The pitfalls of putting your personal problems online

Throwing open our website to allow comments to be posted under articles can, we hope, be an inclusive and enriching experience for readers, but it is not without its ethical dilemmas. What about those who write to the paper seeking advice from our “agony aunt”, Mariella Frostrup? Since last September, readers have had the ability to add their own thoughts, turning a single exchange in print into a multilayered debate online.

“Can someone please put their foot down and disable the ignorant comments that appear underneath your help and advice?” a reader asked recently. “I wrote to [Mariella Frostrup] last year, luckily before decided to enable their readers to comment on my problem. I can happily say that Mariella’s help and insight were invaluable to me. I can’t imagine what it’s like to read hundreds of under-qualified, sometimes rude and dogmatic responses underneath her well-thought-out advice. The worst is when the readers attack the person who has written to you with their problem. Should the person asking for help be forced, in their already vulnerable situation, to be confused further and possibly be made very upset by the comments underneath?

“I think anyone who writes to you is comfortable with the fact that their problem will be read by many a household on a Sunday, and possibly discussed over lunch, but to then have it published online and to hear all these readers’ ideas is another thing entirely.

“I’m so glad I wrote to you before the website made such a decision. I could be in a very different kind of dilemma now if I’d read 100 different opinions about me and my dilemma. I wrote to you, as I trust your advice. If I’d have wanted all and sundry to comment on my problems I would have posted my dilemma somewhere else on the net.”

A look at the comment threads under these columns shows that, for the most part, the Observer is blessed with thoughtful readers eager to offer constructive advice. But even the best moderated threads will contain criticism, some of it rude, with advice-seekers being called “pathetic” or “relentlessly self-centred” – not something a vulnerable person necessarily needs to hear.

I put all this to Mariella, who said: “First, it’s erroneous to suggest that a reader with a problem is writing to me in isolation; they know they are writing for a general readership. When I respond, I hope they take my opinion on board alongside a consensus from other people in their lives.

“I’m not an expert. I just hope, like anyone else, to bring my experience to bear on a person’s problem and to let some fresh air into the subject. At one level or another, it’s a role everyone can be involved in. I argued that we should open the column up to comments as I think to hear a cross-section of voices is quite helpful for someone struggling with a problem. Ever since I started the column, readers have wanted to pass on thoughts and comments, usually constructive; this seems an extension of that. That said, I think we are too focused on the online business, particularly when you consider that lots of our readers don’t choose to be computer-users.”

There are some interesting points here. If you go to a therapist, you don’t expect them to invite the entire waiting room in to give you the benefit of their opinion. We have opened vast areas of the paper for comment, but should all and sundry pick over the personal problems of others and swap thoughts on another person’s dilemma?

Part of the problem is that all this takes place under the cloak of anonymity. We don’t reveal the name of the advice-seeker and, by the nature of the net, posters online are pseudonymous. People can be freer in their opinions, but there is no way of judging their veracity or credibility.

Should already vulnerable people be exposed to rude and possibly misleading advice? You could argue that writing to a newspaper might not be the wisest course of action to take but nevertheless readers write with the reasonable expectation that their concerns will be handled sensitively. That is certainly the case in print, but online it can become altogether more abrasive.

We shouldn’t automatically assume that people know that anything in the paper also appears online, so in any response we should be warning would-be advice-seekers that their problem, if used, will be freely discussed in the blogosphere. They could at least then have the option to withdraw their problem before it is opened to the world to pass comment on.

This column was originally published in The Observer on May 2, 2010.

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