There was a time, not so long ago, when I didn’t get Reddit at all. It looked weird. What the hell was the / symbol for? Why did the order of stuff keep changing? It was like looking at a DOS directory structure. In short, it’s fair to say I hated it.
Then, just over a year ago, I heard that Bear Grylls was doing an AMA (Ask Me Anything). Now, I’ve always liked Bear Grylls so I dropped by to have a looksee, although not really hoping for too much.
I still didn’t understand how the hell it worked, but it turned out to be pretty funny, he put up with the pee comments in a good natured way and before I knew it I was really enjoying myself.
I’m still not a frequent user (maybe on a couple times a month), but now that I’ve figured out how to use it, it’s kinda addictive and when I do log on I spend much more time on than I expect.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, February 3, 2012 was not one of the days I was on Reddit. But I started hearing what had happened within 24 hours and after a bit of research I found myself in the unusual position of knowing what had happened before the media story really broke.
On the day in question, a post titled “I’m Woody Harrelson, AMA” appeared on the iama subforum on Reddit, posted by a user called iamwoodyharrelson. Reddit requires authentication for an AMA to confirm identity and, in this case, authentication was in the form of a tweet from the official feed of Harrelson’s soon to be released movie, ‘Rampart’, a film loosely based on the Rampart scandal of the mid 1990s.. OK, fair enough, so far so good.
When the AMA started a few hours later there had already been a fair amount of traffic, but concerns started to emerge pretty much immediately. Despite the premise of an AMA that redditors should be able to ‘Ask Me Anything’, Harrelson seemed curiously unwilling to answer questions directly, frequently drawing his new film ‘Rampart’ into the answer in some way or another. The answers were also lacking in the personality that other AMAs have had. In short, there was instantly the suspicion that Woody was parroting from a publicist’s talking points rather than being genuine.
Sure enough, redditors soon grew weary of this, and before long started to become actively hostile. A succession of responses suggested that reddit was not the Leno show, or an informercial, and that people weren’t there just to listen to an advertisement. One suggested it should have been an AMAAR (Ask me Anything about Rampart), another that it was the worst AMA in the history of the internet.
But that was really only half the problem. The rest of the problem surfaced in the shape of redditor AndyRooney, who posted a personal recollection of Harrelson crashing his high school prom after party at the Hilton in LA and having sex with a high school girl called Roseanne.
Harrelson’s response was to say that it wasn’t true, and that posters should focus on the film.
This response, combined with his response to the AMAAR suggestion (that he considered his time valuable – the implication being that if he wasn’t talking about the movie then being here was a waste of time) were the two straws that broke the camel’s back and the insults, jokes and epithets came thick and fast.
By the time I’d caught up with the action, the snowball had already started rolling. On quickmeme, a page called ‘Scumbag Woody Harrelson’ started racking up submissions. Many of the images provided suggestions as to how Woody could get the name of the film into seemingly unconnected questions. A subreddit post showed an Urban Dictionary screenshot of a newly submitted definition: ‘Rampart – to take a high school girl’s virginity and then not call her.’ Many also made reference to the urban dictionary definition of ‘Munson’ (a character from the Harrelson movie ‘Kingpin) as someone who, when at the pinnacle of success, loses everything by doing something really stupid. On February 4 (Saturday), the New York Observer and Mediaite posted stories about the AMA.
All this was less than 24 hours after Woody’s abortive AMA. While already bad enough, the PR who had originally had the crass idea of using Reddit to promote the film must have been hoping that if he/she kept a low profile then perhaps it would all blow over without too much damage. And when Sunday came with no more real coverage, perhaps there was a sense that the crisis may have passed. Alas….
Uploads of trailers for ‘Rampart’ started to get disliked on youtube, calls to boycott the movie came thick and fast, some of them supported by a nicely spoofed poster.
When the movie was released, it pretty much tanked. Whether it would have done better without the Reddit disaster is a matter for speculation, but what is fairly obvious is that it can’t have helped. Redditors sitting in on the AMA would quite possibly be those who were predisposed to like Harrelson and could possibly have been relied upon to form part of the film’s target audience.
And, by the way, when I say tanked I’m talking tank in the sense of a Second World War Panzer VIII Maus tank. Having researched fairly thoroughly I can’t find out what the budget was, but a film with Woody Harrelson, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ned Beatty, Ice Cube, Sigourney Weaver and other well known names must have cost a pretty penny. The fact that at its height ‘Rampart’ got into only 106 screens (a big movie would be in over 1000), never got higher than 38th in the rankings and made a total of less than $1m at the box office (at time of writing, 9 months later, it has scraped together another half mil) would perhaps explain why Rampart’s producers would want to keep as quiet as possible about a budget that would have been in the $10-$15m range at very least.
So, what do we learn? Woody Harrelson would, on the face of it, seem like a pretty good iama for Reddit. Off the wall, some unusual opinions, some controversial movies – you’d think he’s a lock as one of the better AMA subjects.
Woody needs to take some degree of responsibility for the disaster that ensued. Showing up at the AMA with little or no clue as to how it worked was clearly not a good idea.
But the lion’s share of the scorn must be heaped on the PR person who convinced Woody to do this without prepping him on the format, and indeed without understanding that talking directly to fans on Reddit is very different to talking indirectly to fans on Letterman. Harrelson seems to have bumbled into the studio with a list of talking points that he attempted to shoehorn into almost every question. Some of the answers were so bizarrely unconnected to the questions that one redditor was prompted to use this animated gif to express his confusion.
Clearly there’s a lesson to be learned here about knowing your audience, not taking their goodwill for granted, and remembering that oft used but nonetheless critical point that the first half of the term ‘Social Media’ is more important than the second half.