"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 31 July 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Take My Advice - Please!



In 1987, when still-frisky sob

sister Ann Landers developed a

sudden penchant for greener

pencils after 33 years of

faithful scribbling for the

Chicago Sun-Times, the cuckolded

periodical tried to hide its

hurt in the sadly forced mania

of a publicity stunt: a

nationwide, anyone-can-enter

search for a successor. 12,000

novice know-it-alls spewed their

spryest exhortations in pursuit

of the vacancy the traitorous

Landers left in her wake; the

newly insecure Sun-Times,

perhaps imagining future

desertions, chose two entrants

to replace her. One was an

attorney, the other a



Having squandered their shot at a

life of high-paid, compassionate

voyeurism, the 11,998 runner-ups

had to content themselves with

the same old amateur hectoring

of fucked-up family members that

had always sustained them.


Until the web came along, that




Now, anyone with a modem and an

appetite for woe and squalor can

stick a "Dear" in front of his

or her name and solicit stories

from desperate, mixed-up

strangers. In a way, this

democratization of the advice

industry is fitting - the advice

column was initially a

democratizing element itself,

giving turn-of-the-century

citizens one of their first

opportunities to interact with

the newspapers and magazines

that were increasingly defining

the scope of their lives.

Ultimately, however, advice

columns helped usher in the age

of the specialist.



It was the decline of another

sort of specialist - the

clergyman - that first created

the intimacy vacuum which proved

so beneficial to a new breed of

secular advisors. And Dorothy

Dix, who pretty much invented

the genre one hundred years ago

in the New Orleans Picayune,

became such a popular, trusted

confidante over her 55-year

career that she ultimately

earned the title of "Mother

Confessor to Millions."



While the majority of the world's

headshrinkers probably say a

short prayer to the Viennese

cokehead every night for their

ability to charge emotional

bulimics $150 an hour to puke up

their problems, it's Dorothy and

her ilk who truly deserve the

credit for this phenomenon.

After all, they were the ones

who initially popularized the

concept of airing one's dirty

laundry to strangers. (And,

indeed, some crypto-historians

go so far as to cite "Dix envy"

as the catalyzing force behind

Freud's Oedipal theories; to

discount the kind of plain

common sense she practiced, he

dressed up a handful of tawdry,

AOL chatroom-style fantasies in

the mumbo jumbo of science and

established himself as the real



Alas, history has mostly

dismissed the contributions of

the nation's pioneer

platitude-pushers. Pick a dozen

newspapers at random, and you're

likely to find advice columns of

some form in all of them. But pick

a dozen histories of journalism,

and it's a different story;

their collective indices will

most likely lack a single

"advice column" entry. And yet,

how many other journalists can

claim the 90 million readers

that Ann Landers attracts every

day? And where else but in her

collected works can you find

such an intimate record of the

last half of the 20th century?

Years before Hunter S. Thompson

ever shoehorned himself into a

story, or Phil Donahue ever

shoehorned his ass into a dress,

Landers was giving journalism a

personal voice.



Despite her lack of scholarly

acclaim, Landers at least has

the solace of wealth. Of course,

the millions she's earned by

giving her two cents to

strangers are nothing compared

to the millions she's earned for

her publishers. If anyone's

poised to capitalize on the new

economies of distribution the

web purportedly offers, it's

Landers. Why should she let her

bosses reap the real money when

a column a day at

www.annlanders.com would

undoubtedly draw millions of

viewers and cost almost nothing

to maintain? For over 40 years,

Landers has subsidized the

obtuse op-ed hacks and blowhard

muckrakers who do make it into

those journalism histories - but

now it could be payback time. So

far, however, Landers has shown

no interest in pursuing this

course; her columns are

available online only under the

auspices of her publisher.


Landers's failure to see how the

web could fatten her mattress is

indicative of the general myopia

the advice industry has suffered

regarding the many new

opportunities the online world

presents. Where, for example, is

the advice version of LeadStory,

a site that aggregates the best

columns from around the world

each day? Or the site that

offers advertising targeted to

the day's featured problem?

Think of all the vulturous

divorce lawyers who'd love to

drape their ad banners across

the top of Ann's page every time

she ran a question about

two-timing spouses.



When these techniques and others

are put into practice, and

online advice actually becomes

profitable, the already-crowded

field may begin to resemble a

Tokyo subway train at rush hour.

While we undoubtedly live in a

golden age of a whiny neediness

and self-entitlement, one has to

wonder: how many advice

columnists can the world

actually keep busy?


Luckily, the web is blessed with

the same dynamic that has always

made technology and capitalism

such mutually satisfied

bedfellows: it creates at least

as many problems as it solves.

In addition to making it

extremely easy for people to

create their own advice columns,

the web also functions as an

all-purpose misery machine,

taking the two great ethers that

have always fueled the advice

industry - money and love - and

transforming them into a whole

new set of problems.



At the moment, infidelity is the

web's primary contribution to

the world's sorrows. Thanks to

online chat, at this very moment

a previously inert-if-not-happy

husband in Orlando is

discovering that, despite the

misleading evidence of his wife

and two children, his true love

is in fact a divorced

genealogist living in Seattle;

the miseries arising from this

sort of virtual crotch-surfing

will keep Landers and her

acolytes busy forevermore. And

that's just the start of the

anguish the web can foster.

There's also the latest product

of the twelve-step industry,

"Internet addiction." And with

all the financial sucker-bait

currently available, and the

virtual malls, and the tools

that promise to make us even

more effective shoppers, money

woes are plentiful, too.


Far from courting obsolescence,

the new crop of digital Dear

Abbys are at the wheel of a

rapidly accelerating money

train. Given the web's

promiscuous consumerism and

rampant prurience, advice can't

help but be the next great

growth market, the literal

byproduct of the medium's first

two - ads and vice.



If the prospect of a million Anns

and Abbys serving forth their

plucky bromides each day makes

you repurpose breakfast, console

yourself with this thought: the

relatively benign combination of

newspapers and advice produced a

novella as gloriously bleak as

Nathaniel West's Miss

Lonelyhearts. Now that the much

more cancerous web has replaced

newspapers as the catalyzing

agent in this equation of

despair, imagine the bitter

masterpiece that is yet brewing

in some young misanthrope's


courtesy of St. Huck