Absence of Editorial Gatekeepers in New Forms of Media Creates Equal Opportunity and Risk

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New media platforms expect and demand authenticity from their participants and actor Woody Harrelson’s publicist recently experienced firsthand the backlash that can occur when you approach conflicts with these expectations.

In early February, Harrelson agreed to answer questions via social media platform Reddit to promote his new movie “Rampart,” which is generating high praise among critics. Reddit’s Ask Me Anything (AMA) platform is tailored for consumers and fans who wish to directly interact with a guest of an interesting background or perspective. Typically, the most frequent and popular questions in this forum focus on aspects of the guest’s personal life.  Previous celebrities, such as comedian Louis C.K and Jimmy Kimmel, have done very successful AMAs.

Woody, a private person, decided to only answer questions related to his movie and refused to answer any personal questions, violating the readily available rules of the game and well established “reddiquette.” This approach immediately created an angry backlash from the Reddit community, criticizing Harrelson and shifting the dialogue away from his new movie.

Reddit, which describes itself as “the front page of the Internet,” is not exactly a fringe media outlet. The site is owned by Conde Nast, receives an average of 14 million unique visits per month, boasts millions of registered users and operates a Twitter feed with more than 65,000 followers. The AMA format is one of the most popular features on the site. It isn’t hard to figure out the redditquette required to participate.  In a word, Harrelson’s team should have known better.

Nevertheless, a sampling of exchanges that circulated in the Woody Harrelson AMA includes:

  • Did you know about reddit before today? iamwoodyharrelson: I did just learn about it, so I’m trying.
  • I will not be seeing Rampart and I will be telling everyone I know not to see Rampart.
  • This is the best AMA of all time. Not a single question of interest was answered! Woody Harrelson apparently did not understand the full impact of AMA. Woody, this is the internet. Not a friendly press conference.
  • Nothing like trying to utilize social media in the most unauthentic way possible – someone will be getting fired!

When Harrelson and his staff initiated the AMA, it was naturally assumed by the site’s enthusiastic members that he was comfortable with any question and would answer honestly. When it comes to social media, the medium sends a message and that message must always be authentic. Unlike traditional forms of media like TV, radio, and print, the digital space is growing exponentially which makes it even more important, and difficult, to know rules. A deviation from the set standards can be considered elusive, insincere or even manipulative. As is true with any form of earned media, in order to realize the rewards these channels offer, in this case exposure for Harrelson’s film to a valuable demographic, participants must pay in the local currency – in this case, transparency and full participation.

For anyone as concealed as Woody Harrelson, actor or CEO, Reddit was the wrong social media channel, and therefore had a negative affect on his reputation, and potentially, the movie’s box office success. This AMA is now a permanent part of Harrelson’s online fingerprint, making it all the more harmful.

This instance is an interesting reminder of the opportunities and risks inherent in the opportunity to self-publish enabled by new media formats. The lack of editorial gatekeepers provides unprecedented access to valuable stakeholder groups. However, without an editor calling the shots and effectively saving participants from themselves when topics and approaches are inappropriate, a high level of attention must be paid to the expectations of the community, particularly one as engaged as Reddit.

Perhaps this fiasco is best summarized by what is now the top-rated comment to the AMA – Question to Mr Harrelson’s PR guy, what are you planning to do with all the free time you’ll have now?