Ask our Professor Anything!

Autism researcher Helen Tager-Flusberg in her office at Boston University, just before her AMA went live.

Reddit, a massive online community home to user-led discussions on every topic imaginable, bills itself as “the front page of the internet.” It’s a seemingly hyperbolic claim, until you realize that the site gets over 230 million unique visitors per month — more than streaming powerhouse Netflix and social network Pinterest.

Whenever a Boston University-owned link is posted on Reddit, we see an enormous spike in traffic. No matter which subreddit (a word in Reddit jargon that essentially means a collection of online discussion threads devoted to a single topic) our content is shared on, a single comment refers readers in droves. Since Reddit is a content aggregator and its users pick which content lands at the top of each page (by upvoting or downvoting comments), untrustworthy users and posts don’t last long — but a comment made in earnest is worth its weight in gold.

Simply put, Reddit is an organic traffic machine — if you’re lucky enough to have a user share your stuff. We wondered if there was an organic way we could use Reddit to increase awareness of the research happening at BU. We decided to have a professor host a timely, informative “AMA” (short for “Ask me anything!”) on the subreddit “r/IAmA: I Am A, where the mundane becomes fascinating and the outrageous suddenly seems normal.”

Enter Helen Tager-Flusberg, a professor here and an incredible source of knowledge on Autism Spectrum Disease. She has studied it for 40 years, and is considered a leading authority on the subject. In honor of Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, she agreed to host an AMA to connect with Redditors curious about her profession, her research, and Autism.

AMAs provide Reddit users with direct access to celebrities, scientists, journalists — anybody of interest, really. You name it. In doing an AMA, Helen joined the ranks of other famous AMA-ers like Barack Obama, Elon Musk, and Ronda Rousey, and not-so-famous (yet still extremely popular) AMA-ers, like a guy who survived a five-story fall, and a waitress who works at a Waffle House.

Helen submitted her Reddit AMA application — with photographic evidence proving she was who she said she was — and got accepted.

The questions started rolling in right away. They ranged from general — “What are the biggest misconceptions about autism?” — to quirky — “What did you think of the movie Rain Man?” — to wildly specific, about symptoms of ASD exhibited in certain people. In total, Helen answered over 80 questions (many of which had additional follow-up questions).

The format of AMAs allow experts like Helen to take their time answering questions, and to answer each and every question asked.

Our social media team has also experimented with Facebook Live broadcasts, and while they are fabulous and serve a time and place, not every audience-asked query gets its due response.

While the AMA did not drive traffic to our site, it served an entirely different purpose: it raised awareness of Helen’s research and the Center that she runs, and the information she provided helped people. At least 80 people had their questions answered, and many more read through the comments, learning about Helen and her work and other Redditors interested in Autism. The r/IAmA thread has around 16 million subscribers — all of whom are potential readers of any given AMA.

All in all, we considered the day a success — and so did Helen, which to us, was the most important part. We look forward to more Reddit AMA experimentation, and to helping connect more professors to the curious minds who frequent the site.

Check out Helen’s AMA here:

By Margaret Waterman, Digital Communications Assistant




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