I Am A _______: Ask Me Anything

| July 6, 2011

One of my favorite websites is Reddit, an aggregator of user-submitted content (such as pictures, links, news articles, memes, etc.) which are compiled and listed in an ever-shifting hierarchy based on “up” or “down” votes by users. Topics can be sorted through threads or “subreddits” (e.g. funny, politics, gaming, programming, random). My favorite subreddit is IAMA AMA (I Am A ____: Ask Me Anything), where people represent a dimension of themselves and others ask them questions. Examples I’ve sifted through recently include: IMA person with Marfan syndrome, person who traveled on a sailboat for three years in my childhood with my parents, someone who has been vegetarian my entire life, a software engineer from Google, a game show contestant, a tenured professor, I am four years old (parent answering the questions), I am an Icelandic woman who has lived in the US for 15 years: ask me anything. The mundane becomes fascinating, reading about someone’s experiences working the night shift at 7-11 for five years or what it’s like to be HIV positive. Celebrities and politicians have been participants (verified by moderators) such as Roger Ebert and Stephen Colbert, but the ‘regular’ posts are more interesting, I think. There is something inherently fascinating about knowing how someone in a completely different situation than you spends their day.

In IMA AMA (and many other places on the Internet), the distance collapses between author and reader. These threads, which are more like conversations, blur any sort of roles between author and reader; and you enter into a direct conversation with dozens or hundreds of other random strangers, faceless and with pseudonyms. It’s almost a paradox of human communication, because many of the “functions” of conversation—such as conveying purposeful information or building a relationship—are not really accomplished here. The driving force is sheer curiosity of fellow humans. The role of anonymity in these digital spaces is probably also an important dimension, so in a place like IMA AMA one can ask questions they might not ask in person, because social norms and taboos are not the same. (These might range from questions about money to sexuality to illegal activities).

Of course reading these posts, there’s always the possibility that the person answering the questions is a troll, and the entire post is fake. In March earlier this year, a Reddit user named Lucidending claimed he was a 39-year-old with terminal cancer, and would soon be taking his own life under Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. He announced he would be answering questions over the next few hours on Reddit. There was an immediate outpouring of support, with thousands of comments, several empathetic YouTube videos, photographs, poetry, and other tributes. The story even received mainstream media coverage. Unfortunately, the entire post turned out to be a hoax. Now there is somewhat more regulation of the IMA AMA posts; green circles are assigned to submissions that moderators have verified as true (although many of the posts, such as “IMA person who is experiencing culture shock” or “IMA person who switched from Firefox to Chrome” can’t really be documented or proven). The Lucidending debacle is somewhat reminiscent of the lonelygirl15 YouTube videos, where videos posing as sincere webcam confessionals by a 16-year-old girl in her bedroom turned out to be professional, scripted videos with a 19-year-old actress and production crew. There was a large backlash of upset Internet fans, who felt they had been betrayed. In Mike Wesch’s “An Anthropological Guide to YouTube,” he comments on this incident, pointing out some of the contradictions of the Internet Age. “We live in a world of increasing commercialization, but we long for authenticity. We are increasingly individual and value the individual, but also value and desire community.”

IAMA person who spent more time on a computer today than doing anything else, AMA.