27 Oct 2013

Rise of the AMAs

No, I'm not referring to some music awards show, nor a medical association of any kind. Rather, AMA stands for Ask Me Anything. And it's catching on as the new term for the Q&A session on the Internet.

How did this AMA abbreviation come about? I didn't really bother with intense research, but it is very frequently used in Reddit, particularly in the IAmA subreddit. No, IAmA is not an abbreviation. It really is the words "I Am A" crammed together, because you can't have spaces in a subreddit name. And it's a wee bit of a trouble to input underscores. The founders of the subreddit might not have actually invented the AMA term. I'm really not sure. But those who frequent /r/IAmA are certainly the most prominent users of the term.

So what's the idea behind /r/IAmA? Simply put, someone offers themselves up for a free Q&A session on this subreddit. This person says who he/she is that would make it possibly worthwhile for you to ask him/her questions. E.g. "IAmA man who saved a person using CPR. AMA." Or "I was a judge for a wheelchair bodybuilding competition. AMAA." By the way, AMAA stands for Ask Me Almost Anything, meaning that the answerer may not be comfortable with responding to some of the questions posed in the Reddit thread. 

Anyway, the whole concept of establishing a place like IAmA is to connect the online community with people who, as the information page of /r/IAmA puts it, are associated with something uncommon that plays a central role to their lives(like living with four thumbs or working as a bed tester), or with a truly interesting and rare event(like helping out as an Olympics volunteer worker or being on the site of the Boston bombing).

Well then, this doesn't make the AMA session that much different from the Q&A session, does it? Yet why did the AMA suddenly blow up on the Internet? I mean, we've had other Q&A sites like Spring.me (formerly Formspring) or Ask.fm for quite a while already. Yet they don't seem to get as much attention. And the AMA term has even gotten adopted in other sites, to label online Q&As that aren't even held in /r/IAmA. Also /r/IAmA has been around for years already. So what's going on?

One reason I can think of is the really low barrier to entry. Just about anyone can host an AMA session, provided they have something unusual and interesting to offer to the audience, and can verify their stated background. And it doesn't really take too much to offer proof: a simple photo of yourself or a work ID or a certificate, or even a status update from your official Facebook/Twitter account, whatever is relevant, would suffice. 

Plus the answerer can still set a limit on the questions he will answer if he needs to. Apart from simply saying AMAA which is still quite vague, they can simply specify a narrow field, like "I specialise in sleep-related research. AMA about sleep!" But that would remove a bit of the informality and freedom that's usually associated with the typical AMA session.

A major trigger point was the President Obama AMA. A person of such great importance holding an AMA session at such a widely accessible platform, with only a thin barrier of interaction between him and the world... it drew a heck load of attention to the site, and particularly /r/IAmA. I did notice that soon after that, more internationally renowned celebrities were willing to give the AMA a shot, whether on their own accord or via a referral by their publicist. People like Snoop Dogg/Lion, Madonna, Tom Hanks, Keanu Reaves, Bill Nye, and Robin Williams, started coming to this subreddit for their own free AMA sessions, wildly different from the very formal interviews they may tend to do. Here, if the celebrities really mean AMA, then the floor is open. Relevant questions would still be asked, but surprising questions can pop up and be met by equally amusing or sometimes even enlightening answers. Not many published interviews ask celebrities about what flavour of ice cream, or whether they'd rather take on 1 horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses! However, it is preferred that users ask thought-provoking questions that would likely elicit interesting answers.

Now why does /r/IAmA have most of the success that other online platforms like Spring.me don't, even though they are essentially about the same thing? Both can offer anonymity to askers. Both allow other users to vote up answers they like. Both even allow comment threads for each question.

There are some extra things that /r/IAmA has that Spring.me doesn't though. For instance, we have to remember that /r/IAmA is merely one section of the huge megasite that is Reddit. Reddit can easily draw over frequenters from other relevant subreddits towards the AMA thread. For instance, if say Daft Punk were to start an AMA session, people who visit /r/electronicmusic or /r/daftpunk or /r/music would catch wind of it easily. It becomes pretty easy and fast to draw the crowd towards the AMA session. It's a bit harder to do that on Spring.me.

Secondly, it's partly because of how Reddit works. Reddit organises the comments in hierarchal threads, and allows simple formatting of text like bold and italics and hyperlinks and superscript. Spring.me arranges all the posts in chronological order starting from the latest, and all the text is plain. So it looks kinda drab and messy compared to the AMA thread. And it breaks small conversations that may be held concurrently with several users.

Okay, now why did the term AMA get liftoff? Why not just call it an online Q&A if it's not hosted on /r/IAmA?

There's a difference between calling it an AMA versus an online Q&A, though technically they could function the same. As mentioned earlier, the second A in AMA suggests a more open interaction between the asker and the answerer. They would be more compelled to think of unusual and interesting questions that probably hadn't been asked before but should be. And telling people to "Ask Me Anything" sound more friendly and informal than telling them to "come join my Q&A session". We tend to envision the typical Q&A as a line of people nervously queueing for their turn to blurt out their serious question/s into a mic, and the panel in turn give their own properly thought-out answers. The AMA put more fun and curiosity into that process.

The self-perpetuating celebrity promotion of /r/IAmA is still ongoing, and doesn't seem to show signs of slowing down. In fact, it seems to have established /r/IAmA as a viable alternative platform for celebrities to interact at the same level as their fans and admirers. Meanwhile, "ordinary" folks with interesting personal experiences are stepping up to take the stage on /r/IAmA as usual. The subreddit continues to serve its role as a facilitator of connections between people and experience, but now also has an additional prominent role as an online question panel for the stars.