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."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called 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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