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Internet advice about internet advice

Jun. 5, 2018
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I was always excited to be a big sister when I was growing up. I was always technically a big sister, from the time I was just over one year old and my little sister was born. But I was always waiting for when Big Sister became a verb, for the moment when I would be able to enact my Older Sister power.

I learned through movies and TV shows and books that Big Sisters were the Wise Ones. A younger sibling, especially a younger sister, should want advice, criticism, and approval from the Big Sister. And I had waited a long time for the moment to come when I would get to give any of those things to my younger sister. I thought that maybe because we were so close in age and were going through the same experiences at the same time, we were confiding in each other instead of me giving her advice. But then I went to college. I graduated and went to New York City for school, something that was crazy and scary and I thought would make me wise enough to be able to give advice. But still, she never sought out my advice, my opinion, my approval. She was steady and confident in everything she did, while I was scared and unsure but wanted to help. Now, she’s going off to college in the fall, far away, and she still doesn’t want to hear any of the things I have to tell her about it. And I couldn’t figure out why. 

Basically everyone gets nervous if they decide to go off to college, especially far away. Change is scary, and the human brain has a hard time dealing with it—it isn’t the way we’re wired. Even people that like change still feel scared about it sometimes. So why did my Big Sister moment never come? Why didn’t she ever ask for advice? And this isn’t just an isolated situation. She’s never asked for advice. I am a model Big Sister; I have great advice to give about boys and moving out and periods and skin care. So why didn’t she want any of my knowledge?

Like any good post-millenial, I blame the internet. 

To answer the question of why I never got to be a Big Sister, I thought about my experiences with boys and moving out and periods and skin care. I was certainly a wealth of knowledge on these subjects, but I never had an older sister, so where did I get all of my knowledge? The answer to that is Tumblr. 

I got on Tumblr when I was around 11 or 12, and Tumblr was full of information that I had never heard of before, things an older sister might not have even been able to teach me. There was information about acid exfoliators versus physical ones, the anatomically accurate answer to whether or not your cherry pops when you lose your virginity (spoiler: it doesn’t), how a partner should treat you, and the most comforting color palette with which to decorate a room. I spent hours pouring over Tumblr on a hand-me-down laptop that whirred loudly when it got too hot. I learned what feminism was, what anxiety was. I learned about relationships and independence. I had my own little community of fake big sisters who had a wealth of factually accurate, well-articulated advice, so I didn’t need anything else. If I had a big sister, I wouldn’t have asked her opinion at all. 

When I talked to my sister about where she got her advice, she was nonplussed. She said the usual things—her friends, our mom. When I asked her specifically about advice and the internet, she spoke about it like it was typical. “Well yeah,” she said. “Of course I use the internet for stuff like that.”

I’ve talked to a fair amount of young people about this topic of whether or not they use the internet for advice, and as you would probably guess, the overwhelming majority of them do get advice from the internet. My initial instinct was optimistic; when I default to thinking about the way I received advice from the internet, I consider it a good thing. But the more people I’ve talked to and the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to think that maybe this isn’t the best thing after all. 

The phrase “don’t believe everything you read online” is tired and cliche at this point. We have all heard it a million times, but with redundancy, the edge of truth has been dulled. When we turn to the internet with a question we want advice on, we don’t often look for the best, most in-depth answer to our question, we often just take the first answer that comes along. I remember when I was knee-deep in my internet advice phase, I was trying to decide whether or not I should attend a private school I was considering. A lot of the advice I was getting from the internet was generic—most of it said to go to the private school. In black-and-white internet thought, a private school sounds better than a public one. But the people in my life were giving me different advice, telling me to stay in the school I was already in. The humans in my life could see everything behind the question that the internet could not. I don’t know what would have happened if I had just taken the internet advice, but I took the human advice and it ended up being a good decision for me.

The internet is a great place with a lot of good advice, but it can’t replace people. It is a good place to find facts, to find information, but those things need human interpretation before we can apply them to our real lives. While human advice can be flawed and biased, it takes into account that special x-factor that makes us human. We can think about the person we’re giving advice to, keep in mind their background and experiences and personality. The internet is great, but it can only do so much. 

There’s also a human connection that’s lost when we turn internally and Google away our problems. It much easier to google the symptoms of an STI you think you might have than ask one of your friends, but it will always be a funnier story when you ask your friend and it turns out to just be normal cycle symptoms. That moment is a memory, something to laugh about and something that brings people closer. Googling is easier, but sometimes asking is better. 

If my sister were to ask me about things in her life, it would be a bonding experience. The few times she has have brought us closer, but usually the internet gets in the way. 

To be clear: none of this is to say the the internet is bad or toxic or that we should never get advice from it again. Tumblr and internet advice will always hold a weirdly-shaped, special place in my heart; to be dramatic, it helped mold me into the person I am today. But it also worried me, because I took everything I read seriously. I was too young and too naive to be able to critically think about the content I was rapidly absorbing. I took most things I read and was told as fact, and while some of it turned out to be great and factual advice, some of it was complete and utter BS. The internet is sometimes an excellent place, but it needs to be looked at with a critical eye. Think about the things you read, really try to digest and reflect and use what you learn in tandem with what’s best for you. Be critical, and don’t be afraid to disagree. Take that old saying to heart: don’t believe everything you read on the internet. You can even start with this.