Buried somewhere under Web 2.0’s endless “personal branding” astroturf, under the rubble of busted dot-com shell companies, and under the dense bedrock of pornography, there lies net utopianism. But all is not lost. If McLuhan were around today and needed new grounds for optimistic futurism, here’s where to point him: reddit’s AMAs (‘Ask Me Anything’). Think of it as a set of crowd-sourced interviews, enabled by a website that functions as the smarter, younger sibling of the “web forum.”
AMAs aren’t replacements for the sustained dialogue of one-on-one interviews. But reddit’s system does two things very well: it provides a completely new, generally-more-entertaining variety of celebrity interview. And it creates audiences for remarkable stories and experiences that would never otherwise find a public forum.
It works like this: reddit displays a long list of posts. The site attaches an upvote/downvote button to every post, and to every comment on those posts. Assisted by a large and dedicated user-base, this voting mechanism floats preferred material to the top reddit’s content list.
The surprising thing—surprising to anyone familiar with the atrocity known as YouTube’s comments section—is that, time and again, ”preferred material”’ amongst AMAs translates into a conscientious and provocative set of questions. Accompanied, of course, by a share of absurdity.
Equally surprising is the roster of AMA participants. The thousands-strong archive ranges from politicians (Rep. Weiner’s AMA was conducted a few months before his woebegone publicity storm) to comedians (Fred Armisen discussed his pre-SNL/Portlandia days) to scientists (Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a repeat interviewee.
No reddit staff members typically solicit interviews; recruiting interviewees is a six-degrees-of-separation exercise in getting the word out. And once established personalities show up, reddit’s AMA format tends to maximize the dramatic potential of their interaction with the great online morass. For example:
This is the type of friction you’d typically have to be lucky and devoted to witness, dropping in on just the right public Q&A. But the AMA structure makes them commonplace and accessible: trivial but revealing moments that say something poignant about a particular personality. And, in the case of interviews with cultural figures, isn’t that really the ideal result? It’s honest as artistic insight gets.
That said, an easily-overlooked character at work in these exchanges is the reddit community itself. The AMA dynamics are hinged on its composition: the fact that reasonable material (as judged by a mostly-sober redditor) is the majority of what’s upvoted and consequently seen.
Partly, it’s because of fragmentation. Reddit is designed to harness niche communities—AMA is one section amongst thousands in the reddit directory—and that niche mindset tends to bleed over into the general etiquette. It helps that most of those communities come with a built-in underdog ethos that’s naturally bolstered by the sense of online refuge.
The site’s minimalist aesthetic taps into that identity; so does the always-growing catalogue of reddit lingo and in-jokes. The administrators generally remain transparent and non-interfering, letting users build their own group identity.
That group identification keeps irrelevant and offensive AMA material mostly banished from public view. This is particularly evident when looking through the second type of AMAs: anonymous people describing remarkable circumstances. (Moderators publicly verify users’ claims without revealing identities.) Top-rated examples include service sector workers making Fight Club-esque disclosures (like Chuck E. Cheese employees), and people whose parents are astronauts.
But they also include people surviving traumatic life events. The community sensibly self-regulates these AMAs’ comments and create productive, interesting discussions. Plus, it generates novel public interaction in the same key as celebrity AMAs tend to do. For example: a 22-year-old with Treacher Collins Syndrome having his portrait spontaneously painted by the artist responsible for Conan O’Brien’s recent campaign-tour posters.
Another display of those collectivist instincts are the variety of record-setting philanthropic and activist campaigns that gained momentum through reddit. The most recent are the SOPA protests, and an $80 000-plus donation made to a Kenyan orphanage. There are hundreds of examples of charitable activity—dozens in the same league of valuation, or greater—stretching back over the site’s history, like the $200 000-plus raised for DonorsChoose.org in September 2010, or the $130 000 raised for Doctors Without Borders via firstgiving.com in December 2011. For donors who prefer their charity localized and edible, there’s a subreddit entitled “Random Acts of Pizza,” which is pretty much what it sounds like in the tagline: “Restoring Faith in Humanity, One Slice at A Time.”
This is what makes AMAs such a spectacle: they tend to reverse the default savagery of web anonymity. The celebrities and the endless supply of absurd anecdotes are a good draw, but the phenomenon of a reasonably-functional online community might be reddit’s most remarkable sight. Nowhere is its impact more apparent than in these dialogues, where the potential for abuse is so ripe and yet the outcome so consistently and against-all-odds humane.