The Internet aims at the heart
By Karen S. Peterson
Click on Breakup Girl on the Internet and get relationship advice from the irreverent Lynn Harris, a 30-year-old writer and comedian. She talks about how to end a romance: "why to, when to, where to, and what to wear" for the big occasion.
Or click on Peggy Vaughan's site on handling infidelity and get her new research on healing after affairs. The serious-minded advice-giver has a degree in psychology, a 44-year marriage and two books on staying together to her credit.
These are the two faces of relationship advice that are coming into focus in cyberspace. One, including Harris' www.breakupgirl.com, is fun and flip, geared to the unabashedly hip. Think of a young bartender dispensing common sense and comfort.
The other, including Vaughan's www.dearpeggy.com, is more sober-sided, based on research and professional chops. Think book chapters, professional articles, and lists of credentials and research.
As with Web sites on other topics, you can find the serious, the sublime and the downright silly when looking for help with people problems. But tension is building between the two camps of cyberadvisers.
Vaughan is a virtual crusader for expertise on the Internet. She is assembling a directory of reputable sites with the help of peers.
"The growing number of sites is so overwhelming," she says. "If those of us who are responsible and substantive don't band together, the public won't know there is anything out there but sleaze."
Others share her concern. Buyer be very wary, says Sherry Turkle, a professor of the sociology of scienceat Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. She says she worries that many of the bereft need to talk to an expert in person, not in cyberspace.
Turkle says the proliferation of Web sites "speaks to people's desperate need to have somebody to talk to about their problems." She has qualms about people who proclaim they are not experts but say "talk to me anyway, I'm smart." They "put themselves in the position of being experts . . . and that gives them a great deal of power, even though they have these disclaimers."
There are those who make an argument for welcoming both styles into the cascading number of Web sites. Both types are included in the Top 10 relationship sites listed by TopTenLinks, a California company that rates various categories of Web sites based on the opinions of visitors to www.toptenlinks.com.
TopTenLinks started listing relationship sites in response to suggestions and requests from visitors to its site, spokesman John Kelly says. There is, he says, "absolutely" room for both the experts' sites and those run by folks with few or no credentials. As long as the site is "on target," TopTenLinks will list those the visitors vote for, "regardless of the opinions of particular people/sites."
After all, who's to say whose advice is best? Even professionals with heavy-duty reputations "still fire off the cuff" on the Net, Baltimore psychologist Shirley Glass says. "They may have a good writing style, are articulate and funny. But they project their own personal experiences into their answers instead of using what has been found to be relationally sound."
Legions of Web surfers simply don't give a fig about listening to relationally sound experts. They want to talk to "real folks," peers who can dish out real-life advice.
Those include the ever-popular Lucy Lipps (real name Kristi Hoss) at www.LucyLipps.com. She is a self-proclaimed "cyber-babe" and advice-giver who offers site visitors a deal on a personally autographed copy of Playboy's issue with "women of the Internet."
Hoss, 28, a former beauty contest winner, says Lucy Lipps has had millions of hits a month. "I am 5-foot-9 and have big boobs and blond hair," she says. "I'm slightly over the top." Profiled in major media, she says she draws on "common sense and experience" to answer questions. "I am pretty logical, pretty grounded."
Like many others, Kimberly Williams (www.aalize.com) has a disclaimer on her site that she is not a professional counselor, but the in-your-face advice-giver says her visitors are not looking for Ph.D.s.
They want somebody who has been there, who was "born in the '60s," has had a broken heart and wants to know how to get her man back, Williams says. "They want to know, 'What did you do when you went through this?' They don't want somebody who spent six years just reading and studying about it."
Shona Williams (no relation), 24, of San Diego is a satisfied customer. "I think Aalize has the hottest relationship column on the Net." Aalize helped her deal with an ex-boyfriend, actually providing a phone number to talk. Her advice "may be more cruel to some people than others, but it is rightfully so. I know she will tell me the truth, no sugarcoats."
Breakupgirl.com was bought last month by Oxygen Media, a new multimedia venture backed by savvy talents including Oprah Winfrey. Harris will be Oxygen's in-house expert on cable TV and is writing a book for Little, Brown due in February.
Not to worry that she isn't a psychologist, Harris says. She has a psychotherapist on call to handle the really tough stuff. "I've been writing for 10 years now on relationships, and I do my homework. . . . I read about what researchers are doing to help people get along."
Andy Jorgensen, 33, of New York City is a fan of her site. "Of all the pundits, she is probably the hippest, the one most in touch with young people. It is easier to address people's problems if you can relate to them yourself."
No wonder the pool of relationship advice in cyberspace is muddy. Separating the gold from the dreck is a problem for any category of information on the Net, says Bill McCarthy of Boardwatch magazine, which is for and about Net service providers. "This is the way it will be from now on. We will never reach some kind of global concession about free speech or what proper content is. It is buyer beware."
Maybe so, others say, but there is an abundance of free, solid information on the credentialed sites.
Couples looking for advice on strengthening marriages can find extensive lists of courses, books and articles at www.smartmarriages.com. It is maintained by Diane Sollee, director of the non-profit Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. "Experts are willing to put up entire chapters of their books on the Web," she says. Of course, it is a lure to buy them, "but it is really good, free information."
When she is not writing books - she is author of the landmark The Monogamy Myth - Peggy Vaughan works full time on her Web site. In addition to a great deal of information, she offers separate message boards for those who have had affairs and those who are victims of them.
That cuts down on the insults. "People whose spouses have had affairs will say horrendous things about them" on her Web site, she says. "Somebody will post that they had an affair, and somebody else will answer, ripping them apart."
She will immediately delete an insulting post. "I will not tolerate it." She tries to get people to "talk rationally. If they don't, I feel I am just feeding their problem instead of addressing it."
Other experts run things from a greater distance. Michele Weiner-Davis, a respected family therapist, says visitors who post at her www.divorcebusting.com, which is also listed on TopTenLinks, seem willing to keep each other in line on her message board, with only occasional guidance from her.
Many visitors have read her books and Web site information about her "solution-oriented" couples therapy, and they suggest solutions to one another in their postings.
"Essentially, this puts the self back in self-help," Weiner-Davis says. "These people are really helping each other. They have become a community."
The variety of people who post - and who check up on each other if somebody misses a few days - "has been totally amazing to me," Weiner-Davis says. "The kinds of folks range from scientists, the really sophisticated, to those who can barely spell or write. And there are a lot of people internationally."
More qualified experts on the human psyche are needed in cyberspace, Vaughan says. The future of relationship advice is the e-world: "It's a matter of when are you going to get with it.
"We are now where we were in the infancy of TV in the '50s. The Internet is changing the very world we live in. That is why the sites are so important to monitor. We cannot afford not to."