Agony aunt columns used to be a comforting presence in newspapers and magazines, whether it was finding consolation that someone else was having the exact relationship quandary as you or smirking at the endless letters from teenage girls in Mizz magazine about the possibilities of getting pregnant in ever more bizarre circumstances.
Now most of us seem happy to put every aspect of our lives online — but only the most fabulous moments. Is everyone living such perfect lives that no one needs a helping hand?
Of course not, and Instagram is not just the best place to find out what should be in your breakfast smoothie, it’s also where life coaches and gurus are doling out their best tips.
“The motherhood and sisterhood are huge on Instagram,” says Clemmie Hooper, 31, from Crystal Palace, whose account Mother of Daughters has more than 31,000 followers. “Women need to be lifted up and supported. With Instagram you can access this support in the palm of your hand at times when it can seem really lonely, like when you’re up in the middle of the night feeding.”
Hooper set up her blog Gas & Air almost six years ago while she was on maternity leave after having her second daughter. A midwife, she began sharing her tips and experiences online and it snowballed into an engaged community of followers. Now her Instagram account is filled with pictures of her expanding family — there are now five-month-old twin girls, her husband Simon is part of the brand (@father_of_daughters) and her first book is due out in early 2017.
She is wary of staying within the boundaries of her professional capabilities, sticking to the advice she would give out in her day job on pain relief choices and birthing techniques: “I have to be very careful not to cross the line. People see me quite openly as a midwife on social media and think they can ask me anything but I can’t be an agony aunt for everything. It’s sometimes really sad that someone thinks they can email a stranger but not see a medical professional.”
In a world where we are all familiar with Mumsnet, publicly asking for advice about breastfeeding and temper tantrums seems fairly run-of-the-mill but what about more delicate matters of the heart?
Hayley Quinn, 29 from Shoreditch, is a dating guru, writer and speaker who specialises in advice on love and relationships and has more than 70,000 YouTube subscribers and two podcasts called AttractionHQ and LoveHQ.
She finds younger followers in their teens and twenties are more comfortable openly asking for advice, while her older clients prefer email, but as it becomes more usual for people to live further away from friends and family and often alone, Quinn believes it’s natural for people to seek a digital community.
“You’re not alone if you can Google your innermost thoughts and find a forum on it. I also praise those on social media who don’t put up a consistently glossy image... you need to speak publicly like you would do to your best friend. That way people feel safe, they feel connected to you, and you can inspire them towards something greater.”
Then there are the accounts that give you a career boost. If you’re after a promotion or salary negotiation, turn to The Step Up Club.
It was founded a year ago by journalist Alice Olins and former corporate lawyer and banker turned executive career coach Phanella Mayall-Fine. Both 36 and based in north London, they wanted to create conversation which celebrated women’s careers and to offer women advice, support and inspiration.
Their first book will be published in September but until then they are posting about self-confidence, balancing work and family life, what to wear on your first day in a new job and the importance of taking breaks.
They think it’s important to show personality — “we want people to know we aren’t infallible, that we suffer the same crises of confidence, highs, lows and doubts, as everyone else” — but say their followers are more interested in advice than cute selfies.
“When we analyse our data, what comes back again and again is that our followers engage most passionately, and in the greatest numbers, when we provide simple, helpful career tips.”
Anonymous letters with pun-filled pseudonyms used to be a way to ask for help without embarrassment or consequence but now we’d rather have the immediacy of chatting to specialist agony aunts on our phones, and enjoying input from a community of other invested followers. In the sharing economy it’s not just our homes, taxis and dinner tables we’re willing to open up to strangers but our deepest darkest secrets as well.
Follow Rachael Sigee on Twitter: @littlewondering