Temple Grandin's AMA for Reddit Wins CSU a Webby

Temple Grandin is a world-renowned public speaker, autism activist and animal-science academic at Colorado State University who loves connecting with her fans on a personal level. The success of the HBO movie about Grandin and her best-selling books show that there's immense interest in her work, and the CSU social and digital media department team decided to expand access. The medium of choice was redditt, and using the Subreddit of Science, CSU held an Ask Me Anything session, aka an AMA, with Grandin. The reddit AMA with Temple Grandin was such a hit that last week it won top honors in the Social: Education and Discovery category in the nineteenth annual Webby Awards. We caught up with Colorado State University social and digital media director Kimberly Stern the week after the big announcement to talk about how the AMA came to be.

Westword: Rddit isn't a super-conventional form of social media, especially for colleges, so how did that come about?

Kimberly Stern:
Well, we were interested in using reddit because we knew it was a powerful communications tool — but we weren't sure how to utilize it, because it has a reputation of being a little rough and hard to make a positive impression. So we really wrestled with it for a while. We asked, "How can we leverage the power of reddit, the front page of the Internet, to promote CSU's programs, people, research?" Then, in early 2014, we explored the opportunity to feature our scientists in AMAs. It seemed like a really great opportunity to plug in our prominent researchers and have the public ask them questions. We did a couple of them. It was good for us to have some under our belt. Because of these other opportunities with these other researchers, we saw, wow, reddit could be really great for Dr. Grandin.

One thing that was communicated to me when I was working with the College of Agricultural Sciences is that Dr. Grandin is really interested in connecting with audiences outside of her normal tour circuit. She really wants to connect with people, in any way.

What were the logistics of the actual AMA event? 

Reddit is not very visually appealing, but with Dr. Grandin, she requested that Ruth Woiwode, a graduate student who has been working with her for ten years, write her answers out. So she typed out the responses that Dr. Grandin spoke, and it was a really a special experience to watch. Dr. Grandin proofread all the responses, and it was really meticulous and intentional with the words she spoke and she transcribed. Questions opened at 8 a.m. Eastern, so 6 a.m. here, and by the time Dr. Grandin started answering questions, we had over 1,000 questions.

Was that overwhelming for the team or for Dr. Grandin?

How we handled that was that one of our team members went though and curated the questions. She looked for themes. So as an example, lots of people are wondering how they can support a child with autism. So we were able to point Ruth and Dr. Grandin in the right direction and say this is is a common theme, so that's how we tackled it.

Common themes included autism advocacy questions. A lot of people were interested in the HBO movie and wondering if Dr. Grandin was pleased with the way she was portrayed, and she was. Third would be the cattle and animal handling, and another was being a female and working in a predominately male-dominated ranching beef-industry field. She was very candid to say, "It was not easy."

Something interesting I saw in the thread was that although the AMA was in the Science Subreddit, the public's interest went far past black-and-white science. What was it like seeing her personal moments happen with Dr. Grandin?

I didn't realize at the time what an extraordinary opportunity it was to hear from her — and she wants to help everyone she can help. So she'll want more information, so we would offer her up some autism-support questions, and she wanted more details. And we had to try to go with the questions that thematically represented a lot of what she wanted to say. Really, her advice is: When kids are young, they need to be worked with hands-on for many, many hours.

I read an answer she gave saying that for children showing signs of autism, Dr. Grandin suggests twenty to thirty hours a week of one-on-one interaction, and if resources are a concern, use family like grandparents to work and play with the child. It's so powerful how specific she was in her answers.

Yes, she made sure she was being very accurate. And so we didn't get through a large number of questions, maybe ten to twelve questions, and we were saying that people who got their questions, like, won the lottery because out of of all of them, she said, "Yes, I want to answer that question." It was really special.

Why do you think that this AMA was so popular, beyond it being with Dr. Grandin? What do you think drove such a powerful response?

Since this was a Science AMA, we had to submit a recent paper that she published on cattle handling to even be considered to host an AMA on the Subreddit, and Dr. Grandin said this during the AMA. She said, "I am a scientist first and the fact that I am autistic comes second." I just thought that was amazing, and that gives people in the autism community so much hope and they can really see that their child can be a Dr. Grandin. They can be whoever they want to be!

You had a Google Hangout a few months later. Was that to give more access to Dr. Grandin?

That's exactly right. Since this was so successful, and she really appreciated it, she's like, "Let's do this again." So we intentionally aligned the Google Hangout to happen in April with Autism Awareness Month. Dr. Grandin is such a great advocate and therefore a hook for autism awareness; people are already talking about it and so through this she could be part of that conversation and people could have access to her.

What does the Webby represent for you, personally and professionally?

We weren't planning on this at all, and at the time we knew the opportunity to have Dr. Grandin on an AMA was special, but we didn't know really how special. And literally, the power of the silly little iPhone captured some video, and then it was made into a behind-the-scenes video, so that was cut together, and we shared it on our social media channel. So then people could see this taking place and see the discussions that happened right there. Everyone could experience it. And that's the power of social media. And that's where I think this reddit AMA went even farther, because of what this team did with it. We didn't let it live and die in that one hour; it lived on, and it was so cool.

What has Dr. Grandin's reaction been to winning this award?

We haven't talked about it to her directly yet, but I know she'd be thrilled and honored.

Read the reddit AMA thread here. Colorado State University is continuing to do reddit AMA sessions with its researchers. The next one will be in June with Dr. Phil Clabaugh, a world-renowned hurricane researcher. Find more info at CSU's Facebook and Twitter accounts.