Your Best Friend and Your Worst Enemy – Lessons Learned from Government Use of Reddit Ask Me Anything

ARTICLE | Oct 7, 2014

In August of 2012, President Barack Obama held one of the most highly anticipated, highly trafficked, highly publicized citizen engagement events. What separated this event from traditional public forums was that it didn’t take place in a city hall, it didn’t take place at the White House and it wasn’t (necessarily) a campaign event. Rather, it took place in one of the internet’s most heavily trafficked websites: Reddit. President Obama participated in a question and answer forum called an “AMA” or “Ask Me Anything” where (often semi-anonymous) individuals post questions in the specific individual’s “thread” (the space where the Q&A takes place) and other visitors to the thread either “upvote” or “downvote,” essentially ranking the question and increasing or decreasing its visibility in the thread.

While plenty of celebrities have participated in AMAs, this was the first high-profile political figure’s foray into Reddit. While President Obama’s AMA was met with widely critiqued, both for its shortness and his often predetermined responses, it provided a window into the opportunity that Reddit can provide for politicians, and even city administrators, to reach an otherwise often disengaged segment of the population, as according to Google Ad Planner’s May 2013 estimate, 68% of Reddit’s traffic is comprised of 18-29 year olds. This is important to note, because according to George Washington University, this is a generally disenfranchised (more likely to say that government is run by special interests or public officials don’t care about average citizens) and less interested or involved in public affairs (only 19 percent say they follow politics and government “most of the time). [i]

While the merits of President Obama’s AMA can be argued, what cannot be argued is that it opened the door and helped others realize the potential value that Reddit can offer to reach a traditionally disengaged demographic. Since his 2012 AMA, we have seen many other political figures take to Reddit to espouse their views or promote their candidacy, but until recently, we had not seen many local governments leverage this platform for citizen engagement. That is, until recently. In August of 2014, the City of Pittsburgh, PA held their fifth Mayor’s Night Out/In event, but for the first time brought it to the subreddit (the name for a sub-forum on Reddit’s massive website) www.reddit.com/r/pittsburgh, the city’s dedicated subreddit, run by citizens and people interested in the city of Pittsburgh.

The City’s Mayor, Bill Peduto, brought together a team of top administrators from the city, including Office of Municipal Investigations Director, Finance Director, OMB Director, Public Safety Director, Urban Affairs Director, Education and Neighborhood Empowerment, Building Inspection, Public Works Director, Innovation and Performance Director, Operations Officer, Administration Officer, and Parks Director for a wide ranging open discussion that garnered over 700 questions and comments. It was an interesting experiment that cities can learn a lot from, as the tone of the discussion, thanks to Reddit’s “upvoting” and “downvoted” system, geared towards topics that actually interest the citizens of Pittsburgh. In fact, the most highly voted question didn’t highlight displeasure of government or focus on superficial questions, but rather a real issue citizens face. User EBVLMP2b asked “Is there a way for there to be an electronics trash pick up once a year? I keep seeing TVs and CRTs on the street for WEEKS.” Mike Gable, the Director of Public Works, responded “We can explore this with our Environmental Services personnel, but there are non-profits out there that accept those items and make it easy for residents to get those items to collection points. We continue to notify residents that these items should not be set out for pickup - they are probably doing it because they are not aware of the rules.” What followed was a rare back and forth between the Director of Public Works and the resident, with other residents chiming in after, seeking real solutions to a real problem. While a resolution was not reached in this AMA on this particular issue, it had a meaningful impact in that it sparked a discussion between other community members beyond just the two engaged in the initial question and answer. Therein lies one of the powerful components of this AMA – it connected individuals in the community to the city administrators and employees, but it also connected community members to other community members. The full discussion that followed the initial question can be read here.

Another example of how the AMA was used successfully was through citizen education. A user had a question about bike trails, stating that most trails are actually part of the park system, and as such, he was under the impression said trails closed at the same time the parks closed. However, the Director of Parks, stated, “Like parks, the trails close at dusk, but are open for transit, as necessary.” While the law is not crystal clear, at least in this instance, the AMA served to provide insight on commuting by bike not only to the individual who asked the question, but anyone who happens to read the AMA.

Finally, there were actual real outcomes as a result of the AMA. As one user pointed out, the intersection at the streets of Baum and Roup is consistently blocked by motorists, causing a headache. The Director of Operations replied quickly, stating that they would install a do not block sign to attempt to discourage this blockage. While it is a small thing, a response and immediate action can have a huge impact on an individual’s perception of government. Not only does this affect the individual’s perception, but it is also evident to any individual who reads the AMA.

Of course, while this healthy discussion highlights the potential benefits and opportunities a Reddit AMA can offer, so too do the comments highlight some of the inherent risks involved. The comments section has no filter for inappropriate language and does not censor speech unless it explicitly breaks a rule of the subreddit. As a consequence, unsuspecting readers are often met with language not suitable for a general audience, as well as off-the-cuff jokes and comments that do little to further conversation. But that is a consequence of democracy in action – variables cannot always be controlled for. Moreover, being the internet, anything that is said (or typed) is cataloged, cached, and saved permanently. It provides little room for slip-ups or miscues. It is important to be candid, but also deliberate when speaking in an online forum like this. A misstatement could rapidly go viral and end up causing more harm than good.

All in all, the city of Pittsburgh leveraged Reddit’s AMA platform successful. They avoided simply using it as a platform for canned answers and vanity. They provided real answers, to real questions. And they did so to an audience that is historically disengaged with government. In fact, the AMA totaled 709 comments, which includes the questions and answers (and auxiliary conversations that inevitably occur on a website like Reddit). Pittsburgh was able to address issues that citizens face, but what is less evident, is the positive branding that Pittsburgh gained out of this exposure. Their foray into Reddit and their sincerity in using it as best they could lead it to be the most “upvoted” post in the history of the Pittsburgh subreddit, no small feat. 

There are a plethora of choices when engaging with the public, each carrying its own set of obstacles and benefits. On Reddit, organizations can reach the typically hard to engage 18-29 year old demographic, realizing the issues they are interested in. But organizations must also be aware of the challenges: there is minimal moderating of the comments through most of Reddit, anyone can say whatever they want and the only mechanism to filter these comments is through voting by community members. Further, anything that is said stays more or less permanently. Even though you can delete your comments, the likelihood that someone took a screenshot or the page cached before the comment is deleted is high. While a Reddit AMA is not a viable option for all local governments, or even a desirable one, it is clear that real connections can be made, providing yet another avenue for citizen engagement.

View the city of Pittsburgh’s full AMA at http://www.reddit.com/r/pittsburgh/comments/2azj1y/mayors_night_online_ama/.

[i] https://depts.washington.edu/ccce/events/carpini.htm

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