The news aggregator/social platform "Reddit" organically comes up with a lot of things. Aside from being a place where information travels faster than Breaking News, it came up with a subreddit called IAMA - which means "I am A". The general gist of that was to say "I am a (blank), ask me anything about it". Some of the initial interviews were fascinating - with the anonymity that the Internet provides, you had motorcycle gang members and Chuck E Cheese employees give insightful and intriguing answers to things you didn't even realize you were curious about.
Winston Churchill once famously said something to the effect that if you find yourself at a party next to a man who, say, makes glass eyeballs - don't talk about yourself, ask about what he does - you'll find yourself fascinated by that new world of eyeball manufacture you had no idea you even wanted to know about. IAma made that happen. And as it grew, it attracted celebrities, first minor ones, then major ones. Some AMAs (ask me anything) have been interesting and insightful. Arnold Schwarzenegger extended his legend to an entirely new generation as he, as Arnold is apparently wont to do, mixed with a young crowd like Bill Murray gatecrashing a student party - and simply talked to people man to man.
And then there was the absolute disaster that happened 'three years ago'. (Reddit doesn't tell you the exact date, but a humanized date).
Woody Harrelson is an interesting character. He doesn't have movie star good looks, he's bald, short and pedestrian looking - but he's played a bunch of really neat roles. He's been that weird unintelligent bar back and a serial killer. In his private life he's a marijuana activist, vegan activist and his father was a hit man who murdered a federal judge. You better believe there's a lot of things people wanted to explore with Mr. Harrison, even if it was to go on and on and on about weed.
Woody had other plans.
The first sign was that he devoted fifteen minutes to the project.
"It's happening - I'm answering questions for about 15 minutes."
the second sign was the constraints he thought were being put on the project.
"Bring on the questions on Rampart!"
Why 15 minutes? Because he was doing a press tour.
"I’m in New York today doing interviews for my new film RAMPART, which opens in theaters on February 10th."
The mismatch in expectations was apparent even from the absolute get-go.
He did answer two questions about veganism:
"I did it for energy. And i have to say, it works."
"Initially, it was an energetic pursuit, but eventually I did develop a deep compassion for animals. I'd eat a burger, and want to go to sleep. I started for energy. And it has served me well."
But every other question was either steered to be about "Rampart"
- "The reason I love seeing you in movies is that you always seem so natural, well adjusted, and in-character no matter the role. What has been your most difficult role to prepare for, and why?"
- "This character in Rampart was the most difficult. I have a hard time seeing myself as a cop, being slightly anti-authoritarian, so I really had to immerses myself in that mentality. It was a challenge, but it was one I was psyched to meet. Especiallly working with Oren Moverman."
- (long convoluted question that implied he had sex with and dumped an underage girl)
- "First of off, its not true, and second off, I don't want to answer questions about that. Lets focus on the film people"
The problem with this answer was that the bulk of the answer wasn't a denial of something obviously false, but the assertion that he didn't want to talk about anything other than the movie he was promoting.
The response to this was swift.
- "You said AMA. That means "Ask Me Anything." Not "Ask Me Anything with regards to this movie I'm pushing.""
and as the AMA went on and most questions went ignored except for ones he could use to talk about the film, he lost the room.
Someone asked him if he knew what he was getting into:
- "Did you know about reddit before today?"
and he replied
- "I know Oren Moverman did an interview here. I did just learn about it, so I'm trying."
The "interview" was the AMA that Oren Moverman did. Woody showed the whole room right there that what he thought this was was simply yet another press thing, another outlet to give the standard interview to.
"Let's focus on the film." "Bring on the questions about Rampart" started to make more sense.
The next answer was fatal.
Someone exasperatedly asked "should we change this from "Ask Me Anything" to "Ask Me Anything About Rampart?"" and Harrelson replied:
- "We gotta be...i consider my time valuable."
One telling rebuttal to this was
- "News Flash: All of us consider our time valuable."
Ignoring most questions that were coming in, which were about him as a person, or generally asking about his interests or personal history, he next picked a fluff question to answer:
- "Just re-watched Larry Flynt the other night. Just had to come in and comment on a wonderful job. Also, loved your performance in 'After the Sunset'. Keep up the great work!"
To which he did the equivalent of a nod.
- "very kind thing to say."
But by then the room was completely against him.
- "Very kind of you to tell us how your time is valuable."
- "You know, the thing about the movies you mentioned was that they all lead up to my great discovery for the phenomenal film that Rampart is. In fact, the funny thing about your praise is that it really goes to show that I've developed the maturity necessary to be able to play tough roles like my current one in Rampart. Man, you should see this movie. Actually, if you can't, you can just send money via paypal to our Rampart donation center here at firstname.lastname@example.org for supporting reddit, ya know? My time after all is very valuable."
Someone tried to get his attention by trying a similar "question"
- Natural Born Killers is one of my favourite films of all time! Thank you for taking the time to do this AMA! :)
Harrelson ignored it, but the rest of the userbase didn't.
- Taking what time to do this AMA?
to which someone else replied
Someone tried to see if he'd actually talk about his other movies:
- What movie was the most fun for you to work on? Are you happy with the reception Zombieland received?
which elicited a terse answer.
- Well I usually wouldn't say fun...intense, challenging, engaging, yeah.
They were asking open ended questions, trying to get SOMETHING out of him other than the pat answers you usually get. Remember that the delight of an AMA is going beyond the questions that are prepared and getting the kind of personal interaction people dream of having with a celebrity.
There's a charm in watching that video of an older Jewish lady on the New York City subway that Jay-Z sat next to when he famously took the subway to some huge Madison Square Garden show. She'd figured out he was someone important but had no idea who he was and their quiet conversation back and forth, memorialized on YouTube, was just two people on a subway, as opposed to one of the biggest rappers on earth and a sycophantic interviewer.
- "Out of all the roles you played, which has been the most rewarding, most difficult, and most fun? And if you are willing to answer...what's the one role you wish you didn't take?"
Woody still didn't get the purpose of what people were asking:
- "Can I say rampart? It really took over my life for a while. I wouldn't say fun is the operative word."
Communicating that you're irritated with your fan base for going "off script" and saying in essence that you hate your job isn't the best way to promote yourself. Most of the audience for the AMA had just gone off and started bashing him by that point.
But bless them, there were people that tried to get SOMETHING out of him to learn more
- "What do you do in your freetime? Hobbies, etc. Favorite places to travel and explore?"
to which he gave a pat non-answer.
- "In my free time I'm mainly with my family. that's a pretty strong bond."
He then amplified this answer, to once again make it about Rampart:
- "As I said, with my family, it's a strong bond. So that helps. But I relate to a character and his love of his family. For example -- I have 3 daughters, Dave Brown has 2. That pain he was feeling when things are not going well. That..that I can really sink my teeth into that. Sink my emotionality there."
User "eatabullet" had finally had enough.
"Who the fuck asked you about your family? Who is Dave Brown? What the fuck are you talking about?
Do you need an adult?"
And that was it.
Woody signed off with "Thanks for the great questions. It's a really busy day and I'm going to try to come back...but no guarantees." which was an obvious "fuck you, I'm out of here".
However in his absence, the AMA took on a life of its own:
- "Question to Mr Harrelson's PR guy, what are you planning to do with all the free time you'll have now?"
- "Answering questions for 15 minutes? Reddit isn't your personal movie advertising website."
- "I'm Woody Harrelson, and I don't have time to deal with your questions, commoners. P.S. watch my new movie."
- "So we're boycotting this movie right?"
- "How many times a day does Oren's cock come out of your ass?"
and most importantly
- "Since you apparently only want to answer questions about Rampart, I guess I have one question:
What type of questions were you expecting to get about a movie that none of us have seen?"
Three things came out of the whole affair:
1) Woody Harrelson lost a lot of fans, by explicitly stating that he wanted no actual interaction with them! He took a group of people who in some cases had taken time off work hoping to learn more about a guy they liked and supported and got told they were nothing but potential customers.
2) Celebrities were on alert: you don't get to just shill your product in New Media. In fact, what came out of this was that you need to realize that YOU are the product, and if people are talking to you "personally" on New Media, they expect a level of interaction akin to a conversation, not being transmitted an image. Some learned from this, and some later AMAs were charming and in fact legendary. Reddit ALSO learned from this and hired a Director Of Communications to groom celebrities for this and to type out answers so that they were less "yeah. Rampart rampart, oren rampart rampart."
Reddit has since taken a different approach, trying to get celebrities to actually participate in the site not on a one-shot basis but on an ongoing basis. Wil Wheaton, William Shatner, Zach Braff, Snoop Dogg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and others all regularly participate, not just when they're selling something. Arnold likes to talk about fitness. Snoop shares his interest in marijuana. We know about Wheaton's love of making beer. We're engaged with them as people.
3) The level of goodwill you get is staggering. Chris Kluwe is a regular Redditor, and when it was revealed in /r/NFL he was an actual poster there, many people forgot or dropped their team rivalry/hatred and accorded him love. Bear Gryllis Secret Santa'd a survival package and the recipient gushed about it to the degree it was picked up all over the world.
It means the nature of celebrity is changing yet again. We're moving to an age where the old-school, old world idea of celebrity as someone royal-like who "makes an appearance" and then swans off is dying. TMZ goes about it the wrong way, paparazzi have killed people trying as well - sticking in cameras every waking minute and no intrusion is off limits.
But Reddit and other new media make for another possibility - for interaction to be personal, relatable. Still at arm's length enough that it's over a keyboard and not with the other person in your house or peering in your window - but intimate enough that whoever was blessed with a kind word or a relatable story about you walking your dog will follow your next project no matter what it is.
This won't help Woody Harrelson, though. He hasn't logged in since. The number of memes about him in the aftermath were staggering, none of them anything but insulting. And he's now notorious as being the worst interview ever, a churlish date rapist who thinks other people are beneath him until it's time to open their wallets. If anything the "date rape" story grew legs because it was the only interesting question/answer out of the whole thing. "Thanks for the kind words" doesn't really grab you. "I don't want to talk about a rape story" on the other hand... whoever decided to make that the standout question and response deserves to be fired.
But then again - the number of people who forget the most important adage about sales is legendary. "Nobody wants to be sold anything, but people want to buy."