Ann Russell – a self-described “middle class English old bag” – spends her days as a self-employed cleaner, pausing to respond to TikTok comments awaiting her advice. Affectionately named “The TikTok Auntie” by commenters, Ann films hundreds of video clips every month, answering questions that range from laundry stains to dealing with grief.
I became aware of Ann when she responded to a video of a bedroom chaotically piled with rubbish (the owner was suffering from a long spell of depression). Ann offered encouragingly “Oh my lovely, you have got yourself in a little pickle there, haven’t you? […] Get a rubbish sack and put some of the rubbish in it. […] That’s all you have to do for now. That’s all.” I believed there was something virtuous about gently offering this advice to someone not seeking it. Although cleaning the bedroom wasn’t my problem, I watched the whole response.
Like a FaceTime call, Ann’s videos remain unedited and are filmed while she’s having a cup of tea or pottering about the house. Her maternal tone of voice guides commenters through just about every problem, drawing over 5.9 million likes and 274,300 followers.
Reactions to Ann’s account have been overwhelmingly positive: “You are a gift to the universe”, “This helped me so much on a day when I really needed it”, “Always beautiful, compassionate, wise advice”.
How Students are Engaging
Many questions are from students that have just moved away from home, leaving the security of a parental figure. Being thrown into university accommodation in a foreign city with 4 other 18-year-olds, midnight texts to my mum about laundry were a lifeline. But Ann helps those that don’t have the luxury of instant advice. She gives people the chance to explain their situation, where a quick google wouldn’t suffice.
Cleaning is Ann’s livelihood, so naturally, most comments relate to household advice (a recent user asked desperately “HOW ON EARTH DO YOU [GET] HAIRSPRAY OFF A MIRROR?!”). However, Ann has recently begun to answer more personal questions, now filming video clips about mental health and relationships.
This past year, students haven’t had the full university experience, a time usually characterised by socialising. When Ann shows her audience that she acknowledges their pain and engages with a video, it feels personal; it’s a moment of connection that so many have missed recently.
The Roots of “Agony Aunts”
The idea of an ‘agony aunt’, although it may have evolved in the digital age, has roots dating back to the late 17th century. In 1691, bookseller John Dunton invited the public to write questions on any subject to be answered in The Athenian Mercury. To receive their answers, they simply had to read it in the next week’s newspaper.
As with Ann’s comment sections, the birth of advice columns encouraged collaboration and input. Where people once formulated response letters in newspapers, tens of users now volunteer additional advice in the comments, reinforcing a kinship with the wider community of viewers. In response to “tips on getting back into exercise […] after a depressive episode”, commenters claimed to have also struggled with this and offered their own advice: “My first step was walking to the shop in the evening”, “I agree with this!”, “I find even going around the block helps”.
Pursuing advice publicly forms a connection between the asker and advice-giver, but also conjures support from other viewers through a sense of shared experiences. The advice-column genre has been characterised by a sense of community for over 400 years, which is only becoming easier with technology. The spirit of advice-seeking has remained the same over time, so we can hope that it continues to make a positive impact as the genre develops.
A lot of Ann’s advice, both household-related and beyond, has helped me and may help you too. When asked how she remains so positive she replied: “You’ve got 2 choices. You can either look at the things that are awful and feel like s*** every single day – worry about a future that you can’t change, or you can look at the things that you can change and the things that you can do and take every day at a time. It’s what I choose to do. A lot easier!”
You can check out Ann’s TikTok here.