A 19-year-old student wanted some feedback on her relationship after constantly feeling hurt and offended by her boyfriend of two months. So the young woman, known only as Skemily, logged onto the relationship advice section of the social news site, Reddit, and anonymously asked strangers: “Is he aggressive or am I too sensitive?”
Within the month, she received 40 comments. Most advised her to leave her boyfriend, calling him “irrational” and “aggressive.” Only the odd person called her “too sensitive.”
This is not Ann Landers. Traditional advice columns are facing small, but growing competition from a number of websites and free apps that allow users to anonymously crowd source feedback on their romantic pursuits.
The relationship advice subsection of Reddit has been active for three years and averages over 200,000 unique visitors a month. A new app called Impressions was released earlier this month and already claims close to 3,000 users. And the website, HeTexted, reports having tens of thousands of users after launching just a little over two weeks ago.
One of the appeals of crowd-sourcing relationship advice is that it’s less filtered than an advice column, according to Audrey Melnik, CEO of WotWentWrong.com, the San Francisco-based website that created Impressions.
“Someone will send in their issues and the advice columnist will choose to respond only to a subset of those,” she says. “Where Impressions and WotWentWrong allows everyone to contribute and you get advice.”
After the launch of Melnik’s first app, Breakups, which helps people understand why an ex broke off a budding or full-fledged relationship, she says users wanted to interact with people in similar situations. So she created Impressions, an app that allows people to create a timeline that highlights events in their relationship like a first date or an engagement. Users can also conduct polls to get feedback on their dilemmas, like what kind of photo to post on their online dating profile.
Melnik says Impressions is a natural extension of other social networks, including Facebook and Twitter, where people already share the intimate details of their lives.
The benefit of Impressions is that users are anonymous. And remaining anonymous makes it easier for people to be honest.
“There are a lot of things we don’t feel comfortable talking about,” she says. “But if we shared it, we would be able to improve [ourselves].”
Still, some critics question how much self-improvement can actually result from the advice of strangers who in all likelihood are unqualified to be dishing out relationship advice. Yes, friends who we often confide in aren’t necessarily experts, but at least they know the particulars of the situation and, more importantly, know you, says Peg Streep, author of Tech Support, a blog on Psychology Today.com about relationships in the digital age.
Text messages are particularly prone to over over-analyzing. It can be difficult to decipher the meaning behind words without knowing the tone and seeing the person’s facial expression. That’s where HeTexted comes in. But what the website’s users are effectively asking, says Dr. Laurie Betito, a Montreal-based psychologist and sexologist, is for strangers to read the sender’s mind. “You can’t even read your own partner’s mind,” she says. “It just doesn’t work. And you often get it wrong.”
However, some posts don’t require a mind reader in order to extrapolate meaning: Someone posting under the name Kirianna, for example, shared a text she sent to her crush, Andy, on HeTexted.
“Hey! Just wanted to say I had fun,” Kirianna started.
Andy responded, “Hey… So can we act like the weekend didn’t happen?”
Still, she pressed further: “I don’t understand? But what about what you said when we came home??”
“We’re better as friends, and I basically don’t remember anything,” he replied.
Seems clear enough, which begs the question: Did Kirianna really needed 711 people to tell her that he’s not interested?
The sardonic appeal of posts like these is another selling point for apps and websites that anonymously crowd-source relationship advice, according to Psychology Today’s Streep.
Browsers may also derive a sense of superiority. “It’s like watching one of those horrible reality shows or stuff about hoarders,” says Streep. “It makes you feel so sane. It’s like, I may not have a boyfriend, but at least I have a job.”
Others may view crowd-sourcing relationship advice as a way to validate their own decisions rather than genuinely seeking advice. A 25-year-old female recently posted the details of a dispute she was having with her husband on Reddit and asked readers if it was a normal response. (You can read the full post here, although it may be disturbing for some readers).
Eighty-two comments later, she posted an update: “I like all of the joking comments, I really needed the humour.” “Of course I knew this was not normal behavior,” she added.
Melnik, the creator of the Impressions app, feels that regardless of the users intentions, crowd-sourcing relationship advice is the future of advice columns.
“I see WotWentWrong as being the web 2.0 version of things like Cosmopolitan [Magazine],” she says.
Psychology Today’s Streep doesn’t agree. “People read advice columns and they’re interested in them because they trust a voice,” she says. “It’s the same reason people get hooked on blogs: they like the blogger or they like the bloggers take on things.”
Skepticism aside, crowd sourcing may be yielding some positive results. A month after her initial post about “feeling hurt and offended” by her boyfriend, Skemily, took to Reddit and informed readers that she broke up with him. She credited random strangers on the site for her decision. “You gave me the push I needed to get rid of this manipulator.” she wrote.
Whether Skemily also talked it over with close friends or read a few pertinent advice columns is unclear.