The week of November 2, 2014

Me IRL: Wil Wheaton

By Fernando Alfonso III

Wil Wheaton is beloved for his role on Star Trek: The Next Generation, his guest spots on The Big Bang Theory, and his hit YouTube board game series TableTop.

But what’s often overlooked on his résumé is his Reddit chops.

As one of the first users of the site—his official account, wil, is eight years old—Wheaton has seen the best and worst Reddit has had to offer. He’s not just there for a quick promotional Q&A, either. Wheaton is plugged in. During a 40-minute phone conversation Thursday evening, as his dogs nipped at his heels for treats in his California home, Wheaton dug deep into Reddit’s history and controversies, like the fall of power user and science expert Unidan, who had his account banned from the site in July for vote manipulation.

“I like that Reddit lets you choose what type of experience you want to have and what type of community you want to interact with.”

Wheaton noted that the block Unidan received from the Reddit community was “reflective of society’s increased skepticism surrounding authenticity online.”

“I think we’re all very sensitive to that, and we should be,” he said. “If we have a community that is worth taking care of, if we have a source of information and entertainment that is worth keeping awesome, then we need to stay on top of it. It’s not black and white.”

With the new season of TableTop set to premiere Nov. 13, we spoke to Wheaton about board games, Gamergate, and Reddit’s business acumen.

First screen name:


Earliest memory of the Internet:

I used NCSA [National Center for Supercomputing Applications] Mosaic Web browser in the university’s computer lab, on their high-speed, 56K connection, to look at weather satellite images that were miraculously only five hours old. That was pretty much a miracle back then.

“Jif” or “gif”:

Jif. It is jif because the guy who invented the format called it a jif.

Favorite bizarre Wikipedia entry?

I guess it’s the Numbers Station entry. It’s a really great starting-off point for a whole lot of interesting things. My favorite thing with Wikipedia is to start on an article that I’m interested in and then just follow all the things that are connected to it and eventually land someplace really cool. I also love the page, and I don’t know the exact title of it, but it’s “Things People Believe Are Correct but Are Actually Really Wrong.”

If the Internet didn’t exist:

I’m not sure where I would be. I would imagine that I would still be struggling like crazy to make the transition from young actor to adult actor. I’m sure the world would continue to be even more openly dominated by a very few, very powerful people with access to the ability to communicate. What is amazing about the Internet is the freedom it has given creative people and political dissonance and writers and basically anyone who wants to communicate to people, the ability to do that without that individual needing to get permission from someone in power.

Essential app:


Must-follow on Twitter:

I don’t have one because it changes from moment to moment. During the Occupy Wall Street moment, there were people on the ground there who were important to follow at that time. During things like sports playoffs, there may be an account that’s funny or interesting. Back before when we found out that the whole world was a lie, @Horse_ebooks was a must-follow. That was a rough day when we found out that was all bogus. Really caused me to question everything I’d come to believe in the world.

Do you have a favorite social network?

No, they all kind of overlap and interact in their own way.

The Web would be better if…

…people weren’t dicks.

The Internet in five years:

Hopefully hasn’t been wrecked by Comcast.

You’ve been on Reddit for more than eight years, putting you in the camp of some of the oldest users of the site. What keeps you coming back?

I like that Reddit lets you choose what type of experience you want to have and what type of community you want to interact with. The default subreddits tend to get overrun, and when that’s the case, do not read the comments. Smaller ones that are specialized can be pretty great.

The homebrewing subreddit, the RPG and board games subreddits, the acting subreddit, the Los Angeles subreddit are all really great communities with really cool people who are overwhelmingly a pleasure to interact with. I say all of this knowing that my experience is going to be skewed by the fact people might see my name and recognize me.

I imagine, before the whole “jackdaw” incident [the argument that led Unidan to be banned], people treated Unidan a little differently. No one wanted to be an asshole when Unidan showed up. Nobody wants to be that guy that [Reddit celebrity] shitty_watercolour is like, “Man, you’re being a cock.” I think that people generally want to behave themselves around people they know or think they know. I’m really lucky in that, overwhelmingly, people are pretty decent to me online.

What did you make of Unidan’s inglorious exit from Reddit? Was is blown out of proportion?

I kinda didn’t care. I think we’re all very wary of being manipulated by marketers and brands. But when a person is doing something cool and interesting and worth reading, I didn’t feel that sense of betrayal that other people may have felt. I think there’s also a tribal popularity contest mentality. I know a lot of people are going to strongly disagree with that.

“Quite frankly, I’m ready for this whole thing to be over. I’ve defended games my whole life. It’s offensive to me that a small group of people are now using the passionate gamer community to be f**king dicks.”

What I think is super-sad is that his stuff was so cool and interesting, it would have been upvoted on its own. He didn’t need to do what he did. I miss the contribution that he made.

Is there a particular subreddit you’ve been a longtime member of?

I love the homebrewing subreddit. I don’t post there very often these days, but I lurk it all the time. When I was learning to make my own beer, it was extraordinarily valuable and a nonjudgmental community. One of the things I like about these communities that I’ve mentioned is that, in general, the people who post there are helpful and friendly and informative, and I’ve never felt like that if I ask a dumb question, people will jump all over me.

The acting subreddit is really great too. I’ve been trying to post there and help people out. There’s a lot of young actors asking for advice on technique and preparation and things like that. I feel like this is great; I have an opportunity to share some of the experience I’ve build up as an actor and give something to people.

Then there’s things that come and go. R/behindthegifs was hilarious and I feel like it’s run its course. I loved r/wedontsurf in the beginning, but now I’m getting really tired of seeing “blah blah you f****t” and “blah blah you n****r.” This was really funny until you started doing that.

For Reddit as company, 2014 is shaping up to be very memorable: an influx of money from celebs like Snoop Dogg, the purchase of Alien Blue, an undisclosed investment into Imgur, and the launch of Redditmade this past week. What are your thoughts on Reddit “growing up” as a business?

I remember when Imgur started. I was there the day that it first was posted, and we were all throwing money at that guy so he could pay for his bandwidth and keep it going. I like the way that Imgur has grown into its own separate entity and its own separate thing. And I like how it came together out of Reddit. I’m a long time Farker. I lurk; I don’t post anymore. For whatever reason, Farkers are super shitty to me. Back in the old days, Fark was a really fun place to hang out. We had tremendous Fark parties and we had fun Secret Santa exchanges, but nothing on the level of something like Alien Blue or Imgur. It speaks volumes to the emotional investment people have in the Reddit experience—that people have taken it upon themselves to make that experience better for other people. They did it because they thought it would be awesome and not to make any money off it.

I am thrilled that Reddit bought Alien Blue because it is an amazing app. I wish there was something on Android as gorgeous and perfect as Alien Blue.

In terms of Gamergate, you’ve stated on Tumblr, “I have never, in my life, been ashamed to call myself a gamer. Until now. These misogynist little shitbags are a disgrace to our community.” Building off of that, do you have any advice for people involved in Gamergate?

Young people have reached out to me, and they tend to be 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds who really believe that the whole Gamergate thing is against bullying and about ensuring that video games are ethical. It’s really hard to help young people who genuinely believe the thing they love is being massively attacked. Which it’s not. [I want] to help them understand and believe that they are just people manipulated and used by people with a very, very clear agenda. This misogynist, anti-woman agenda existed long before Adam Baldwin called it “Gamergate,” which is kind of ridiculous because putting anything like this on par with Watergate is just stupid and juvenile. Those efforts are going to continue.

If you genuinely care about gaming, make gaming inclusive. This idea that there’s a “death of the gamer” completely misses the point, because you don’t identify someone as a “moviegoer”; everyone goes to the movies. And you don’t identify someone as a “book reader”; everybody reads. And I think that it is awesome that games have reached a level of ubiquity in our culture where everyone wants to play them, and everyone wants them to be accessible. And the idea that someone may make a game that is not a derivative of the first-person shooter, [and it] will somehow prevent the next derivative of a first-person shooter from coming out, is ludicrous. All you have to do is look through the indie forums on Steam to see how many non-derivative first-person shooters there are. And the idea that gaming is somehow under assault because of that is so fucking childish.

Quite frankly, I’m ready for this whole thing to be over. I’ve defended games my whole life. It’s offensive to me that a small group of people are now using the passionate gamer community to be fucking dicks.

It’s offensive to me that a small group of people are now using the passionate gamer community to be fucking dicks.

TableTop comes back Nov. 13. Your record of winning on the show isn’t the best. Have you ever secretly taken home the TableTop Trophy of Awesome?

[Laughs] The TableTop Trophy of Awesome belongs to the set and lives with the art department in the offseason.

I have a couple of missions with TableTop. No. 1, I want more people to play games. I want games to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible. I want people to watch TableTop and get excited about the games they are seeing and excited to play them. Whoever wins a game is really not important to me, unless you’re playing in a tournament for something. The winner of a game should never be more important than the joyful experience of playing the game together. I taught my kids that you can compete without being competitive. That’s sort of the way I play on TableTop. I want to play the other players but not at the expense of having fun.

I have so much going on during a game: I’m hosting, I’m keeping everyone comfortable, I’m marking things in my head to tell the editors when we finish rolling, then also trying to play a game. My win-loss ratio is pretty remarkable when you consider all the other things I have to do. With that said, there were two times this season where I could have been in a position to win a game that was important to me, but I was so tired because we toward the middle of second half of production and lost focus and made a stupid move.

A memorable moment occurred in episode 4, when your wife almost destroyed Ticket to Ride in the end. What’s it like to work with your spouse, and what did you both make of that moment afterward?

My wife, Anne, is my most best friend in the world. I remember being a kid and asking my dad, “Hey who’s is your best friend?” And he said, “Your mom.” And I remember thinking you have to say that because mom makes the food happen, but dude, seriously. I just didn’t get that your wife could be your best friend. We play games together all the time. We do stupid things together all the time. We try really hard to make each other laugh; that’s the nature of our relationship.

When that happened I immediately thought, “Oh shit, we have to reshoot the entire episode,” because we just lost it. We lost the board. Then I thought, “Oh my God, everyone is going to be mad at Anne for doing that.” Then I thought, “Anne is going to be really upset at herself because when I asked her to come play on the show, she said, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to mess something up.’” I was like, “No, no, it will be fine.” It ended up being a fun moment. It’s also kind of cool because it put into the common vocabulary of TableTop [the phrase] “Anne Wheaton–ing it,” which is completely obliterating a game unintentionally.

What are your feelings on longform show formats when Geek & Sundry seems to be moving toward shorter programs?

I think that there’s room for everything on the Internet.

There was a time where everyone balked if you said you were making anything five minutes long, because who has time. Over time I think that has changed. The culture has changed and the expectations for content online have changed.

Geek & Sundry is moving toward some longer-format things to go with the shorter format things we already have. I like that we are different types of programming. We are doing programming that is very much on par with what you see on TV, and we’re doing things that can only exist on the Internet.

Is there anything you can share about this upcoming season?

I’m just really grateful who participated in the crowdfunding of this season. It allowed us to make exactly what we wanted to make and programming where we didn’t have to respond to network executives. We were able to make a show that people already love because the people who loved it supported it. I have crowdfunding fatigue like everyone else does. I’m not entirely sure it’s a model I’ll go with again because I don’t feel comfortable going out asking people a second time. I’m incredibly grateful to people who backed us and supported us. We’ve learned so much through the years that we’ve been able to streamline some things in production and do some things that let us do more show than in the past.

Illustration by J. Longo