Why We All Need to Stop Asking for Advice Online
Entrusting important life decisions to strangers is a terrible idea
Do you ever feel like quitting the internet? I know, I love it here too, but there are times when I want to power it down and be done with it. Often, those times are part of a perpetual cycle of the same dynamics. Someone posts a broad question, then waits for the magic answer fairy to show up and solve all of their problems. I’m sure you can guess what happens next.
On a regular basis, so many of us turn to random strangers on the internet to figure out important life choices. This is a bad idea.
There’s a time and a place for asking for advice. People spend their lives investing in education and becoming experts in their livelihood. They spend years doing research and gathering facts and information. They seek out people with similar ideals and values to build their own communities. Yet, on a regular basis, so many of us turn to random strangers on social media to figure out important life choices. This is a bad idea.
To begin with, unless you are doing something horrifically wrong, like locking your children in a cage, you’re mostly going to end up with a bell curve of answers. There will be a few extremist outliers, insisting on a good beatdown or a gentle no-fault healing drum circle. Then there will be the other 90%, who fall somewhere in between.
When you ask how to handle your kid who didn’t pick up their room, what do you have that you didn’t have before asking? Probably some annoyance. Maybe hopelessness at finding options that will work. Definitely a whole lot more information than you ever needed about what goes on in other people’s minds and homes.
You’re just wasting everyone’s time, including your own.
Questions about parenting advice are problematic partly because there’s rarely enough information given to provide a useful answer. The asker usually doesn’t provide enough background about their parenting philosophy, things they’ve already tried, hard limits, etc. This results in answers all over the map, half of which are absolutely useless. Basically, you’re wasting everyone’s time, including your own.
Asking other people, even other parents, about what they do is kind of like asking an OBGYN about heart surgery or an earache. They may peripherally have some idea what they’re talking about. They may have even done a rotation in that department at some point. But they don’t spend every day looking inside of ears or hearts.
At the very least you should narrow things down. Instead of posting in a local moms group with 8,000 members, find a more specific group, whether it’s Unconventional Parenting, Single Parenting, Foster Parenting or something else.
Better places to find parenting advice: Your own parents, or other parents you know and admire. Your child’s pediatrician. A favorite teacher your child has. Published books backed by scientific data. Mr. Rogers.
Would you go to a plumber to ask for advice about which teaching certificate is the best? Not likely. If you’re looking for an objective opinion on whether your cover letter is appealing or your resume is going to get a second look, it doesn’t make sense to ask someone who has never written one. Someone who hasn’t had a job in 10 years isn’t the best source for the latest information on the local job market.
A plethora of advice is available on sites like Indeed, Linked In, Monster, and through state, local, and nonprofit organizations designed around helping unemployed folks find work. They have information and instruction on how to increase your chances of getting an interview, having a successful interview, or writing a successful cover letter.
Looking for an objective opinion on whether your cover letter is appealing or your resume is going to get a second look? Don’t ask someone who has never written one.
If you can’t stop yourself from asking for advice through social media, remember that you are allowed to ask for people’s qualifications, and you should. Asking a bunch of stay-at-home-moms about what to wear to a job interview is about as useful as asking a bunch of childless 19 years olds working at McDonalds what to do about your baby’s weird cough. Sure, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but all opinions are not equal.
Better places to find professional advice: A boss you admired. Industry-specific societies and associations (eg the AAP, SHRM, NEA etc). Your college professors. Someone in a career you are interested in. Friends who work in HR/Recruiting/Management. Employment placement agencies. Websites like Forbes and Business Insider. Agencies like WorkSource and the US Department of Labor’s career website.
Asking for relationship advice on the internet is like throwing your body into a pool of sharks after you’ve already been bleeding. You’re liable to be ripped limb from limb. The first thing you’re going to face is a whole lot of judgement.
You did what? Why would you do that? No wonder he’s mad at you! Did you consider her feelings? On and on and on. Some people will fall heavily on your side and vilify your partner, when you’re looking for constructive steps. Some will paint you as the bad guy, making a snap judgement that your partner is the reasonable one.
People online are like springs, always coiled, tense, and ready to pop.
Either way, online forums are full of springs, always coiled, tense, and ready to pop. The level of vitriol, extremism, and black and white thinking applied to posts asking for simple advice or commiseration is… intense to say the least. Your partner looked at porn once? Must have an addiction! You texted an opposite sex friend? You must be a cheater! People are eager and willing to jump to the worst conclusion they can about one or both of you.
How people do relationships, marriage, and friendship varies wildly along a huge spectrum. Your romantic relationships are important, and deserve to be treated with respect and care. Asking thousands of strangers for their wild guesses about what might not be going on in your partner’s mind is an exercise in futility, and likely to leave you more frustrated than you were to start.
Better places to find relationship advice: People you actually know who have demonstrated successful, healthy relationships. Your couples counselor. Experts with evidence-based suggestions, like the Gottman Institute. Someone in your community you trust, like a Pastor. Someone who understands your challenges, for example, someone in my local Polyamory community.
Asking for medical advice from strangers is one of the worst ideas I can imagine. It reminds me of those old Peanuts cartoons where Lucy would set up her therapy booth. Would you take medical advice from someone under 10 years old? Me either!
If you’re wondering about the safety of a particular medicine during pregnancy, for instance, the best place to turn is to either your physician or the drug information. You could also ask a pharmacist. Asking a bunch of people online for second opinions when they have literally zero expertise is misguided. It’s not going to help you make a decision, and it’s likely going to give you that same frustrating bell-curve you saw when you asked for parenting advice.
Your body and your health deserve better.
Relying on what the “majority of people” in a random sampling on Facebook or Reddit do is irresponsible and nonsensical. Your body and your health deserve better. Find a doctor you trust, and listen to them. If you don’t trust your doctor’s word, or think they’re not telling you the truth, it’s time to find a new doctor!
Do your own research, and don’t treat all websites equally. There’s a huge difference between reading information about the safety of medication on the CDC or FDA website and reading it on a website someone posted in crunchy parenting forum that promotes or sells natural health products has an anti-vaccine/anti-western medicine bias. A lot of those websites are really good at making the things they’re saying look legit, but when you dig a little bit deeper, they are fake/propaganda/untrustworthy.
Better places to find health advice: Your doctor. Other people you know who have experience directly with the same issue/condition. Books on the specific issue/condition backed by scientific research. Associations, groups, and charities like the American Cancer Society, IIH UK, or the American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association. The CDC or National Institutes of Health.
Advice About What’s “Normal”
The main reason people are posting looking for advice on all of these topics is because they are afraid that what they are doing is not normal or okay. Western culture does not value instinct as a valid reason to do something, which is a shame. We have our instincts for a reason, and nobody knows your situation better than you do.
Most of the time, you’re going to go with your gut anyway. Once a group gets bigger than a few dozen people, the opinions will be split. In the end, you’re going to end up making your own decisions, likely based on what your intuition was already telling you to do. You do not need validation from strangers about what is best for you or your family.
It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is weird, unusual, or atypical.
Beyond all of that, I have bad news: there’s actually no such thing as normal. There is no normal number of times to have sex, or normal age to stop being nude in front of your kids, or normal number of kids to have. Nothing anybody else does in their home matters, it only matters that your needs, your partners needs, your families needs, are being met. It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is weird, unusual, atypical. If it’s working for you, it’s working! Let your heart and your gut guide you.
Better places to find advice on what’s normal: Don’t. None of it is good.
What is the Internet Good For?
The internet is not a good place to seek advice, but that doesn’t make it worthless. It also has its strong suits.
Instead of asking for advice, turn to actual experts. Become a Google ninja, and learn how to use keywords to find the information you want. Instead of asking for people’s opinions, gather facts then make your own opinion. Learn how to identify good and bad sources, and what propaganda looks like. Take things with a grain of salt and if something seems off, look into it further. We are so lucky to have so much information at our fingertips. Why not use it?
Social media may not be a great place for advice, but it is a good place for recommendations. If you’re looking for a new doctor, asking for specific examples and information on why people did or didn’t have a good experience somewhere is super useful. It can also lead to new discoveries for resources you’d have never found on your own.
For Community and Commiseration
There is definite value in having a place to vent, share, and feel less alone. Sharing frustrating experiences can help you move past them, and gushing about good ones and helping others have them as well feels great. It’s also a great place to find niche communities when you have interests that aren’t widely shared in the are you live in.
The bottom line is that crowd-sourcing major life decisions to a bunch of strangers may work out from time to time, but it’s generally a recipe for one of two things: complete disaster, or a 50/50 mix of the exact opposite opinions. You’re not likely to get out of it feeling much better or more decisive from when you started, so why not expend the energy doing something else?
Don’t miss a thing! Sign up for my weekly newsletter here.