Reddit’s ‘Ask Me Anything:’ The modern interview
Published: Friday, October 11, 2013
Updated: Friday, October 11, 2013 01:10
The Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, one of the world’s foremost experts on the human mind, was asked, “Do you find your understanding of the mind negatively affects your own happiness? I mean does your deterministic outlook sometimes make life seem arbitrary and pointless to you, and elation just some chemical reaction?
Pinker’s response, a deep profound answer, cannot be found in a traditional newspaper, magazine, or television interview, but through an “Ask Me Anything” forum on Reddit. Among social media websites it is not quite as popular as Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, yet. Every day it gets slightly closer, last month the No. 33 most visited website in the U.S. and No. 90 in the world.
After signing up in July, I personally think it’s the best site of all, with the “AMA” feature (as it is commonly abbreviated by regular users) exemplifying perhaps the prime reason why. I believe this format may very well herald the future of the interview format as we know it. It is already giving us some of the best interviews, living up to its slogan “Where the mundane becomes fascinating and the outrageous suddenly seems normal.”
Here’s how it works. Any Reddit user can type a question while the responder is logged on. All responses are public, as are all questions whether they go answered or remain unanswered. The most popular forums of all-time contain a unique combination of the famous and the not-so-famous. The most popular by far has been President Barack Obama, with only one other session even reaching half as many upvotes, Bill Gates ranking No. 2.
Also in the top 25 are some not-so-famous people. There’s Allena Hansen: “I was mauled by a bear, fought it off, and drove four miles down a mountain with my face hanging off. Ask Me Anything.” There’s the man known as Benjaman Kyle: “I woke up beaten with no memories outside of a Burger King in 2004. Any identification was stolen as well. The amnesia was presumed to have been caused by an injury that knocked me unconscious. The United States government still doesn’t have a clue as to who I was… Ask Me Anything.” As I write this, the most popular one the day is by a backup dancer from the infamous Miley Cyrus Video Music Awards performance.
What really separates an Ask Me Anything from all other interview formats is that normal people control it. And oddly enough, they frequently ask better questions than the professional journalists who make a living this way! Tom Hanks answered 62 questions last week, not just questions about movies and acting but also about his favorite sandwich. “Ham and swiss on spelt. Mustard only and a bit of lettuce. No tomato!” Weird Al Yankovic answered 51, not just about music but at what moment he realized his career was going places. “Tuesday, 3:18 p.m.” Astronaut Chris Hadfield even did one while orbiting Earth in the International Space Station.
Granted, there are some drawbacks, such as the fact that it’s all text so you can’t actually see the person answering. Accordingly, you could never get a moment such as Mark David Chapman’s look of remorse when Barbara Walters asked, “Why did you kill John Lennon?” or Monica Lewinsky’s pause after Larry King asked her if she was still in love with Bill Clinton. Also, respondents can choose which questions to reply to – see New Jersey Senate candidate Cory Booker last week only answering easy political questions that helped his campaign.
No format is perfect. Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” is perhaps the most perfect one I have seen so far. You get some fun and you also get some wisdom. Here was Steven Pinker’s answer to the question at the beginning of this article:
“Quite the opposite – I find a naturalistic understanding of human nature to be indispensable to leading a wise and mature life, and it is often exhilarating. Wisdom consists in appreciating the preciousness and finiteness of our own existence, and therefore not squandering it; of being cognizant of what makes people everywhere tick, and therefore enhancing happiness and minimizing suffering; of being alert to limitations and flaws in our own judgments and decisions and passions, and thereby doing our best to circumvent them. The exhilaration comes from understanding that we are a part of natural world; that deep mysteries can be explained; and that the world – including our own mental lives – can be intelligible, rather than a source of superstition and ignorance. Yes, mortality sucks, but given that it exists, I’d rather know that than be kept in a childlike state of delusion.”