TODAY'S advice columnists, having inherited a form best-suited to a simpler time (breakfast tables, quiet mornings, the rustle of the newspaper), are now heeding their own oft-repeated counsel and refusing to let themselves be defined by their past.
Indeed, as more advice columns take root online, the limits that bedeviled the "agony aunts" of the last century can seem like a major hindrance. Not only did all reader-writer correspondence travel at the speed of snail-mail, but in the old columns, tight word limits meant heavy pruning of letter writers' queries and inflexible brevity in the columnists' responses.
In print, an advice columnist usually has about 800 words to answer three different letters. That means each letter and each response will be about as long as this column is so far.
In Cary Tennis' "Since You Asked" column on Salon.com, however, it's not unusual for readers to spend 1,000 words explaining the nuances of their concern, or for Tennis to respond at the same comfortable length.
But for Tennis, the way the Internet has truly redefined advice writing is by changing it from a simple two-way exchange to a sprawling many-way conversation. In a typical "Since You Asked," dozens of readers grapple over how best to advise the letter writer -- and whether Tennis' answer was any good.
"There are people writing in that are much smarter than me," he said. "A lot of the readers are really well informed," adding that rather than presenting himself as an expert, he prefers to play the part of "just one more friend sharing an opinion."
"It's that open-source concept. People come in and improve on my initial response."
Although that may sound like a lot of other noisy echo chambers around the Web, open-source wisdom does have an advantage. In debates on politics and sports, most readers are sounding off on subjects they have little experience with. But everyone has lived a little.
In a recent letter to "Since You Asked," a troubled but intelligent 18-year-old woman wrote that soon after she had signed military recruitment papers, she'd changed her mind. How could she get out if this jam before they shipped her to boot camp? Tennis responded that she shouldn't worry -- from what he could gather, it looked like she wouldn't have to go if she didn't want to.
The discussion that followed generated 75 replies including suggestions ("pretend you're gay"), reassurance ("It was a lot easier to get out of it than I ever imagined"), criticism ("Making a commitment and then bailing out when reality hits doesn't help a kid grow up") and diagnoses ("Your letter screams bipolar disorder to me").
Emily Yoffe, author of "Dear Prudence," one of Slate's most popular features, agreed that quick critical feedback from readers, many of whom are experts in their own right, is key.
"I post something and I immediately hear if I've made a legal or medical goof," she said.
"Almost every question I take that has to do with a workplace issue, I will hear from lawyers," said Yoffe. The responses point out legal nuances she may have missed, including where the letter writer has grounds for a lawsuit (though Yoffe is careful to note that in some situations, suing the other party may not be the ideal solution).
Slate has also taken "Dear Prudence" into the world of video. The newly launched Slate V site features "Prudie" video clips in which the letter writers' situation -- in one case, a cubicle mate who eats messily and listens to loud music -- is animated and set to sound and appended with a jauntily edited response from the comely Yoffe.
Rather than tapping into the Net's potential for free and unlimited debate, these bite-size clips are aimed at the other end of the attention span.
Several independent advice-givers have recently hung a shingle at YouTube. Josh Shipp, 26, a youth-empowerment speaker, has produced nearly 30 short advice videos for his website, at heyjosh.tv -- several of which are now posted on YouTube.
Shipp picks topics that run the seriousness gamut. Last week he talked to a young man who had lost his legs in a drunk-driving accident; the week before he showed guys how to make mushroom pizza for their girlfriends. Shipp, who makes sure his videos are "ADD-friendly," said he decided to start the series last year when he saw a gap in the online advice world. "No one else is out there giving advice to teens in a way they can relate to," he said.
Another of YouTube's resident counselors is "Dr. Gilda" Carle, the author of several books on dating and relationships as well as a dating column on MSN.com. Carle said her eyes opened to the possibilities of YouTube only after her 29-year-old assistant suggested she post some of her "GildaVision" clips there. Unlike "Prudie" and Hey Josh, each five-minute "GildaVision" episode consists of one long, wide-angle shot of Carle sitting in her office and is therefore not ADD-friendly. However, if you can stick it out, the advice is quite sound.
With 20,000 help videos, VideoJug takes an assembly line approach to advice: Get enough experts to talk on enough different topics ("Can I trim my neighbor's tree?" "Who can help me with international adoption?" "How can I become a film critic?"), and all you have to do when you have a problem is type it into the search bar.
Which is fine -- some questions deserve more sophisticated answers than others, and the vibrant kettle of advice options the Internet is brewing has something to offer seemingly everyone.
We've come a long way from the days of mailing letters to a stern but sweet old lady in Chicago and hoping against hope for a reply.