There are more than 64 million Google results for the question, “What should I do?” Unfortunately for those asking, whether the problem comes down to career, love, family or plain old personal angst, that’s one of the few queries a search engine can’t really answer.
Now more than ever, though, there are other options–namely, advice experts. What was once an art form largely confined to syndicated newspaper columns is now a thriving industry, spanning not only written Q&As, but also live chats, apps, videos and audio. On iTunes, for example, there are hundreds of podcast episodes with titles like “Being Around My Parents Is Awkward” and “How to Handle Rejection From Women.” And that’s just the tip of the adviceberg. Columnists too have become a reliable traffic draw on the sites that host them, with their work frequently topping “most read” story lists. And veteran writers–such as Judith Martin (Miss Manners) and Emily Yoffe (Dear Prudence)–are now joined by celebrities (Molly Ringwald just wrapped up a year as the Guardian’s “agony aunt”). Some are also moving to new mediums (Cheryl Strayed now co-hosts a Dear Sugar podcast), and new writers have been drawn to the visibility of the genre.
We have entered a new golden age of advice.
It would be easy to credit the Internet alone for this shifting tide. It’s simpler than ever to ask for advice–no walks to the mailbox required–so there are naturally more people trying to give it. And social media is full of social hazard, creating a whole new realm of etiquette and ethics.
But there are deeper psychological and social factors at play. At its core, says the writer Allison Wright, who’s working on a book on this topic, “advice is always about assimilation”–about trying to find the best way to accomplish something within the confines of your society. For decades, this meant following a set of clearly articulated mores, championed by the likes of Dorothy Dix and Emily Post. At their best, they were guidelines that enforced kindness; at their worst, they were ways to preserve an exclusive social hierarchy.
Today, however, there just aren’t as many rules. In a country as diverse as America, where social norms are constantly being challenged and redefined, there’s no one right way for a given type of person–employee, friend, parent or partner–to act. (Unless it’s a question of whether you should write a thank-you note. The correct answer is always “yes.”) This is overwhelmingly a good thing; it means we’re embracing our differences, instead of snuffing them out.
It also means that people need more help to chart their courses. When Dan Savage started “Savage Love” in 1991, he frequently received queries that, today, a quick online search would resolve. Nowadays, he says, it’s all situational ethics: “Every letter is in gray areas. And a minefield. A gray minefield.” The Washington Post’s Carolyn Hax agrees. “Since there are no footsteps painted on the floor for me to dance to,” she says people want to know, “How do I work this out?”
Of course, many of the new gurus offering to help may well be hacks doling out bad or misinformed advice for the sake of personal gain. But those types usually don’t last long, says Savage. After all, a genre that relies on constant questions comes with a built-in defense mechanism: if readers don’t like or trust what they hear, they can–and do–move on.
Historians of the future, looking to these exchanges for answers, will see the mistakes we made. We had misguided text conversations and overzealous weddings, and we allowed social media to warp our perception of reality. But they’ll also see that we wanted satisfaction, whatever that meant. We wanted to be ourselves. And that sometimes, to figure things out, we needed to ask for help–from those we knew and loved, and from the people we called “Dear.”
This appears in the November 02, 2015 issue of TIME.