It's one of the most common questions people ask: "What do you do?" It's American's fascination with work that's at the heart of an increasingly popular feature on social-news website Reddit.
Called "IAmA, AMA" -- as in "I am a (fill in your occupation), ask me anything" -- it allows Reddit users, known as "redditors," to ask all kinds of workers about their jobs, regardless of how mundane or weird they are.
While Reddit users frequently tap out questions to celebrities and other well-known types, such as actor Woody Harrelson and astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, many of the most popular chats are with those who identify themselves as less glamorous, from computer programmers to transgendered prostitutes. And users can easily spend hours reading the entertaining exchanges.
Recently, for instance, someone identified as a Google Inc. employee, IAmAGoogler, was asked: "Do you solve most of your problems at work by Googling them?"
IAmAGoogler's response? "A surprising number. It's kind of scary. :)"
Insight and Intrigue
Sometimes redditors' questions get tough. Take Edwina Rogers, a self-described Republican and atheist who heads the Secular Coalition of America, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organization for atheists. A reddit user asked her to explain her $1,000 contribution to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's failed presidential bid, given that Perry is a devout Christian. (Rogers explained on IAmA, "I was working to implement changes to Medicaid in the states and we wanted to work with any and all governors." Rogers added that she hopes Perry "sees the light," a reference to her own atheism.)
Often questions are more whimsical. SeanChuplis told the online group that he is an Air Force pilot who's "flown combat missions ... and traveled the world." A redittor asked, "Do you ever play volleyball shirtless with the Kenny Loggins song, 'Playing With the Boys,' going in the background?" -- a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Tom Cruise movie, "Top Gun," (which was actually about Navy pilots).
SeanChuplis's response? "All the time. Only when wearing cut off jean shorts, aviators and dog tags, though."
Some of the online conversations provide a window into some strange work situations. ThrowawayPRSed, for instance, described himself as a "male sysadmin at a private, catholic, all-girls school." Asked if he had "some crazy stories" to share, ThrowawayPRSed responded, in part: "Had a student who covered an entire wall in [feces] about 5 years ago because she truly hated the school (she was bullied it turns out). We've had a couple of pregnant students which, in a catholic school, really doesn't go down too well."
It's these kinds of exchanges that led Forbes magazine to dub Reddit's IAmA an "interview revolution," concluding that learning about the lives of ordinary Americans is "often infinitely more fascinating than even the biggest celebrities."
In part, that's because content that appears on Reddit is driven by users' votes, including which questions are to be posed, says General Manager Erik Martin. "There may be several hundred questions [asked] but only 20 or 25 are going to get answered," he says.
In an interview with AOL Jobs, Martin attributes the site's growing appeal to its rawness. "It's something much more real and sort of unbuttoned than things you find in press junkets."
Further, he says, the ability of the audience to participate in the forum makes it fun for participants and users. And the popularity of forums isn't limited to celebrities or people with particularly odd jobs. The ones that do the best, Martin says, are the ones who allow people "to see behind the curtain," regardless of whether they work in the porn industry or at the post office.
"People want to be able to ask direct questions and get candid answers from people who are doing or have done things that we normally don't get any insight into," he says.
Sniffing Out The Fakes
Of course, given the fact that people can post anonymously, the site is rife with potential fakes. Interview subjects -- which Reddit calls OPs for "original posters" -- are supposed to provide proof of their identity in the body of their post when submitting an IAmA.
But skeptical redditors often ask for additional proof, if the OP's ID remains questionable. One typical way is to ask contributors to post a photo of themselves with their Reddit ID written on piece of paper, as was the case for a recent contributor who claimed to be a 27-year-old transgendered prostitute in Singapore.
"It's certainly imperfect," Martin says. "But the chaos is part of the appeal."
Redditors can also request that specific people appear on IAmA, regardless of whether they are ordinary people or newsmakers. A petition among users popped up this week, for instance, to interview Jamie Lynn Grumet, the 26-year-old mother now featured on Time magazine's cover, breastfeeding her 3-year-old son. And there's a longstanding request to hear from President Obama.
So far, neither has responded to those requests.
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