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Woody Harrelson Makes The Internet Cringe: A Need For Authenticity In The Digital Era

So we’ve all had a good laugh after hearing about Woody Harrelson‘s disastrous AMA session on Reddit two days ago, where a proxy for the actor (let’s face it, that wasn’t him typing those answers) basically gave vague answers to half of the questions and in-no-way subtle plugs for his upcoming movie Rampart to the other half. It was a public relations nightmare, and while it certainly raised awareness about the movie, it definitely backfired.

This was like if Mitt Romney did an AMA: it came across as robotic and represented an inability to connect with people when it should have been insanely easy to do so.

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But there’s something else at work here: a general misunderstanding of the internet from those whose productions are still reliant on visual media. We are more than a decade into a new millennium, and it seems like the Hollywood crowd still doesn’t understand how to successfully market in the digital age. This is not a universality, of course. There are some more adept at marketing on digital media than others. But the failure of Rampart‘s PR people to effectively market the movie online is clearly symptomatic of a general misunderstanding of how the internet works.

“AMA” stands for “Ask Me Anything.” Some people have the option of going for an “AMAA,” which means “Ask Me Almost Anything.” That second one tells you right off the bat there are certain questions the subject will just not answer, no matter what. But when you agree to having a celebrity come on a forum to answer questions, you should have some idea of what the forum is about. The most cringeworthy aspect of the Harrelson AMA was the disjointed sentences in the replies. Here are pieces of the responses throughout the session to illustrate the point.

well there was a lot of …the great thing about working with Oren is …he gives you an incredible playground. And all the tools… great direction, wonderful words to say…and inside of that he says “go play.”

Especially Brie, who initially that part was much smaller, just by virtue of her…the power of her personality

also you just feel completely safe and protected…Oren, he just won’t let you fail

When people speak, they tend to switch thoughts mid-sentence. Who does that when typing things out? Did they think this would make Harrelson sound more authentic? I read excerpts aloud and realized this is the kind of drivel you could probably hear verbatim if the movie was being plugged on an entertainment news program or late night talk show.

The problem is, the internet is a completely different platform from television. TV is all about creating moments to captivate audiences. Shows branded as “reality television” are perhaps the least realistic programs on the air right now. On the internet, everything happens in real time, and when you appear in a forum like Reddit, you need to come across as authentic and unscripted. The distance of television means politicians and public figures can get away with saying all sorts of nonsense without anyone being able to call them out on it effectively, with the occasional exception. The internet does not give you the same luxury. You need to be willing to speak off the cuff and have your facts on hand, because fact-checking through crowdsourcing is now more common than ever.

As any persuasive writer will tell you, the best arguments are the ones tailor-made to each specific audience. When you’re on Letterman, you crack a few jokes, recite the lines that the studio fed you to plug your project, and that’s it. When you’re interviewed by The New York Times, you speak more intellectually about the acting process and the themes addressed in the movie. And when you’re doing an AMA on Reddit, you drop the act and engage with real people. Some will be fans, some won’t, but if you’re just honest and it doesn’t seem like your answers have been planned out, people will respect you for it.

Of course, this isn’t really about Hollywood or Woody Harrelson or Reddit. It’s about presenting yourself as authentically as possible, because with the high level of skepticism you find on the internet these days, there is a lower tolerance for bullshit or hearing someone’s talking points.

Hollywood is in the business of creating moments, so allowing one to just pop up organically is unheard of. (This also applies to Washington.) That’s why insiders completely misunderstood how SOPA got shelved in the first place. TechDirt’s Mike Masnick explains:

I was amazed at how many people from the legacy music business believe, 100%, that the reason SOPA/PIPA were stopped was because Google stepped up its lobbying efforts. I can’t even begin to count how many conversations I had with people trying to explain to them that Google only played a small role in what happened, really jumping on the bandwagon pretty late in the game. It was a widespread group of internet users who spoke up, and that really has changed the equation. And Hollywood still can’t seem to wrap its mind around that.

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Mesnick adds that Hollywood might be in this state of reactive shock because it’s worried that it “no longer drives pop culture.” And for the most part, that’s true. But the reason people prefer comedians like Ricky Gervais to host award shows is because they’re no longer amused by industry toadies just getting up there, smiling awkwardly for the camera, and pretending the whole thing isn’t about Hollywood pleasuring itself. They want someone more raw and honest who’s willing to bite the hand that feeds them. We are slowly beginning to fade away from an era where we’re perfectly content to see such blatant fakery on television. People are more cynical about the media than ever, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I’m not talking about pure honesty here. That’s a separate issue. But this is the 21st century. People need to learn how to engage with people without the aid of agents or communications directors. In the past few months, candidates for political office have done AMAs on Reddit that worked out very well, because they were willing to answer unconventional questions and drop certain formalities to fit in with the format.

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