Up until a few months ago Kathleen Mandt had never spent much time on Reddit. Mandt, an Earth and planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, had heard of the social news site, but only because her teenage son “mostly lives on Reddit.” She received a crash course, however, when a press release summarizing a recent paper she’d published was submitted to r/science, a thriving Reddit community (aka subreddit) that boasts more than six million subscribers. “A co-worker told me about it,” she recalls. “So my son sat me down, signed me up for Reddit, and I started answering questions about the paper itself.” While she was supplying answers, a redditor suggested in the thread that Mandt sign up for an official AMA. “So then I had my son sit down and sign me up for an AMA.”
Short for “ask me anything,” AMAs are a bedrock of Reddit, so much so that a subreddit devoted to them, called IAmA (I am a…), is one of the most popular on the site. During AMAs, someone with an interesting life story offers to answer any question that is asked of him. As I write this, a thread titled, “IAmA survivor of Stalin’s dictatorship. My father was executed by the secret police and my family became ‘enemies of the people’. We fled the Soviet Union at the end of WW II. Ask me anything” features more than 1,000 comments and questions. Per Reddit’s design, the questions with the most “upvotes” (users indicating approval for a comment, question or shared content) move to the top of the page, making it easier for participants to answer the most popular questions. Because anyone can launch an AMA, there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, that are offered up daily, although few garner enough upvotes to achieve any real visibility.
The IAmA subreddit—where most AMAs are conducted—became so popular that it eventually caught the eye of publicists and became a pit stop for any celebrity on a press tour looking to promote a new project. Suddenly you had George Clooney and Louis C.K. stopping in to become Answer Men to the digital masses. An AMA with Pres. Barack Obama, conducted just before the 2012 elections, drew so much attention that Reddit temporarily crashed under all the traffic.
Once celebrities began to flock to IAmA, however, it became more difficult for the rest of us to get much attention, even when noncelebrities had something particularly unique to share. Nathan Allen, a moderator (or “mod” in Reddit lingo) for r/science and r/askscience, noticed this discouraging trend whenever he’d see scientists try to conduct AMAs: “If you go through and arrange an AMA for a member of the National Academies of Science[s] and you do a lot of work to prep him for the AMA and then George Clooney posts an AMA on the same day, the [scientist’s AMA] gets buried, and these people don’t get any visibility even though it’s really important and the general public needs to have access to it.”
So Allen, a PhD chemist at Dow Chemical Co. began to think about ways he could leverage r/science’s reach to connect scientists with the public. R/science is a default subreddit, meaning it’s visible to people visiting Reddit.com even if they aren’t logged in. According to internal metrics, r/science draws between 30,000 and 100,000 unique visitors a day. It’s arguably the largest community-run science forum on the Internet. And starting in January r/science officially launched its own Science AMA series, and very quickly scientists who are producing interesting, groundbreaking research but not widely known to others outside their fields began answering questions on the front page of a site that is visited by 114 million people a month (this includes registered and casual visitors.). “Of course you can talk about the large audience when scientists go on TV,” Allen says. “But is that really an interaction?” Usually, those scientists who you’ll regularly see on cable news or The Daily Show are among a small group of pop culture celebrities, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye the Science Guy. Scientists without TV careers, with more active research programs and pressure to “publish or perish,” rarely make it to the small screen. Alternatives have popped up, such as Twitter chats and live Google Hangouts hosted by working scientists, but none has achieved much success reaching mass audiences. Reddit offered just that: a massive audience and convenient, community-powered way to sort through thousands of questions.
Although the vast majority of submissions and comments uploaded to Reddit come from everyday users, the rules and policies for each individual subreddit are set and policed by mods who hold administrative powers beyond those that are available to most Reddit users. For the mods of r/science, the two-way conversation of the AMAs was as equally important as their sheer reach. Most scientific research is published in expensive journals, some of which are not available in smaller libraries. And the vast majority of findings never receive media coverage. “Really, the only way people get to find out about new research is if they have journal access or if they read the short-form news story that can be skewed by whatever journalist is covering it,” says Chris Dawson, another r/science mod. “If you had questions about the study then there wasn’t a good way to get them answered, and now you can.” Virtually overnight, Reddit had created the world’s largest two-way dialogue between scientists and the general public.
Such interactions can also serve as a corrective to science journalism’s penchant for enthusiasm and disproportionate coverage such that a discovery seems more important or more certain than it actually is. “The general public won’t catch ‘may,’ ‘could’ or ‘potentially,’” Allen says. “They just skim over that, and then that’s why they think there are cancer cures every week, because they see reports of early-phase academic studies on something that fights cancer in a petri dish. And though this could be the mechanism in which a cancer treatment could be provided 30 years from now, the general public reads this as, ‘Oh there’s a cure for cancer.’” The Reddit group’s Science AMAs are no panacea for misinformation but Allen hopes to eliminate at least some of the impact of sensationalized journalism by giving the public direct access to the scientists themselves.
Since launching, Science AMAs have been conducted up to five times a week, although never more than one a day. The brunt of organizational work falls on Allen’s shoulders; he not only conducts most of the outreach to solicit participation, but also walks them through the entire process of conducting an AMA—from creating an account to crafting the headline so it’ll have a wide appeal to Reddit users. “The problem we encounter is that it turns out big name scientists aren’t big redditors,” he says. Much of his outreach involves a simple cold call or e-mail to the scientist; armed with r/science’s Web traffic statistics, it’s not difficult to convince a top tier researcher of the AMA’s value. Gradually, however, universities’ public relations departments have begun to notice the series and have started reaching out to Allen to schedule AMAs.
That’s what happened with Peggy Mason, professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago who studies empathy in rats. Kevin Jiang, a communications specialist at the university, approached her several months ago to pitch her on conducting an AMA. Mason reflects: “It was just as I was about to start teaching a MOOC [massive open online course]. We were thinking, let’s try to publicize this whole thing. And so we pitched it, and Reddit was really easy to work with…. We went back and forth and they said what the blurb should say and how short it should be. They also told me to make sure to set aside a lot of time that day. It was a complete trip. It was so much fun.”
Within minutes after Mason’s AMA was posted, dozens of questions began to flood the thread. Most of the redditors asked questions pertaining to what was mentioned in the short blurb describing her work and few referenced her published research in scholarly journals—a sign that this was mostly a lay audience who merely sought to slake their random curiosities rather than engage in rigorous scientific discussion. Mason was asked questions such as whether rats mourned the death of other rats and if sociopathy exists in other mammals besides humans. Mandt at the Southwest Research Institute also says she enjoyed the opportunity to speak more broadly about her work: “For me it was an exciting and fun conversation about something I love, even if it wasn’t questions on the one particular subject that I had published on most recently.”
This tendency in the Science AMA discussions may be an inherent flaw in the series. For all the criticisms of science journalism, a talented beat reporter might have years of experience reading and dissecting journal articles as well as contextual knowledge of all the studies that came before it. This training allows for more pointed and apposite questions that can translate into good science communication. A detailed discussion about whether stem cells are able to incorporate themselves with surrounding cells is not really possible without a lot of prep work, which is what science journalists generally do. Allen says he basically agrees with this assessment. “We will have people who can ask good in-context questions but the reality is that the general public isn't going to have this,” he says. “[Science] AMAs are better at addressing misconceptions and clarifying. That is a weakness of a question-and-answer format and it isn't unique to AMAs.”
And as journalists learn, with such a large audience comes a large responsibility. Allen was forced to consider his criteria for vetting AMA candidates when physicist Paul Héroux approached him. “We knew going in that it was going to be controversial,” Allen says. “He holds that electromagnetic radiation from electronic equipment has health effects and can affect the metabolism of cells. This isn’t a generally accepted view, in fact. But the guy is still a legitimate professor at McGill University.” But were those accomplishments enough to warrant Allen giving Héroux access to such a massive readership? “I don’t want to be in the business of deciding what’s a fringe idea and what’s mainstream,” he says. “That’s against the basic philosophy of Reddit.” So Allen booked Héroux, and presented him to the Reddit community to let them decide whether his work was fringe or not.
Héroux posted his AMA about a month ago, and what followed in the subsequent hours was about as close as you can come to a bloodbath in a wonky, jargon-laden scientific discussion on the Internet. Héroux avoided answering many of the questions that were upvoted to the top of the thread—a misstep in a community that’s rooted firmly in the wisdom of crowds. A cadre of biochemists flocked to the AMA and, after reviewing the scientist’s research, began to dissect his findings to a technical and abstruse degree. “Having read some of your paper, I have to say that your conclusions seem like a serious stretch from the evidence,” one redditor wrote. ” … No offense, but your actions strike me as having political intent.” The event allowed redditors to watch and participate in the scientific process, including real-time peer review.
This year’s Science AMAs overall reveal that r/science fulfills a public need that’s unforeseen, unknown, unaddressed or not fully embraced by the scientific community. In a world where the general public often finds it frustratingly difficult to access scholarly journals, demand remains for a way to connect scientists and their work with nonscientists. With the rise of MOOCs and other digital tools such as Reddit, science communication has expanded well beyond its traditional confines in the ivory tower as well as spotty print and broadcast coverage. “My personal belief, in the end, is that scientists really work for the people,” Mason says. “We’re allowed to follow our intellectual curiosity insomuch as we share it with other human beings.” With several months of AMAs and thousands of questions uploaded, Reddit’s Science AMA series may bring everyone closer to that goal.