On December 3, 2012, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., opened itself up to the Reddit community when it hosted the museum’s first ever AMA (“Ask me Anything”). I asked archivist Becky Erbelding, curator Kyra Schuster, and social media community coordinator Elissa Frankle to share their experiences.
1. What is an AMA and whose idea was it to host one?
Becky: Reddit is a popular online forum where users “upvote” or “downvote” various pictures, links, questions, topics. There are lots of subforums for cute animal pictures, interesting facts, crazy memes. One of the more popular subforums is “IamA” where people post interesting facts about themselves and invite a chat about what their lives are like. President Obama did “I Barack Obama, President of the United States. AMA” over the summer. The AMAs are always fascinating to me because they give people the opportunity to ask questions, with the popular questions rising to the top (as people vote) and encourage dialogue with the person (the IamA) and with other Redditors.
The system usually seems to take care of itself, with obnoxious questions downvoted and popular, interesting, questions rising to the top. Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, they always have questions about the Museum and about my work and when I give public presentations, the Q+A at the end is always my favorite part. I talked to Kyra about it and then emailed Elissa to see what she thought of the idea of the Museum doing an AMA.
Kyra: Last month a friend sent me a link to a group of WWII and Holocaust post-liberation photographs someone had posted to Reddit. Becky had seen the same posting. At the time we both thought that it might be a good thing to put our information out there so that when things like this are posted to Reddit, they would know to get in touch with us.
We get so many questions all the time, so the AMA was another great way to get it out there. Becky and I have worked on programs for the website and using Facebook & Twitter, so this was another way for us to get our information out there to a new audience.
Elissa: When Becky got in touch with me about doing an AMA, she mentioned seeing an AMA with a Holocaust survivor that had generated significant interest and, shockingly, received questions that were generally respectful. Throughout grad school and my early professional career as an educator, I’d been treated to the old saw about how curators are stodgy and stuffy, and most importantly highly protective of their content and not open to inviting the public to interact with it. Becky’s message to me was not only a chance for the Museum to reach out to a new audience and be a little audacious about opening up our material and staff members to questions, but also turned any myths I’d heard about curators on their head.
2. Can you describe the technical process?
Becky: You can view everything on Reddit without signing up, but to vote on a post or question, or to start a new chat like an AMA, you need to have an account. Signing up for an account is pretty easy and free. You don’t even need to give an email address, just a user name and password. To start a new chat, you click “Submit a link” and then choose that you want to submit text in the “IamA” subforum. It’s very easy. We did figure out that we needed to refresh the page to get new questions and comments, but since you can sort the new items to the top, that helped us figure out how the chat was progressing.
Kyra: We agreed that we should have a unified professional username (USHMMCurators) and that Becky and I would work together to answer the questions. Elissa would point out when new questions were posted and find the links we wanted to connect back to on the Museum’s website, while Becky and I worked together to craft the answers.
Elissa: The three of us didn’t have any experience using Reddit. As far as I knew before Monday, it was a place where people who didn’t have anything nice to say went to write mean responses to well-meaning OPs (original posters).
With help from friends and colleagues, we figured out these steps:
- Sign up for an account on Reddit.
- Navigate using the links in the header to “IAMA.”
- Scroll down and look at the right-hand sidebar. All the way at the bottom, there is a box that says “Moderators.” Click on “Message the moderators” at the top of this box.
- Write a message telling the mods who you are, what institution you’re from, who’s going to be doing the AMA, and when you will open the AMA. (They wrote back right away saying “Awesome!”)
- Figure out what you’re doing for proof. IAMA requires that you prove who you are, since you’ll be saying (for instance) “I’m a curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Ask Me Anything!” If you can’t prove who you are, sometimes the mods will take down your thread (as happened with “Stephen King,” who started an AMA during ours but couldn’t prove that he was the author of “The Shining”). Becky and Kyra used their business cards, which show their names, their titles, and the name of the institution, but were able to cover up the contact information
- Write a brief introduction: Who are you? What do you do at your institution? What kinds of questions would you like to be asked?
- Your AMA begins at the moment you start the thread, so wait until the time you would like to start to click on “Submit a Link” in the IAmA subforum. Post your title (“We are curators at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Ask us anything!”), then post your description and proof of identity.
- Submit and wait for questions to come in. (This is a good time to tweet out the link to your AMA and post it on Facebook, Google+, etc.)
- When they do come in (and they will!), all you need to do is click on “reply” below a question. It often helps to sort the thread by “new”: above the stream of questions, there is a drop-down link that will start out saying “top”. Click on the down arrow and select “new.” When you refresh the page, the newest responses will show up.
- At the very top right of the page, above your username, there is an envelope icon. This is your inbox. When mods respond to your initial question, their response will show up here. This is also where responses to your responses will show up, as well as any private messages you receive. It can be difficult to find new responses that reply to your replies, so look for them here. We did receive two private messages during the chat as well.
- Have a system for posting. Becky and Kyra crafted replies together in a Google Doc and I posted them (as USHMMCurators) when they are completed.
3. Were you surprised by the number or quality of the questions?
Becky: We originally planned to chat between 3pm and 5pm, but we were having so much fun we stayed until the last possible moment. So we hosted for about 3 hours, and also posted a series of follow-up answers the next morning. The big question for us was whether or not we were going to get “trolled.” I saw an AMA with a Holocaust survivor a few months ago, and the questions were so respectful and intelligent that I was sure that we would be okay. And we were! There were a few trolls, but they got so many downvotes that they didn’t even show up after a while. The nice thing was seeing how people answered the trolls–either by downvoting or by engaging in debate with them, defending us. We never had to address anything we weren’t comfortable with. It was a lot of fun. There were questions we didn’t expect to be asked, questions we expected that never came up, and we had the opportunity to share stories, information, ways to get involved, and even some opinions. Most of the questions and comments were respectful and asked with genuine curiosity, which was great.
Kyra: We had a great time! I was pleased that we were able to educate people about the Museum itself and not just about our collection. One person didn’t realize that the other Holocaust museums around the country work independent from us, so I’m glad we were able to mention that. I was also kind of hoping we would get asked ANYTHING like “What is your favorite sandwich” or “What do you do when you’re not at work” (that kind of thing), but they were all Holocaust or Museum related questions.
Elissa: Because Becky and Kyra are outstanding question-answerers, all I had to do was sit in the room, keep up with the Twitter and Facebook chatter about the AMA, pull links off our website as needed to augment their answers, and occasionally keep an eye on the stream to see where new questions had come in.
I was very pleasantly surprised at the wisdom of the crowd. The questions and answers that received the most up-votes were about oral histories, Becky and Kyra’s “strangest object” stories, and a serious question about Holocaust denial, which (in my esteem as a reader) were some of their strongest responses as well, and the ones that we hope many users read and took to heart. We did receive some repeat questions, particularly about the 2009 shooting of Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns, why there are Holocaust museums in the United States, non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and the process of becoming a curator, but the team was able to pick up nuances of these questions or point the questioners back to other responses. In one great instance of the community picking itself up, a repeat question was answered so well by another user that we decided not to answer it ourselves.
It was exhilarating to be in the room while the questions were asked and answered. I felt that we opened up dialogue in a way we have not yet been able to master on our Facebook and Twitter channels. I hope this is just the beginning of reaching out to the community on Reddit.
4. How does this initiative fit into your museum’s mission? What audience are you reaching?
Becky: Curators always love talking about our collections. We’ll take any excuse we can do to that. We also always want to reach out to younger audiences, and Reddit is a young, technically savvy audience. As long as the tone stayed respectful, there were really no downsides. It was free and easy way to reach out to a new audience.
Kyra: I know that we’re always looking for new ways to reach out to different audiences. While one of my colleagues (who is less tech savvy) thought a lot of the questions were silly, I personally thought this was a great way to reach out to a younger audience who otherwise we may not have the opportunity to connect with.
Elissa: Becky wisely suggested that we have the AMA before the Museum’s first 20th anniversary event, which will take place this Sunday (December 9) in Boca Raton. While this wasn’t part of our marketing strategy to drum up support for the anniversary tribute and tour, the AMA was an unexpected boon to the registrations and excitement around the event. All three of us will be at the event this weekend, so Becky and Kyra were able to speak first-hand to questions about handling donations at the event, and plug the tour and the anniversary in general. We saw a spike in registrations that day, which may in part be attributed to the AMA. Since I’m relatively new (two months) to the social media coordinator, I’m still getting a handle on who our social constituents and consumers are. I look forward to finding out more about who these Redditors are, and how they fit in with, overlap with, and are different from consumers of information on our other social media channels.
For a long time, there has been concern that if we open our content and experts to questions, we are inviting deniers and participants whose viewpoints are at odds with the message of the Museum into our conversations. The fact that we invited unknown users to ask us anything–really anything!–and we had three solid hours of civil, warm, respectful, inspiring conversation with a community that has a reputation for being decidedly uncivil is a huge first step towards pursuing more open dialogue across all of our online channels.
5. Is this a one-off or do you anticipate future AMAs? Are there other ways your museum plans to participate on Reddit?
Becky: I would do it again anytime. We had a lot of fun. Beyond that, we proved that it can be done, and can be done HERE, which is a huge thing.
Kyra: I would love to do it again, and as I said while we were typing away, I think it would be great to see other Museum staff do it as well. I think it would be great to give the Museum an official voice on Reddit – not to constantly scan for comments or correct people—but to be available to answer questions that come up when people find items or have historical questions.
Elissa: I can’t wait to bring other staff members to Reddit. There was a lot of interest during the AMA in discussions of present-day genocide, so we are considering asking the Committee on Conscience, the arm of the Museum concerned with post-Holocaust and present-day genocide, if they would be interested in hosting their own AMA. I see possibilities for our teacher educators and trainers of law enforcement, judges, and the military to get involved as well. (I wouldn’t mind doing one myself, either!) I would jump at the chance for us to be the bearers of accurate content and to get involved in honest ongoing dialogue about the Holocaust on both sides, asking AND answering questions, sharing content and seeking ongoing engagement. I hope that other museums will join us there, too.
Have you seen other museums using Reddit? Do you think this is a good way to conduct outreach to new audiences? Share your questions and thoughts below.
A huge thanks to Becky Erbelding (@bec2933), Kyra Schuster (@KyraSchu), and Elissa Frankle (@museums365) for sharing their experiences!