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It’s not every day a Member of Congress gives the average American the chance to ask them anything.
But a number of Members — and some candidates seeking Congressional seats — are offering people with an Internet connection and a knowledge of the social networking website Reddit that chance through “IAmA” threads, or open forums on Reddit where people divulge their occupation or interesting personality trait and then open themselves up for other Reddit users to “AMA” (Ask Me Anything).
Six months after Reddit burst into the mainstream during the SOPA/PIPA debate over online piracy, more and more Members and Congressional candidates are recognizing the power the website has to reach constituents and voters, mostly through IAmA crowdsourced interviews, which function like an online town hall.
Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and John Garamendi (D-Calif.) have all done IAmA threads that garnered hundreds of comments from Reddit users. Most recently, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) posted an IAmA thread in late May that garnered 1,856 comments.
How It Works
IAmA threads go something like this:
“IAm Justin Amash, a Republican congressman who opposes the Patriot Act, SOPA, CISPA, and the NDAA, AMA,” Amash posted.
Reddit users then submit their questions in the thread, and
other Reddit users “upvote” or “downvote” the posts. Questions that receive the most upvotes make it to the top — and most visible — part of the thread and are then answered by the Member of Congress or candidate who started the thread.
In Amash’s thread, for example, questions ranged from the political to the personal. Questions on gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana floated to the top as the most popular among participants in the thread.
The Benefits of Reddit
Erik Martin, Reddit’s general manager, said politicians of all levels, including mayoral candidates in Portland, Ore., and state House candidates in Indiana, have used the platform to reach voters and draw attention to their electoral efforts.
“I really think Reddit has the ability to make things both very personal and very sort of human, and so you can have a very direct personal exchange,” Martin said.
Garamendi was one of the first Members to utilize the platform by doing an IAmA in March 2011.
“We try and reach out to the public where the public is, and Reddit is one of largest and most active communities on the Internet,” said Donald Lathbury, Garamendi’s spokesman. “Policymakers are increasingly realizing that if you’re not talking with and listening to online communities like Reddit, you’re limiting your reach.”
Polis — an Internet entrepreneur who describes himself as a “gamer” and a “nerd” — says Reddit is a great way for social-media-savvy Members to reach out to and interact with their constituents.
“I think for Members of Congress who are new-media-savvy, it can be an excellent way to increase name recognition and garner support with younger voters and the tech community,” Polis said. “But for Members that are not as new-media-savvy, I wouldn’t advise it. It’s not something you can outsource. You have to do it yourself … and you have to know the language.”
Bradley Shear, a lawyer who specializes in social media law, said the IAmA online town halls have their drawbacks — the most notable being that you can never be sure whether those participating are your constituents. But he said getting questions and comments from the public at large is a good way for politicians to gauge the popularity of their ideas and hear viewpoints they might not get at a traditional town hall.
“Politicians may use the site to send out trial balloons,” Shear said. “They can send out a message on Reddit and see what people think. They can do it anonymously or do it under their own name. … It can give them a chance to put their toe in the water to see how the wind blows without getting too much blowback.”