“The Column Family”: Advice Communities and the Origins of Interactive Media

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM
Chicago Ballroom VII (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Julie A. Golia, Brooklyn Historical Society
In the early twentieth century, daily advice columns served multiple and influential roles in American newspaper readers’ lives.  Columnists disseminated counsel on topics from marriage and divorce to beauty and hygiene.  But they also provided new forums in which readers could talk back, shape debates, and even make friends in a virtual and anonymous forum made possible by the wide reach of the mass-circulation newspaper. In this paper, I argue that the advice column genre set structural and linguistic precedents for the new media communities that exist today on Internet blogs and discussion boards.  I analyze the topics discussed and rhetoric adopted by advice column participants; the virtual relationships they fostered; and changing definitions of “community” in an increasingly media-saturated world.

This paper profiles three advice columns during the 1920s and 1930s: the Detroit News “Experience” column, the Boston Globe’s “Confidential Chat,” and the Chicago News’s “Marion Holmes” feature.   During that period, these three columns transformed into self-styled in-print communities, in which columnists and reader-participants kept up regular correspondence for months, even years at a time.  These advice communities became unprecedented sites of public communication and confession, where strangers could seek solace and catharsis in the company of virtual, rather than in-person acquaintances.  The anonymity of these communities allowed participants to reflect candidly on their personal problems, and also on broader socio-cultural trends, from rising divorce rates to the merits and drawbacks of socialism.  In this sense, advice columns served as a new virtual public sphere well before Internet technology made possible the chat rooms and discussion boards of today.  By encouraging readers’ public confessions to strangers, advice columns also helped usher in a form of popular therapy that has come to define many people’s interactions with media in early twenty-first century.

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