Most likely, Woody Harrelson never knew what hit him.
An announcement went up on Reddit.com on Feb. 3, purportedly posted by Harrelson himself but more likely posted by a Millennium Entertainment press hireling, indicating that Harrelson was promoting the
studio’s new film “Rampart” and would be showing up to take a shot at a new kind of online Q&A later that day.
The setup might have been relatively alien to Harrelson and the “Rampart” team, but it was one that Redditors would naturally recognize as an “ask me anything” free-for-all. Reddit, a massive content aggregator/social platform, is home to many areas of interest — and one of the most popular is what’s known as the “Ask Me Anything” sub-Reddit. On the site, these interviews (AMAs) allow anyone to step up and announce themselves: “I am a (fill in the blank) — ask me anything.” But participants need to be prepared to swim with the sharks.
Hours after his initial post, an update went up from Harrelson/the press rep: “Bring on the questions on Rampart!” But from there, the interview did not proceed smoothly: With only 30 minutes allotted amid a press junket for the film and 10,000-plus questions/replies submitted, Harrelson and handlers barely replied to 15 posts — and then almost exclusively with canned information about the film. (Harrelson’s personal representative had no official comment.) The actor was quickly excoriated by Redditors who felt even a provocative question such as whether Harrelson had sex with an underage girl after her prom deserved a serious reply. In Internet-speak, he was doing it wrong.
Not everyone does, though. Reddit and AMAs are growing in popularity among celebrities and regular folk, who devote hours to answering questions from strangers they might not field anywhere else. It is a potentially intimidating way to open a subject up so a person can share expertise — and done right, it builds loyalty among a highly desirable demographic of (mostly) young, tech-savvy men.
“It’s the old model colliding with the new model,” said Alexis Ohanian, Reddit co-founder. “This isn’t Jay Leno. This isn’t softball questions that just tie back into your movie. The Reddit community gets upset when they feel they’re being used. AMAs are not marketing vehicles. Promoting what you’re selling is a byproduct.”
“Reddit is great for sharing valuable information,” said Peter Shankman, chief executive of boutique PR firm the Geek Factory. “But on the flip side it is a very strong, vocal and sometimes dangerous community of people who will take you down in a heartbeat for not playing by the rules.”
Founded in 2005 by University of Virginia graduates Ohanian and Steve Huffman, Reddit went from a list of submitted links to a purchase/spinoff by Condé Nast. Alexa, a Web information firm, ranks it as the No. 50 most popular website in the U.S.
Two elements differentiate Reddit from other content aggregators: Organizers created “subreddits” to help filter the thousands of posts, links, photos, videos and screeds into content-specific areas. Want to look at other people’s dogs? There’s a subreddit for that. Want to discuss marijuana or atheism? There are subreddits for that. But to help push the best — or at least most popular — content to the top, the site’s creators also came up with the ability for each registered Redditor to “upvote” or “downvote” any post or reply. Harrelson got the underage girl question because it was upvoted by a significant number of Redditors.
No surprise that the site can be catnip for marketers and publicists. But as Harrelson learned, it isn’t so easy to sell to Redditors.
Nerdist founder-comedian Chris Hardwick spent several days responding to the sheer volume of questions generated from his AMA. “I was giddy like a drunk cheerleader,” he said. “I was flattered and honored. I have no idea if it helps my career; I don’t really care if it does.”
A successful AMA can have direct financial results: Ken Jennings, the 74-time “Jeopardy!” champion-turned-author, did his in 2011 and was stunned by the response: “I was surprised at how friendly the whole thing was.” What came next was an even bigger surprise: Within the next week he sold around 1,000 remaindered books. “Reddit cleaned out my garage,” he said.
Many of the most interesting AMAs come from noncelebrities. Voice-over artist Chris Griesemer stepped up in February, and that day the hits on his website went from five to 75,000; he took more than 15 hours to answer everything he could. He says he’s gotten more work than he can handle since then, but it’s about more than that. “It was also nice to take on a mentor role for people who were just getting started in the business,” he said. “Just having a nobody like me generate this kind of traffic — the volume is stunning.”
Whether a celebrity or regular Joe/Jane, an AMA participant needs to be prepared to get real and real personal. But some finesse dodging personal answers more successfully than others.
“People who only know how to be a persona — who want to tell the ‘movie star story’ — you won’t want to do it,” said “Burn Notice” and “Evil Dead” star Bruce Campbell, who held an AMA last year. “If they ask me about my personal life? I say, ‘None of your business,’ and move on.”
Other sites like AnyAsq.com, entirely based on crowd-sourced interviews, haven’t really caught on in a big way, and part of the problem is that those most likely to read and participate in AMAs are fairly marketing-resistant. Others, like Redditor Brenden Sherratt, who does social media and online marketing for Sortable.com, worry about success spoiling either the AMA format or Reddit itself.
“Digg became so popular that the quality of its content dropped. Big companies were using it to promote everything from toothbrushes to new movies,” he said. “But when Woody was on, the community basically said, ‘If you’re just going to advertise to us, we’re not going to take that.’”
Hardwick puts it more succinctly: “The shark could have jumped on the Woody interview, but Reddit prevailed. Reddit kicked the shark in the face.”