On Wednesday, Chris Anderson, the ex-EIC of Wired, went on Reddit and told users to ask him anything. On Monday, it was Carl Zimmer, the science journalist. Last Wednesday, four people did it within a few hours of one another—the co-founders of a new tablet magazine of comics journalism called Symbolia, Slate advice columnist Emily Yoffe, and The New York Times’s David Leonhardt.
Usually, journalists are keen to ask questions, not answer them. But in recent months, they’ve been a little bit obsessed with the subreddit IAmA—one of many, many pages dedicated to specific topics on the sprawling online community Reddit—where anyone can field questions about “something uncommon that plays a central role in your life.” The threads on IAmA are also referred to as AMAs—Ask Me Anything. A wide range of people take up this challenge: In the past week, they’ve included a UFO investigator, a 21-year-old riding solo across the country on a motorcycle, a professional wrestling promoter, a tow-truck driver, a realtor selling run-down houses in Detroit, and Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings.
But it’s almost always possible to find a journalist hanging out there, too. In one recent two-week period, the page hosted a TV photojournalist who “shot news daily in a top 25 market,” the manager of investigative journalism at Al Jazeera, the network’s Congo correspondent, a veteran conflict photographer, a Mother Jones editor, and a Wired contributing editor. In the past year, the long list of journalists who’ve given IAmA a whirl includes the AP staff photographer who was covering Beijing during the Tiananmen riots, Gawker’s Adrian Chen, Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein, Slate’s Matt Yglesias, David Haglund, Vice co-founder Shane Smith, Mother Jones bureau chief David Corn, BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow, food writer Michael Pollan, and This American Life’s Ira Glass.
Journalists have grown increasingly fascinated with Reddit as they’ve realized it can be both a powerful source both for stories and for Web traffic. Reddit is notoriously critical of straight-up self-promotion, though: Posting your own links to the site is so frowned upon that earlier this year the site banned URLs from The Atlantic, BusinessWeek, and a few other publications that had been submitting too many of their own stories. But the IAmA boards are something of an exception to this rule. Often, the journalists who show up here want to talk about a particular story or project. And unlike the anonymous tow-truck drivers and realtors, many journalists advertise themselves by name, the same way the politicians and celebrities that occasionally show up on IAmA do.
“It’s a very challenging community to get used to, but it’s one of the most rewarding places to have conversations in the longer term,” says Kate Gardiner, a writer and digital strategy consultant, who helped set up one of the first journalist IAmAs, for PBS NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan, back in December 2010. It was a little bit of an experiment: The show’s website was getting a notable amount of traffic from Reddit, and it seemed like a good idea to try to talk to the audience there. Gardiner set up another one about a year later, for a reporter at Al Jazeera, who’d just gone on a road trip through Texas. “Since then, it’s gotten crazy popular,” she says. “I’ve noticed that it has less of an impact than it used to, but it’s a good piece of social strategy for news organizations.”
To set up one of these conversations, a journalist should do what anyone else does—message the IAmA moderators. They don’t have particularly strict requirements; they need proof that you are who you say you are and the date and time you’d like to jump on. “We do like posts from journalists a lot because they have had a lot of interesting experiences to talk about,” moderator karmanaut wrote in a message, “and they are very good at communicating with an audience.”
Zimmer, who (as of next week) blogs at National Geographic and writes regularly for The New York Times, had been reading IAmAs for awhile and been thinking he’d like to try it at some point. He chose this week, he said, because he had just published two fun stories that he was already fielding questions about—one on zombie animals controlled by parasites and another on viruses that invaded our DNA.
“Reddit has somehow figured out how to make these conversations really work,” he says. “As somebody who has blogged for quite a while, I know that’s not easy. I don’t know what their secret sauce is, but they know how to make it interesting.”
Zimmer started fielding questions at 3 p.m. He took a break for dinner at 7 p.m. and returned at 8:30 for another hour and a half. There were a few questions about zombies—“Are they possible or not?” and “What zombie/infection apocalypse movies are the most realistic?”—but of the topics he suggested, tapeworms (Zimmer’s written a book on parasites) were the most popular. He fielded questions about science writing and reporting, the size of human brains, how to argue with creationists, crowdsourcing the human microbiome, his career, and science tattoos.
“I think I got a mild case of carpel tunnel from responding to so many questions that came so fast,” he wrote me the next day. “Some questions were inscrutable at first. “Have I ever eaten a corn dog?” for example. But that turned into pleasant exchanges about country fairs.”
He’s eliding, a bit, the weirdness that Reddit can involve. The person who asked the question about the corn dog had a specific aim. After Zimmer replied that he had, indeed, eaten a corn dog, the questioner said: “Good man. The editor from the New York Times who was on here honestly said he had never had one in his life. So, science writer, you need to figure out if he’s human. I forget his name, but I’m sure you’ll get on the case.”
Zimmer’s response: “Clearly, I need to lead a field trip for the New York Times staff to the Durham Agricultural Fair. We might need to have some fried dough while we’re at it.”
“I try to keep the experience in perspective,” Zimmer said. “My thread has 243 comments. PSY, the ‘Gangnam Style’ singer, has 13,770 comments.”