How Reddit's Ask Me Anything became part of the mainstream media circuit

Rob Walker

By Rob Walker

Rachel Maddow’s debatable performance in a recent Ask Me Anything turn on Reddit—many users thought she evaded the harder topics—raises an interesting question: Given that AMA is now such an established form, how could someone so media-savvy leave herself open to that particular critique?

But wait a minute—that actually raises a bigger question: How did AMAs become such an established form in the first place?

As Reddit itself recently noted, more than 4,000 AMAs on the site have attracted 100 comments or more—and they’ve been with a variety of famous figures from entertainment, business, sports and politics up to and including the president of the United States.

A famously user-driven site that bills itself as “the front page of the Internet,” Reddit has updated and extended the freewheeling ethos of the earlier Internet’s bulletin boards and chat rooms: Its users submit links, discuss a dizzying array of subjects, and rate each others’ contributions on the theory that the best material floats to the top.

It also offers broad discussion threads devoted to an individual answering questions from all comers, and while this is not a recent novelty—Know Your Meme says that AOL had an Ask Me Anything forum back in the 1990s, for instance—the Reddit version has evolved into a far more mainstream feature of the contemporary mediascape.

Reddit General Manager Erik Martin filled me in on some key points in the history of how that happened. When Reddit, founded in 2005, first introduced “subreddits” (sections, basically), one was dubbed “Ask Reddit.” Later, the “I Am A” subreddit emerged, but it was more about a particular type of person—a transsexual, a survivalist, a resident of Oslo, etc.—offering to answer questions.

Martin suggested that, in an indirect way, Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr and other tech companies, could be considered the first famous person to answer the Reddit crowd’s questions: Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, preparing to interview her at a conference five years ago, gathered material by soliciting Reddit users, passing the most popular queries on to Fake.

A more formal version of that process took shape a year or so later. It was the result of a concerted effort on Reddit’s part to get famous folks to agree to be Asked Anything.

“We used to have to basically book people,” Martin said of that time. To make the process feel more familiar to those they’d booked—who for the most part were more used to interviews than to chat rooms and the like—Reddit often gathered questions from its users and arranged to send a video crew to record these celebrity types answering the top submissions.

The first big-name participant: Adam Savage, of Mythbusters, in April 2009. Other early participants included Christopher Hitchens, Mike Rowe (of "Dirty Jobs") and Dennis Kucinich.

Before long the site was able to persuade “ask-ees” to interact directly with users online. By late 2009, the big names didn’t need to be invited; they came to Reddit—or to—and launched Ask Me Anything events without bothering to go through the site’s managers.

Martin pointed to Steve Vai, the guitarist, as a pioneer: “That’s the first one I remember that was really random,” he said, meaning that Vai’s AMA simply popped up without advance notice. (Instead of announcing himself, Vai adopted the more old-school “I am a…” approach; users deduced his identity.)

The site pursued President Barack Obama for years, and it was a measure of the form’s acceptance that the White House finally decided to do it. In the throes of the 2012 campaign, I Am Barack Obama, President of the United States — AMA appeared. 

These days, Martin said, at least half the famous-name AMAs come about as the result of a celebrity himself or herself (well, their PR crews) approaching the site.

And while the “Ask Me” forums migrated to their own areas on Reddit, that process is coming full circle, with AMAs so popular in some circles that well-known figures in particular communities (fantasy fiction, college football, etc.) launch their sessions in those threads to up the odds of participation.

The Maddow incident suggests that even now some go better than others. But Martin said it’s hard to offer hard and fast rules about what will or won’t work. Snoop Dogg seemed to answer every query—but often in sentence fragments. Newark, N.J., mayor Cory Booker answered selectively—but in considered detail. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in lieu of typing responses, preferred to use a stylus, iPad and camera.

“On the one hand, there are no rules,” Martin concluded. “But our main advice is: ‘Only do this if you want to, if it will be fun. This shouldn’t feel like a chore.’”