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In Praise of Anonymous Internet Advice Columns

“Can’t you ask the computer?” my seven-year-old son regularly demands when I fail to supply the answer to one of his seemingly random questions. His generation knows implicitly what mine has gradually learned: That the Internet is essentially a garbage dump for information, albeit one that requires increasingly sensitive tools to pick out objects of value. “Crowdsourcing,” a term that Wikipedia (appropriately) tells me was coined only five years ago, has become the preferred way to answer any and all questions. Need a dentist in Missoula or a brunch spot in New Orleans? Ask all your friends via Facebook with the click of a button. When The New York Times recently sought readers’ help to identify a mysterious album of Nazi photographs, it took all of a few hours for someone to come forward with the photographer’s name. The savviest—and creepiest—Internet marketers mine our data in an attempt to answer questions we didn’t even know we had.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Internet aspires also to answer our questions on the interpersonal level, bringing about a proliferation of advice columnists who have come a long way since the days of Dear Abby. Slate alone sponsors three of them: “Dear Prudence,” created by Margo Howard and now written by Emily Yoffe; another, devoted to “sticky friendship dilemmas,” by the novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld; and a new “digital manners” podcast on contemporary etiquette problems like “How late is too late to text?” At The Paris Review, editor Lorin Stein answers people’s questions about what they should be reading. You can pose pressing religious questions to rabbis, priests, and imams; on Jezebel’s now-defunct “Pot Psychology,” stoners doled out sex advice.

And there is “Sugar”, the anonymous writer whose weekly posts on The Rumpus, an online literary magazine, have generated a swarm of enthusiastic followers. She is the ultimate advice columnist for the Internet age, remaking a genre that has existed, in more or less the same form, since well before Nathanael West’s acerbic novella Miss Lonelyhearts first put a face on the figure in 1933. West’s Miss Lonelyhearts was a fake: a grizzled, hard-drinking newspaperman whose column is treated as a joke by his superiors and the rest of the staff. Initially, he laughs along with them, but the very real sufferings of his readers eventually overcome his powers of irony. In his introduction to a new edition of the book, Jonathan Lethem calls it “a mercilessly unsympathetic novel on the theme of sympathy.” But, even more profoundly, it’s a novel about big-city alienation: on the part of the letter-writers, reduced in their desperation to making pleas to an anonymous stranger; and on the part of the columnist himself, who grows increasingly distanced from reality and is never even identified by his real name.

What goes on in the “Dear Sugar” column, by contrast, is almost embarrassingly sincere. The letters she receives are rarely mundane, this-way-or-that-way choices. They’re the stuff of life: Should I have a baby? Should I leave my partner? How can I deal with my anger? Why am I jealous of my friends? To each of these dilemmas, Sugar responds with a lengthy meditation—2,000 or 3,000 words—that often meanders through stories taken from her own life or from literature before dispensing her wisdom. She is a close reader: She shows the letter writers what their letters actually say, and what they don’t say. Her version of tough love, which includes a lot of morale-boosting and liberal sprinklings of endearments, preaches general honesty rather than adherence to certain standards of behavior. (“Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”) Her tone ranges from hip-older-sister-loving to governess-stern. “A terrible thing happened to you, honey bun, but you mustn’t let it define your life,” she tells a woman whose husband cheated on her.

Part of the reason for Sugar’s appeal—her posts are the most highly trafficked on The Rumpus, and thousands of people follow her on Facebook and Twitter—is certainly her writing style: charming, idiosyncratic, luminous, profane. “I can see your future okayness so clearly it’s like an apple sitting in my palm,” she writes to a woman calling herself “Adulterous Dope,” who still loves a man with whom she had an affair even though he has returned to his wife. She doesn’t judge people for the crimes they commit against each other, but she does think they ought to fess up. Her best lines have a quality of homespun aphorism:

It is the plight of almost every middle-aged monogamous married person at one time or another. We all love X but want to fuck Z.

Z is so gleaming, so crystalline, so unlikely to bitch at you for neglecting to take out the recycling. Nobody has to haggle with Z. Z doesn’t wear a watch. Z is like a motorcycle with no one on it. Beautiful. Going nowhere.

But Sugar’s appeal also has a lot to do with the particular way she has crafted her persona—a combination of the fake and the real that, since it could exist only on the Internet, is unique to our own era. Because her responses draw heavily on her own personal history, faithful readers know a lot about her. She is a writer in her early forties, married, with two children, a boy and a girl. Her childhood was difficult and poor. She had a brief and ill-thought-out first marriage at age 20, and afterward, she slept with 50 men and three women. Her mother died when she was in her early twenties. She used to do social work. She used to do heroin. She could be lying about any of these things, of course. But the moral vision of her column, which preaches honesty above all else, makes me think she isn’t.

AT ANY RATE, we’ll soon find out, because Sugar is planning imminently to out herself. When I heard the news—via her Facebook page, naturally—that she is going to publish a book based on her columns, and that the book will be published under her real name, well, to quote a favorite Sugar line, “every tuning fork inside me went hum.” Or, rather, they went hmm. I’m thrilled for Sugar: She deserves a book. But I wonder if her column can continue to maintain its aura of wisdom—especially in this age of the “hive mind”—if the woman behind the curtain is revealed.

It’s often been suggested—as Carmela Ciuraru does in Nom de Plume, her recent book about pseudonyms—that anonymity bestows upon an author something akin to a magical power, the ability to step aside of his or her usual self and channel another persona. But what’s less recognized is the added power that authorial anonymity has for the reader. As the byline on anything from a newspaper article to a novel, “Anonymous” swells in proportion to something far larger than an ordinary name. The experiences of the unknown “woman in Berlin,” whose diary of her brutal treatment at the hands of the city’s Soviet occupiers is so affecting, are especially poignant for their “everywoman” quality. At the other end of the spectrum, the tell-all campaign novel Primary Colors feels far more omniscient when written by the uncriticizable perspective of “Anonymous” than (as it turned out) by Joe Klein, a human being no more all-knowing than the rest of us. (The savviest publishers and editors, of course, have always used this to their advantage. Primary Colors is still technically identified as the work of Anonymous, even though Klein tells the story of its publication in a new afterword to the novel.) And, despite all the thoroughly specific life experiences she recounts in detail, Sugar’s anonymity means that she, too, can be everything to everyone: Her blankness is a perfect foil.

The advice column has traditionally been a pseudonymous venture. (Ann Landers was the all-American pen name of Eppie Lederer, a Jewish mother from Chicago; her sister, “Dear Abby,” was Pauline Phillips.) That’s because the advice-giver has to be something of an oracle, her readers’ conduit to an otherwise-inaccessible source of knowledge. Though we talk blithely about “the wisdom of crowds,” about transparency and open-sourcing and the unstoppable leakage of undigested and indigestible information, the fake has never been easier to fake. And yet, shining out amid the sea of fakeness, the real is just as real as always.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic.