Before ever Joro Olumofin and his motley crew of assistants ever thought to put out that first Instagram post doling out advice to anonymous inquirers, John Dunton a British author and publisher wrestled with a very particular problem. He had been unfaithful to his spouse and had reneged on his marital vows and wanted to share his plight without revealing his identity. Publishing in the 17th century wasn’t religious or official and Dunton was already fairly wealthy from publishing and had the tools to create any book he so wished. After searching for a way to solve his very peculiar problem, he stumbled on publishing them anonymously. It was a rip-roaring success and led to the publishing of the very first issue of the Athenian Gazette in 1690, a collection of poetry, prose and essays, his little admission of guilt sneakily sandwiched between works of literature. Dunton was later forced to change to The Athenian Mercury to avoid the wrath of the government-owned London Gazette editors. Published twice weekly, The Mercury was full of questions ranging from sex to theology, science and whatever boggled the mind, answered by the mysterious Athenian society, which Dunton claimed had twelve members when in actual fact, it was just Dunton’s three friends – all male – attending to all inquiries. Realising that this predicament couldn’t be peculiar to him, and there was an especially vibrant market for women’s related issues, he created the world’s first agony aunt column in 1690 called The Lady’s Mercury.
Here’s the first advertisement Dunton took out soliciting questions for the first edition.
“All persons whatever may be resolved gratis in any Question that their own satisfaction or curiosity shall prompt ’em to, if they send their Questions by a Penny Post letter to Mr. Smith at his Coffee-house in Stocks Market in the Poultry, where orders are given for the reception of such Letters, and care shall be taken for their Resolution by the next Weekly Paper after their sending.”
It did not take long to catch fire. Dunton was swamped with so many entries, he had to hire writers, one of whom was the infamous Daniel Defoe. When 1704 rolled around, Defoe started his own problem page called The Review and by the 1740’s, a flurry of female advisers entered the game. Through the succeeding years, advice columns went from liberal to stodgy then racy.
While the agony aunt column as we know it today began in 1690, the general premise from which it draws its format is a fundamental human experience. We have always shared personal problems and sought advice and resolution from strangers, convinced that dissociation allows ‘learned’ strangers less bias when evaluating our problems and allows them offer solutions purely from a position of logic. Print merely added an extra layer of anonymity and dissociation, a confessional box if you will between the person sharing a problem and the person answering it. It is this dissociation that allowed the genre endure and flourish when others have fallen to obscurity.
Since the 1700’s, the agony aunt column has become one of literature’s most enduring genres, reinvented by each generation, mirroring its ideologies and answering its most pressing questions. When colonialism came to Nigeria and brought with it publishing, it simply fed into our culture of deference for the sagely opinion of elders and our obsession with the dramatic. Newspapers used to be the exclusive preserve of these columns, often tucked away into the arts and entertainment sections of these magazines, until the late 70’s and early 80’s when Wale Adenuga started his insanely popular Ikebe Super series, ushering a new generation of soft sell magazines. Ikebe Super was known for its lurid explorations of life in the 70’s and its preoccupation with the dynamics of heterosexual relationships, popularising the phrase ‘Ikebe’ as a slang for buttocks. It also popularised the practice of readers sending in questions to the editorial staff that were not formal or serious in nature. Wale Adenuga might have created a niche for readers who cared only for human interest stories that focused primarily on stories about love and relationships and heartbreak but it was a niche it could scarcely fill. Other soft sell magazines quickly rose up to fill the vacuums that Ikebe Super couldn’t, turning the soft sell magazine into a proper industry that at some point genuinely stood neck to neck with traditional newspapers.
The behemoths of that era were Hints and Hearts Magazine, both weekly human interest magazines that loosely borrowed from the variety of the popular Reader’s Digest franchise but focused entirely on the sensational and the fantastical. Serialised columns that followed the lives of fictional characters with outsize sex lives predated and foreshadowed our reality tv obsession and the men and women who anonymously ran the agony aunt columns of these magazines (for fear of reputation of these magazines tainting their otherwise stellar careers in fiction and journalism) became celebrities in their own rights. The celebrity Nigerian Agony Aunt was born.
Change is a constant phenomenon and as everything else in Nigeria adapted to an increasingly restrictive military government, so did agony Aunt columns. It seemed every Nigerian woman had a story to tell and the entertainment and lifestyle magazines of the time didn’t need much prodding before they seized such a golden opportunity to engage their readers with pieces of advice on love, relationships, sex, and so on – banking on the universality of those experiences and our innate nature to seek out experiences that confirm our biases.
These magazines like Genevieve, founded by the columnist and writer, Betty Irabor, and the South African franchise True Love West Africa edited by Bola Atta reformed the love/relationship story-telling industry, glossing it over with cutting edge printing techniques and glossy editorial photography, while also serving as moral instructors for interested readers. Both magazines were first movers in a wave of pan-African women oriented publishing, seeking to capitalise on the newly minted feminist leanings of millennial Nigerian women, suddenly upper middle-class thanks to democracy and ready to invest in a better, more sophisticated life.
Sex was the biggest category in the agony aunt columns in the earliest issues of Genevieve and True Love West Africa’s magazines. The subtopics were pretty comprehensive too: how to have great sex; how to light her fire. There were articles for problems women face in their workplaces, at home, and on the streets. Then there was the enumerated list of topics on which the writers regularly proffered advice. They portrayed themselves as empathetic, un-shockable and non-judgmental; as the almighty solution to whatever problems the reader was battling with.
The magazines of this era, especially Adesuwa Onyenokwe’s Today’s Woman made concerted efforts to ensure that the language of the magazine, presentation of the topics and response to readers remained as egalitarian and inoffensive as possible. Even when the questions tackled particularly unsavoury material, enough euphemism was used to sanitise the stories and appeal to teen demographics. The ultimate premise was this: people like reading about others’ misfortunes and the stories were well written to suit that form. For instance, the readers gravitate towards a story of how a lady met a guy who acts like a ritualist and how her paranoia forces her to evaluate the situation and how she finds her way out somehow – and the ‘moral lessons’ that emanate after, so they avoid such situations.
These stories are written in such a manner that the reader is put in a dilemma – should I believe or discard this? But, the reputation and wide coverage the magazines had, always made a choice for the reader: believe it, learn from it, tell others the story, start a conversation, be empathetic.
Basically, before the advent of social media (the Joro Olumofins and others) or earlier – search engines like Google, it was agony aunts who provided the much-needed answers. Boys, girls, sex, periods, masturbation. They provided safe spaces for the conversations we were too afraid – or too embarrassed – to have with our families and acquaintances. A quick glance at magazine pages provided answers to these burning questions.
But of course, once you got over the gloss of these magazines and the prestige of the publishers and writers, you became aware of the genre’s more pressing problems; urgency. Print publishing takes a lot of time, especially when the magazine in question is prestige publishing. It traditionally took about a month for each issue to be released and by the time advertising space and traditional columns were factored in, there was simply not enough space to answer even a minute fraction of the questions that came pouring in each week for the resident agony aunts at these magazines. That, coupled with the fact that far too many letters/requests went ignored was sure to grate on the readership, all of whom secretly aspired to one day see their questions splayed out on a glossy magazine page. In light of these gross failings, it wasn’t too much of a surprise that traditional prestige magazines suffered greatly in the wake of Nigeria’s internet revolution and the subsequent migration of readership from print to digital.
Readers have been taught, surprisingly quickly we might add, to expect instant gratification. A Google search takes about 9 seconds to load, some pages are even faster, replete with all the possible answers to any question. Not to mention that there was finally, a diversity of options to choose from, from therapists to licensed doctors to traditional faith healers to snake oil salesman, all competing for our attention and clicks. Any question we had to ask, we could get an answer to, we didn’t have to wait, have to be picked out of a slush pile, have to listen to someone disparage our choices. We could finally cherry pick, from a plethora of choices, the one that best aligned with our expectations. In this age of information overload, who would want advice from something as outdated as an agony aunt?
It took traditional publishing houses a while (Genevieve magazine only truly launched its digital magazine as a standalone in 2017) to get hip to the new movement and embrace digital. But by the time they started reluctantly opening their websites and taking their social media presences seriously, the battle for our attention was all but lost.
This in no way means that the agony aunts who got their big breaks on these platforms sank with the ship. Because of their unique position straddling several generational worlds, they were hip to the game and began the move to social media as at the same time their audiences were. Betty Irabor was one of the first magazine editors to run an active social media presence on all the relevant platforms, offering sagely advice as part of ‘Morning Dew’ her inspirational ‘agony aunt’ column by preempting potential questions and answering them. Others followed with varying levels of success. But a generational gap keeps them from truly owning this new space, and leaves room for a new generation to thrive.
The sub-genre it seems was made for social media, for several reasons. Anonymity is almost a given on many of these platforms, they are built to allow you create a different, more robust persona if you so wish. Social media’s urgency and ease of publishing encourages oversharing, the very lifeblood of advice columns. Social media also encourages a pseudo-relationship between users, a familiarity that can go on for years and can abruptly end with the click of a button. Combined with the psychology that goes into the creation of these websites, for an advice column junkie, a social media handle that dishes out agony aunt style updates can be the perfect drug.
New generation agony aunts see the potential in this, and are reluctant to return to the old ways. Why wait for a quarterly or a monthly magazine that censors your thoughts and restricts the amount of page space you get per issue when Twitter literally allows you make a thread of tweets that can attain instant virality and allow you reach millions in real time. Let’s not even talk about Facebook, that has no limitations to the number of words that can be typed in.
Just like her newspaper/magazine audience, the Agony Aunt has herself registered a presence on social media, so much so that the archetype is now near inescapable if you actively use any social media platform. If you actively use social media, you’re either the Agony Aunt’s helpless niece/nephew who is in need of urgent saving or you belong to her teeming audience who either offer genuine advice in the comment section or exist in that space as a troll.
As the world is increasingly shrinking in size and internet users are finding themselves digital safe spots, the Agony Aunt is also evolving to meet needs in that same space and this time, with a wider spectrum of offerings.
With nearly 70 million internet users in Nigeria and 0.68 and 5.38 percentages on Instagram and Twitter respectively, there is a new generation of Agony Aunts and they are dashing to the top of the social media influence ladder.
On Nigerian Instagram, the Agony Aunt industry is dominated by three major shakers who have over the years earned the trust of their audience and gained massive visibility across the platform. Most prominent among the younger Instagram folk is Joro Olumofin, a Bachelors and Masters degree holder in Psychology but self-proclaimed Love Doctor who started out providing psychological services to young singles but has now fully morphed into an Instagram influencer and businessman.
From his humble beginnings of dishing out unsolicited, largely unpopular and unforgivably cringeworthy dating advice in the realm of “10 places in Lagos you can meet a husband” to floating his own beard care product line and now to being the go-to page for small businesses to connect their market, Joro now boasts over 400 thousand dedicated followers and counting on his now verified account.
Joro Olumofin has now so fully grown into his own that his queries are now majorly being tended to by the audience. Frustrated, confused, lovelorn individuals who anonymously share their concerns with Dr Joro mostly have to take the advice they desperately seek from the far from honourable occupiers of the comment section who rather than solve issues are wont to complicate them.
Following not so closely behind Joro’s expertise is Break or Make Up, a community run by a faceless group who tout themselves as a safe haven for the insecure and the lost. Not only can you receive not-so-expert advice on this platform, you can also meet the love of your life for a fee. Break or Make Up’s modus operandi is a lot similar to Joro Olumofin’s as the queries also pertain to relationship troubles, marital issues and irregularities in the sexual lives of writers.
In the forefront of the Agony Aunt industry on Twitter Nigeria and among diasporans in the United Kingdom is Oloni. The feminine-centric blog also runs in the line of its Instagram counterparts by entertaining and detangling confusions about relationships and especially, sex. The no-holds-barred account is not a favourite among men, many of who assume it is a breeding ground for ‘hoes’.
The face behind the Oloni account takes her engagement to the next level with a street voxpop where she visits different parts of her base, London, asking her audience extremely personal questions about their sex life and whipping out otherwise private objects like condoms and sex toys in public. Oloni’s heady mix of self confidence, near expert level knowledge in matters of sex and intimacy and her willingness to engage with social media trolls and her wit has translated into a loyal fanbase with several high profile persons and even an interview on the BBC.
Modern day Agony Aunts have all the freedom in the world. There used to be an entire structure of editors, copy-editors and research assistants who instituted several layers of carefully vetted checks and balances between an agony aunt’s raw thoughts to the polished response that the readership eventually sees. The internet has democratised the process, an evolution that has proven far more disastrous than beneficial. Today you are more likely to discover that a famous Agony Aunt is just one young adult with an Instagram or Twitter account posting stories and dishing out advice to those who ask for them. Modern ones are at liberty to post whatever they deemed fit, without thoroughly filtering their content.
They easily push out hundreds of posts within days, as opposed to the conventional newspaper and magazine column which are published weekly or monthly. These ways, there is no one to serve as a gatekeeper and ensure that only appropriate posts are published. At such, most gullible readers and followers take whatever is posted hook, line and sinker. They do not bother to ask questions, as long as they continue getting these juicy stories about other people, whether negative or not.
They see the need to keep their audience engaged and resort to fabricating interesting stories just to stay relevant. It is not uncommon for many of the current famous agony accounts to face accusations of plagiarism and outright fabrication of the stories they share as sent to them. We dwell on these accusations momentarily, because it feeds into the entertainment cycle and returns our heads to our screens, waiting for our next fix. The few who have learnt to question ridiculous content, find themselves unfollowing these accounts, outdone by the blatant sensationalism.
Even though most believe everything they are served, there are still a few who ask questions and have learnt to sieve online content.