Opinion, experience and expertise: readers as agony aunts


The bossy yet benevolent agony aunt has been a regular feature on our pages since the early 1930s. It’s been a long time since Leonora Eyles suggested to jilted readers of Woman’s Own

‘… have you tried to find out if there was anything in you that caused him to be unfaithful? Forgive him – but be honest with yourself and see if you were at all to blame.’  Woman’s Own, 27 Oct 1944

Perhaps not what you’d call good advice, but then what qualifies an agony aunt to answer readers’ questions? Could anyone do it? The Times, The Independent and The Guardian let their readers respond. Here’s how.

The Times

Image: FaceMePLS

In a feature called Too Male to Talk reticent men pose their dilemmas to (mostly) female readers.

Here’s one example:
My wife keeps going out for walks with her mobile phone. I am worried she might be embarking on an affair. What should I do?

‘I take my mobile phone with me every afternoon when I am walking the dog. I am listening to live horse racing commentaries… Perhaps she is a gambling addict.’

‘Has your wife changed her image recently? Begun losing weight? Cut or coloured her hair?… If the answer to these questions is “yes” then yup, your wife is embarking on an affair.’

‘The fact that you are even asking the question suggests that perhaps there is more to this than just your wife going out with her phone for a walk… You might want to think about getting some counselling so that you can examine your feelings. Think carefully before you react — once you’ve accused her the trust is broken.’

The three responses suggest wildly different approaches. While the third is reasonably objective, the second seems jaded by a personal sob story. This lack of direction makes the column initially confusing, but I think we do get a sense of which answer we should trust.

The Independent

In Quandry questions about schooling are answered by Hilary Wilce, an educational journalist and by readers. Here’s an example:

We are worried that our teenagers watch a lot of violent and vulgar TV programmes. Will it harm them? What’s the evidence?

Wilce: In debating the recent Jonathan Ross debacle with my children and their friends I was struck by how little they seemed to feel the cruelty of what he and Russell Brand had done… Then, chillingly, came new research from King’s College, London, showing today’s 14-year-olds seem less clever and less able to think deeply about new ideas than their predecessors, and may have a diminishing capacity for empathy. Researchers hypothesised that screen culture must be partly to blame.

Readers’ advice:

Looking at the lines of ecstatic faces in the crowd in Chicago when Barack Obama was elected, I realised how few uplifting and hopeful messages these young people have ever been given. Their faces showed they were hungry for something different.

People should have more faith in teenagers – we’re not so easily led astray.

Wilce’s expertise is validated by the research she points us to, though it’s still propped up by personal experience. And I would like to see the evidence supporting the claim that 14 year olds “seem less clever”. The first reader gives un-evidenced conjecture but the second, as a teenager, speaks from a slight position of authority. We glimpse UGC’s potential to be informative, but don’t see it fully realised.

The Guardian

Image: wolfiewolf

In the Money blog readers’ questions are answered in the comments boxes, with little editorial control. Here’s a particularly effective case:

I am a widow in my seventies, living on a small income and with £6,000 savings. Should I buy a funeral plan with the money, or invest it in some other way?

Don’t worry about that; spend the money and enjoy yourself

If you haven’t had to organise a funeral then you will not understand what a relief it is to have had decisions… made for you by the person who has died. My mother was killed in an accident coming back from visiting my father in hospital; he died two weeks later. They had chosen and paid for their funerals in advance … amid all the grief and trauma of their deaths not having to decide how much we should spend on things like coffins and cars… was such a relief.

We both sell these plans (rarely) and help with probate… I believe Funeral Plans will (soon) not be counted as assets for the assessment of Care Fees whereas savings will – so £3000 in a funeral plan is worth £3000 to the family, whereas £3000 in a deposit account could well be worth £3000 to the local council.

Here we have all shades of the rainbow. The first response is quickly ignored but the second – heartfelt, moving and relevant – is compelling. The third offers knowledge and insight and even comes with a disclaimer. And both trustworthy responses suggest the same course of action. Not all questions on the blog are answered this well, but this shows how good UGC can be.

Conclusions

The three camps of opinion, personal experience and expertise are incrementally both more desirable and harder to achieve. And we can assess UGC on how many of these it has. The worst respondent has only opinion (e.g. the second respondent in The Times and the first in The Guardian) and the best has all three (e.g. Hilary Wilce and the third respondent in The Guardian). Professional agony aunts should have all three.

Anyone contributing UGC has an opinion to share; some of those have personal experience; some of those are experts. Not all experts have personal experience.

What is perhaps surprising is how easy it is to separate the good advice from the bad.  We are able to quickly ascertain which of these characteristics the response has and judge it accordingly. The problem is, you never know which advice the questioner will take.

HARRIET BIRD

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