AMA: How a Weird Internet Thing Became a Mainstream Delight

Reddit's question-and-answer format imports the aspirational norms of honesty and authenticity from pseudonymous Internet forums into mainstream interviews.
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President Obama during his AMA (Reddit).

Barack Obama, Jerry Seinfeld, a line cook at Applebee's, and a guy with two penises walk into a bar. 

Actually, no, they would never do that. No venue could bring these people together. 

And yet, each of these people has stood before the IamA subcommunity on the social network Reddit, and typed those immortal letters, "AMA."

Ask. Me. Anything. 

In fact, hundreds of people have offered themselves up to be interrogated via Reddit's crowdsourced question-and-answer sessions. They open a new thread on the social network and say, for example, "IamA nanny for a super-rich family in China AMA!"

Or "I have climbed the Seven Summits (tallest peaks on all seven continents), skied to the North and South Poles, and am on the part-time faculty at West Point. Ask Me Anything."

Or "IAm Siri, award-winning porn star, 2013 Top Writer on Quora, and swinger. AMA!"

Or "IAmA Congressman Darrell Issa, Internet defender and techie. Ask away!"

Then, the assembled Redditors ask whatever they want. Questions are voted up and down, and generally speaking, the most popular ones get answered. These interviews can last for as little as an hour or go on for several days. 

Politicians tend to play things pretty straight, but the regular people and niche celebrities tend to open up in fascinating ways. 

Over the last several years, the IamA subreddit has gone from interesting curiosity to a juggernaut of a media brand. Its syntax and abbreviations have invaded the public consciousness like Wired's aged Wired/Tired/Expired rubric. It's a common Twitter joke now to say, "I [did something commonplace], ask me anything." 

There's a reason for that. AMAs generate some of the most compelling stories on the web, or in any medium. There's a whole cottage content industry that merely repackages the answers from AMAs.

Something about the site—the venue, the community, something—licenses people to say and do things that they otherwise wouldn't.

Erik Martin, Reddit's general manager, likes to say of the AMAs that "there are no rules." But that is, itself, a way of trying to release people from behaving as they normally would. The space is, at least by declaration, a social-convention-free zone, and many of the question-answerers try to follow along, albeit less comfortably than the pseudonymous or anonymous. 

In a world where every man on the street is so goddamn media savvy, each interview feels transgressive. The electricity is generated, I would contend, from the strange, murky recesses of the Internet where AMAs began.

The genius of the AMA: It imports the aspirational norms of honesty and authenticity from pseudonymous Internet forums into a public venue with 2.5 million subscribers.

 

The AMA as Genuinely New Media

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the popularity of the AMA is that it did not really exist before the modern (post-2000) Internet. Most social media forms find their roots in stuff people have long been doing. Word-of-mouth information sharing was the rule long before the industrialization of news production in the 19th and 20th centuries. Journalist Tom Standage dedicated an entire book to this premise, Writing on The Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years.

But there aren't clear corollaries for the AMA in previous media or social culture. This is a new media form for our PR-managed, ultra-spun times. 

"Real-time Q&A [was] rather difficult before telegraph/radio/internet," Standage told me on Twitter. Though there were Q&A communities like Théophraste Renaudot's in 17th-century Paris, they didn't have the structure of one person standing before an audience and answering questions. 

Print and broadcast media never hit on the AMA format either. Sure, there were gameshows like I've Got A Secret, which invited on people with wacky stories, or What's My Line? But these shows were fundamentally about the TV celebrities guessing and not about the people who were invited onto the show. 

Radio call-in shows mirror some aspects of the AMA, but WNYC is not in the habit of inviting cooks at Applebee's on the show to pseudonymously answer questions about their line of work. 

Perhaps the closest broadcast media format, in spirit at least, are the "crazy job" shows pioneered by San Franciscan Mike Rowe with Dirty Jobs. Now you can find Alaskan truckers, Alaskan pilots, animal jobs, modern cowboys, fishermen, and gold miners

Magazines and small-town newspapers most certainly contain stories with characters like the people who show up in AMAs. But these profiles are fundamentally about the narrative, and the thicker the layer of writerly mediation, the more celebrated the writing. It may be, as a friend of mine put it, that "magazines are about connecting people to other people," but being the conduit is the way journalists and writers make their names. 

In the AMA, there is no journalist, no writer, no personal brand. No one makes a living asking questions of AMA participants. There's nothing to lose. 

There is Reddit, writ-large, and the moderators, but the form of mediation is communal, quantitative, and amateur, not subjective and professional. 

 

The Genealogy of the AMA

So how did we get to this point in the medium? What is the genealogy of the AMA?

Here's how I would lay it out, knowing that the evolution of something like this will always be more complex than the stories we tell about it.

In 1992, a book debuted called Ask Me Anything: A Sex Therapist Answers the Most Important Questions for the 90's. KnowYourMeme says there was a mid-'90s AOL chatroom called, "Ask Me Anything" in the romance category. (Though it had disappeared by 1999, when the Internet Archive began capturing data on aol.com.)

Slashdot began doing crowdsourced interviews in the summer of 1999. Their first five were an open-source licensing advocate, a cartoonist, Internet lobbyiststhe hacker kid from MTV's Road Rules, and the Linux legend Alan Cox. By the end of the year, Slashdot had codified their general rules. Users could submit as many questions as they wanted, but only one question per post. Moderators picked their 10 favorite questions and shipped them off to the interviewee. 

That same year, two sites launched with very different audiences: UrbanBaby, a New Yorky mothers' venue, and SomethingAwful, a humor publication with a young, male audience. Both hosted forums that welcomed all kinds of confessional postings. They were raucous and funny and anonymous enough. The anonymity, in the immortal words of Emily Nussbaum in her feature on UrbanBaby, "acts like a combination of a truth serum and a very strong cocktail."

And scholar Sarita Schoenebeck found commonalities between the mothers on YouBeMom and young men on forums like SomethingAwful: "One hypothesis is that it offers a social outlet for violating norms and expectations that moms face in other parts of their lives—in other words, they do it for the 'lulz'."

Users of MetaFilter might remember similar types of behavior, but the site's founder, Matt Haughey, told me the site never tried to organize it. "We didn't really have anything formal," he said, "just that sometimes a famous person appeared in a thread and would answer followups."

Current teens might think of Tumblr's Ask Me function or Ask.fm, which serves a similar purpose. 

And indeed, as tech journalist Clive Thompson put it to me, "I suspect [the behavior] emerges any place people of relatively disparate backgrounds converse with each other."

Which is to say: the ask-me-anything confessional mode has very broad appeal, even outside Reddit's core young, male user base. 

But it was on Something Awful's Ask/Tell forums that the immediate precursor to Reddit's AMA coalesced. The forum was inaugurated in June 2005, but the behavior goes further back. 

As the SAciclopedia, a fount of user-generated knowledge about SomethingAwful, maintains, the Ask/Tell forums were created mostly to get people asking dumb questions out of the rest of SomethingAwful. But it was also a place to stick someone who "wanted to show off his skills with a certain subject or yap about his profession to no end.

There, the format had popped from the chrysalis and is sitting on the branch drying its wings. The audience was limited—most posts got a couple thousand views and at most a few dozen replies. And the interviewees were less celebrated (and interesting, generally speaking). There were lots of pizza delivery guys and fast-food workers with stories to tell. 

And yet, people were groping toward a potent kind of profile. Check out these options from just the first six months of the forums:

Ask Me About In-n-Out Burger

I worked in a max security juvenile prison for 7 years. I have stories...

Ask Me About Working for Hooters

Ask Me About Having Severe Hemophilia 

Being an archaeologist/Working at the Museum of Natural History (NYC)

Ask me about the soda fountain industry!

Ask me about working in a crematorium.

The last in that list, from December 2005, is like the AMAs we have come to know and love. The answerer has a weird job that people assume has fascinating and creepy details that people don't talk about. And it's true! Did you know the ashes in urns are not ashes at all but pulverized bones? 

"The remains in the bucket are not 'ashes'. They are dried out pieces of bone, sometimes the odd staple from various surgeries, an occasional steel knee joint, etc. etc.," Frank Fencepost writes. "These remains are then pulverized (after being scanned with a big handheld magnet to remove any metal) into a powder which mourners refer to as 'ashes', but which really are just pulverized bone."

Jesus.

By late 2006, a SomethingAwful user could summarize the situation like this:

At times it turns into an "I'm smarter than you" circle jerk worse than D&D due to its inability or poor attempts to reference any of its claims to facts. Anecdotes are common and encouraged, though they can cloud the useful information hidden inside. There are the rare occasions when a real "expert" in a subject opens an Ask thread that can be extremely useful and enlightening.

One of the most entertaining and insightful forums on SA.

And, by number of posts anyway, that was the year that the Ask/Tell forum peaked. Back then, there were 580 pages of posts. By 2013, there were only 13, though they were much more heavily trafficked, on average, with some threads drawing six-digit views. 

One reason for the decline might be that a small but growing site called Reddit was about to become the preeminent place for "real 'expert'" AMAs that were extremely useful and enlightening.

 

Reddit's Special Sauce

Take these sites — Slashdot, UrbanBaby, SomethingAwful, AOL chat rooms — and the old radio call-in shows and maybe even reality TV and you get the Reddit AMA.

All these specific ideas — taboo topics, anonymity, niche tech celebrity, crowdsourced questions, moderation — have come together to make these interviews what they are. 

The AMA on Reddit was slow to develop. Rob Walker glossed much of the history in a post last year. The first involved Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and later Reddit GM Erik Martin doing video or on-stage interviews with questions from their community. 

The first, as Ohanian recalls, was with Caterina Fake, then of Flickr. Her interviewer was Jessica Livingston, but the questions were from askcaterina.reddit.com.

In the waning years of the last decade, Reddit went after politicians and niche celebrities, many of whom had no idea what Reddit was. "There were some days when I was sending out 20 emails and getting one response," Reddit's Martin said. "We'd call up press secretaries on the hill and most of them would say, 'I have no idea what you're talking about, fuck off.'"

The big interviewees back then, Ohanian said would be someone like Adam Savage of Mythbusters. That kind of interview would appear on the Reddit blog and spark interest in the more general Q&A format. 

By May of 2009, the AMA crowd had gotten large enough that a new subreddit dedicated purely to the form was created, /IamA.

A key innovation in the Reddit-style AMA is that they require proof that an interviewee is who he or she says they are. That solved a problem that cropped up on the SomethingAwful Ask/Tell forum: on many topics, one would be more than happy to hear from a real expert (say an ER doc) and horribly pissed to hear from a fake expert (say someone who has watched E.R.).

By late 2010, when Stephen Colbert did an AMA, the celebrities and politicians were coming to them. Now, the Reddit AMA is as regular a promotional stop as a turn on morning TV or an hour on Fresh Air

Of course, the biggest moment for Reddit was when President Obama stopped by during his re-election campaign, a moment that crashed the company's servers. 

But it was also that President Obama moment that gave me pause. I wrote a pretty rough critique of the appearance and the excitement surrounding it. 

"Do you get to bathe in the warm glow of charisma, fame, and power? Sure. Did President Obama give a single answer that he wouldn't to a standard media outlet? I don't think so," I wrote. "In the 10 answers Obama gave, there was not a single one that'd be interesting to Redditors if it had appeared somewhere else." 

AMAs could be fun or profound, but they were a terrible way of wringing the truth from the powerful. 

But I've come to reconsider this critique. 

Mostly because at least in the AMA, there is a good-faith expectation of candor. In most media interviews these days, literally no one expects a CEO or politician to be straight with the interviewer. It is, in fact, a sign of savvy and skill to know how to not answer questions. They actively train on how to not tell the media anything we actually want to know. 

With an AMA, there is nothing but the culture to shape the responses that people give. But isn't that true of press conferences and other sorts of interviews? 

And the very point of AMAs is to get into someone's head or go behind closed doors, to see the backstage.

AMAs among common folk focus on dishing on what sex, disease, or jobs are really like. The celebrity versions borrow the same idea, but they serve up inside information on celebrity itself (generally speaking) or politics itself. 

The AMA is supposed to expose the mechanism. The AMA is about exposing the "inside conversations." The AMA is like the crowdsourced version of those moments when Kevin Spacey turns to the camera in House of Cards and breaks things down

And I think most politicians and celebrities would very much like to be Kevin Spacey in those moments. Which is powerful.

 

An Honest Question Gets an Honest Answer

Back to the two-penised guy.

You'd expect that particular Q&A to devolve into the worst kind of terribleness. I mean, it's a guy with two penises answering questions on the Internet! What could go wrong? Everything, that's what.

And yet, as if to prove that the point of the AMA is that human empathy exists, the interview was fascinating and humane, mind-expanding, and homophobia deflating (he's bisexual). It was just remarkable all around. 

"In every good AMA, there's always one of those good moments that's a conversation between two people that gets spread to a wider audience," Reddit's Erik Martin told me. "I've seen similar events on Twitter/Facebook, but those moments get lost and don't get seen by as many people or don't have that person-to-person feel."

And it's that feeling of connection, down there in the stewed mess of sexual perversion, pseudonymity, lulz, doges, cats, and weirdness, that has always made the Internet feel most alive. There's a person on the other end of the line, and they are a human like me. 

That it is messy and strange, hard for outsiders to decipher, and possibly taboo: Those are the ante to find genuine feeling on an Internet filled with social media gurus and SEO ninjas. 

But once you're at the table, you can watch one of life genuine's pleasures: when an honest question gets an honest answer.

Q: Medical professional here with some questions. Have you had urological studies done to see how your urethra drains into both penises and if you have any other duplication of internal organs(like your prostate)? Did they offer any sort of explanation as to the embryological cause of it?

A: had one issue in my teens. the Y intersection where my urethra splits into two had some tension issues and was ballooning until the pressure was enough to force the urine up and out. So they did some minor surgery and used catheters to stretch and open up the Y some. no problems since. one prostate, but it's bigger than average and it produces more seminal fluid than most, so at least once a week or so it has to be squeezed when i orgasm to release all the fluid. as for the how? i don't know all the details, they told my mom that it could have been a lot worse and that i was rarer than boys who were on record. my mom refused a lot of tests and studies. she didn't want me feeling like a freak growing up and told me i was special since i had two and everyone else had one. ;)

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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