Reddit as journalism: Crowdsourcing an interview with the President

Reddit, the link-sharing web community that more or less took over from Digg as the “front page of the internet,” has another feather in its cap to brag about: President Barack Obama showed up Wednesday afternoon to take part in one of the site’s famous “Ask Me Anything” features, where he got to field questions about things like space travel and his favorite room at the White House. Although his answers were by no means earth-shattering — and the chance to ask the sitting president of the United States a question created so much demand that the site had trouble coping with the traffic — his appearance helps bolster the site’s claim to being an alternative source of journalism, something it has established recently by helping to cover breaking news stories like the shooting in Aurora, Colorado last month.

The president took part in the somewhat brief public Q and A session while at a campaign stop in Charlottesville, Virginia — which Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian said was a nice touch, considering he and his co-founder Steve Huffman came up with the idea for the web community in the library at the University of Virginia while they we’re both studying there in 2005. Although Reddit was for many years seen as a pale imitation of the then-dominant Digg, Reddit continued to grow even after it was acquired by the Conde Nast publishing empire. When Digg’s fan base started to implode following some poorly thought-out changes in 2010, Reddit picked up the slack.

More recently, Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” feature has become a popular way of crowdsourcing interviews with public figures — including Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, comedian and crowdfunding success story Louis CK and legendary Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Some politicians have taken part in an AMA, including Rep. Darrell Issa, who spoke about his opposition to anti-piracy legislation like SOPA and PIPA. But President Obama is the first leader of a country to offer himself up for questions from Reddit users with nicknames like “Campfire Weiners” and “Drunken Economist.”

“I am Barack Obama, ask me anything”

As it does with any post involving someone who claims to be a specific newsmaker or celebrity, Reddit got the president to confirm his identity to an administrator and the Obama camp also tweeted about the event from the president’s official Twitter account. Thanks in part to the technical difficulties that the site experienced due to overwhelming demand, there were few if any newsworthy comments from the president during the 30 minutes or so he spent answering questions — among other things, he responded to a question about his commitment to the space program, and to one about the hardest decision he has had to make as president. On the latter, he said:

“The decision to surge our forces in Afghanistan. Any time you send our brave men and women into battle, you know that not everyone will come home safely, and that necessarily weighs heavily on you.”

Although members of the community have been known to attack interview subjects when they believe the feature is being misused, most of the Reddit users taking part seem to have done so in the spirit of good sportsmanship — apart from the occasional goofy question such as “Do you like cats?” and “What’s your favorite room in the White House?” And based on even a cursory glance through the replies, there was a sizable amount of fanboy-ism at the idea that the President of the United States would dignify Reddit with his presence (according to a report from All Things Digital, the feeling is mutual: a number of Reddit fans at the White House were instrumental in getting the president to take part). He even made a reference at the end of his interview to a popular internet meme based on a picture of him frowning.

The president has made a point of reaching out beyond the traditional political media during the current election campaign, including interviews with outlets such as Entertainment Tonight and People magazine. So in that context, showing up for a Reddit AMA isn’t really that big a stretch. Obama has also done several other “crowdsourced” interviews and appearances, including a LinkedIn Q and A and a “Twitter town hall” last year that was hosted by co-founder Jack Dorsey at the White House. But while that event involved questions that were carefully filtered by several levels of oversight before they were handed to the president, Reddit is much more of a free-for-all.

In addition to interviewing the president, Reddit has also played a role in some other journalistic pursuits recently, such as the live reporting of the mass shooting at a movie theater in Colorado. As we described at the time, a member of Reddit performed what is essentially a journalistic function during that incident by updating a real-time record of the known facts about the shooter and the situation at the theater. The community also hosted several first-person accounts of what happened — including one from a victim who was shot and posted a photo of his wounds.

The site’s crowdsourced interview with the president may not have broken any news (as Alexis Madrigal pointed out at the Atlantic, the feature is not a great way of getting information from a politician). But like the Twitter town hall, it was only marginally less informative than the average scrum by professional journalists at the White House — and certainly a lot more engaging than the typical stage-managed press appearance on a political campaign. You can find all of the responses the president made on his Reddit user page.

Update: As it turns out, the Reddit interview may have broken news, at least according to sources like the Huffington Post and the Washington Post: the president said — for what appears to be the first time — that he supports a constitutional amendment process that would overturn the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court. Thanks to Alex Howard at O’Reilly for spotting that.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Yan-Arief Purwanto