here. Worst case scenario is that you read it wrong, she says no, and it ruins your friendship. That would suck, for sure, but you’ll make other friends.”
Directness: the magic formula! Most of the dilemmas posed on r/Advice, from teenagers or adults, can be answered by counseling directness. The person who wanted a backdoor way to dissuade his friend from bringing a plus-one to a birthday party? Be direct. “I would literally just say ‘please, no plus ones… I want to keep this party small’ or something like that. I get that you want to communicate the message without having to be direct, but I feel like directness would be the most effective method here.”
The person who felt left out at work and worried that their boss disliked them? Be direct. “IMO the best course of action here is to go to your manager and say something like ‘I’m three months into the job, I feel like I’m finally getting comfortable here, I’d love to take the next step.’ … Go to her and be direct; if after that things *still* don’t change, then you’ll have more evidence to support your thesis that she dislikes you, and you can act accordingly.”
The person who didn’t know how to ask an acquaintance out for drinks without seeming awkward? Screw awkward. Be direct.
While directness was always the right answer, it seems it’s not always the easiest advice to take. Most of my comments drew no responses from the advice-seekers, and when people did respond, it was usually to tell me why being direct was harder than I made it sound. When confronted with these responses, I tended to back off a bit and acknowledge that my opinions weren’t worth very much. I didn’t actually know anything about the people whom I was advising or their circumstances, which made it feel impossible to responsibly answer these questions and then insist they follow my approach. I’m not a counselor; I’m not a therapist. I began to feel fraudulent, to worry that I was steering these people wrong even though I had the best intentions. When no one is an expert, everyone becomes an expert, and authority thus redounds to the person who is least troubled by that paradox.
I went to a bar and got very drunk. By the time I came home, I had successfully shed my inhibitions and logged back on to Reddit to advise people, heedless of my qualifications for doing so. I was firing off answers left and right. Q: “How to overcome the fear of driving.” A: Take a driver’s education class. Q: “My college roommate has low functioning autism. I absolutely can’t stand living with him. I’ve reached out to my RA but to no avail. Help.” A: Switch rooms ASAP. Q: “Trying to sell a table.” A: Charge $25 to $40. I was an authority unto myself. And then I encountered a question posed by someone who felt the exact same way:
This kid, who seemed to have come to r/Advice directly from The_Donald, had posed a fascinating question: How do I deal with people who tell me that I’m wrong when the internet has taught me that they have no standing to tell me that I’m wrong? In my drunken state, I wanted to tell him to screw off, to use the same vocabulary that abrasive dimwits use in their emails to me whenever I write anything remotely political. But that would have been antagonistic and mean, and thus against the rules of r/Advice—and, anyway, he wouldn’t have listened. He was reaching out, in his way. So I mustered some momentary sobriety and attempted to answer him in good faith:
For what it’s worth, you don’t *have* to be at war with your school, even if the people there believe different things than you do, and even if they frustrate you. What do you hope to win by fighting this war? What are the terms of engagement? You sound like you are a person who is very secure in what you believe. That’s great! Perhaps – perhaps! – it would be enough to content yourself with being secure in what you believe and not worry so much about what others believe, even if their beliefs differ radically from yours. Consider calling a truce, is what I’m saying.
It was the best advice I had given in my short tenure on the subreddit, and, just like most of the rest of my advice, it was promptly ignored. “Im at war simply because I wish to protect the ignorant/navie people who don’t know about politics,” the kid replied. “From my perspective, I think people should find all of these political issues topics themselves and make their own standpoints, not be influenced by schools and teachers.”
This kid was the very soul of Reddit—and an avatar for our horrific modern internet. He had conflated “Some experts are fraudulent” with “All expertise is fraudulent,” and proceeded from there to the following, inevitable conclusion: “I am my own expert.” Every Redditor is his own authority. What can you do with that?
Your best. That is the answer. You can try to do your best, even as you know that your best will inevitably be ignored in favor of someone else’s worst. Currently, the highest comment on this particular thread comes from an apparent fellow traveler who encouraged this kid to “keep speaking”:
If your beliefs are logical and you can back it up with evidence, people will listen but only the right people. My entire school is left wing as well, but I’ve talked using evidence and some have listen. Not all of course, but those some do count.
Logic, evidence, authority, credibility—these are all relative concepts now, and they mean whatever the “right people” in any given context want them to mean. “As long as there is hope against the privilege loving leftists.. I will take it,” the kid replied to the above comment. I wished him well and passed out.
I knew that by morning, the thread would be pushed down the page, replaced by dozens of new dilemmas and hundreds of new answers that would be ingested or ignored by the original posters. On r/Advice, the point isn’t to get advice; the point is to speak your problems. The miracle is that so many still choose to answer in good faith.