“AMA” no longer stands for the “American Medical Association” or “Ameliorating My Attitude.” (Never heard of that one? Neither have I. It doesn’t exist.) In our Twitterverse and Redditworld, AMA is now the acronym for “Ask Me Anything.”
And we can. Even Pope Francis (yes, THAT pope) has a Twitter account, @Pontifex, as does the Dalai Lama, other religious figures, and every politician. Or at least their offices have Twitter accounts. Here is a recent papal Tweet:
The sentiment may be true enough, but what stands out is that the pope gets a lot more retweets than I do. This is irking, as I have been on Twitter (@MarkSAldrich) for far longer.
For the last few years, public figures from the president to famous actors have scheduled AMA sessions on Reddit, on Facebook, and on Twitter, the start of which is usually announced with a photo of the famous person holding a handwritten sign stating “Ask Me Anything” and the day’s date. The “holding a sign” part often makes the famous person look a bit like a hostage. Like poor Bill Gates (well, those three words do not often appear in that particular sequence!) here:
In the old days of any time before now, if one wanted to ask a famous person a question, one had two available methods: A. Study and work very hard and become famous oneself and learn to befriend other famous people, one of whom is the person you always wanted to ask something, anything. Sidle up to that famous person and say something like, “You know, I have always wanted to ask you something. In fact, I worked and studied very hard to become famous myself and I became famous and I became friends with you just so I could ask you something. And now I do not remember what it was. What an amazing short story this would make! More caviar?” B. Write them a letter, purchase a stamp, place the letter in an envelope and the stamp outside the envelope, mail it and hope to receive a reply.
Somewhere, my mother has a scrapbook filled with autographed photos of Hollywood celebrities of the 1950s; in some rare cases the movie star hand-wrote a note of thanks. I do not believe she “asked them anything” personal, so she did not receive any news making replies. (Luckily, she did not have this mailman working in her neighborhood: “Brooklyn Postal Worker Arrested for Not Delivering a Decade’s Worth of Mail.“)
Part of the appeal to the contemporary social media “ask me anything” sessions, and to the fact that many famous actors and writers and some famous politicians personally work on their Twitter/Facebook accounts and reply to us everyday sorts, is to be impertinent to them. Call it the “BaBaBooey Effect.” This is the opposite to the “Access Is Everything” attitude which we sometimes see in the press, the “‘Meet the Press’ Effect,” in which reporters whose employment depends on continued access to important people do not ask difficult, impertinent, questions, questions that might make the important person cut off future access. People who are not reporters might shout a verbal graffito (“Bababooey”) and make some noise, become a part of the story. They are easily ignored, but so are the Sunday morning talk shows, on which news is rarely found or broken.
Instead, news is more often broken when a reporter who knows that he or she will lose access to a famous news maker if they in fact ask them anything, goes ahead and asks that one question. Or when, as with shows like “60 Minutes,” the show reports on some shady business whose practices are worth exposing by sending a national reporter who will not face backballing in his or her own neighborhood because he or she exposed a neighbor’s shady business practices, like a local reporter would.
Early in my brief local newspaper reporting career, I actually heard this from the sidewalk below my second-floor apartment: “We can’t talk here. I see the light on in that hack’s room.” That felt like a huge compliment coming as it did from someone I was publicly writing about. “I’m a hack! I’ve made it.” Then I thought, “How does he know where I live?”
It was a criminal matter I was writing about, after all. But given one question to ask one person, I might go back in time to that night and yell out my window, “How do you know where I live?”
The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 26 tells us, “You’ve been given the opportunity to send one message to one person you wouldn’t normally have access to (for example: the President. Kim Kardashian. A coffee grower in Ethiopia). Who’s the person you choose, and what’s the message?”