Arthur Chu Took His Jeopardy Winnings and Went to War With Trivial Ideas

His impressive recall made him famous, but when the internet turned on him, he made himself into an ambassador for enlightened thinking. 

Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.

Name: Arthur Chu

Original Hometown: Albany, New York

Job: Internet Celebrity, 11-time Jeopardy champion, geek culture commentator, writer. Chu’s writing has been featured in The Washington Post, CNN, Good Morning America, Business Insider, The Daily Beast, Salon, NBC News, Slate, The AV Club, ABC News, NPR, The Pacific Standard, and more.

You’ve had a very interesting career path: You’re far from a standard internet writer. How did you get your start?

I’ve been writing for a long time, going all the way back to when I was in college. I dabbled in creative stuff: community theater, submitting to literary magazines, that sort of thing. But the random thing that happened was me getting on the game show Jeopardy! And not just getting on the show, but going viral. I got a lot of attention for a number of weird reasons, mainly just that I played the game in an unusual way. It was kind of a perfect storm.

My episodes were stretched out over a long period of time and a lot of people noticed that I played the game in an unusual way. A lot of people didn’t like me and it turned into a social media controversy.

The main thing I was struggling to deal with was, “What do I do with all of this attention I wasn’t prepared for? Do I hunker down and wait it out, or do I engage in it?” One of the reasons people were paying attention to me was because I was out there. I did voiceover work in the past, so I had a website with my contact info on it. That’s how they were finding me.

So I pushed forward with the engagement. One of the things I especially tried to do was present myself as having a voice. Instead of just having other people tell my story, I sort of aggressively started writing essays about my own experience. It established that Arthur Chu — aside being a celebrity for a random thing — has interesting stuff to say.

There was a guy who interviewed me for The Daily Beast who told me after the piece, “Hey, I like your writing, I’d be happy to take submissions from you about random stuff that you’re interested in writing about.” So I started doing that. A breakthrough moment was after the Isla Vista shootings in Santa Barbara. I was supposed to write about The Big Bang Theory. The weekend that happened, I sat down to write, and the only thing I could think about was this narrative in The Big Bang Theory about the nerd getting together with the hot chick and how it was deeply embedded into Elliot’s writing about why he committed his mass murder — he had this thing in his head that he was entitled to as a nerdy guy. That essay about misogyny and entitlement and nerds went viral.

A lot of people heard about me through that who hadn’t heard about me through Jeopardy! Then it turned into people who wanted to hear my perspective as a guy from nerd culture who had a lot to say about the problems with it. That’s kind of turned into my gig. When Gamergate happened last year, it turned into a big issue in the public eye.

I think me being willing to talk about it uncompromisingly and having established myself with my cred — I’m a huge nerd too, otherwise I wouldn’t be the weird awkward guy on Jeopardy! — helped.

What made you decide to try out for Jeopardy! in the first place?

I spent my whole life being that guy who always knows about trivia. When making small talk, I used anecdotes and trivia as opposed to talking about my own life. Jeopardy was always the go-to thing people would tell me to do. Thankfully nowadays it’s very easy to go out for that show. They have an online test so you can do it from home. I had actually forgotten that I had auditioned because they called me a year and a half later. I had done it twice before and nothing happened. Then I got a call this time, and it was the time.

What’s it really like to be at the center of a lot of negative internet chatter? Did you ever expect to be internet-famous?

I didn’t have time to react, everything happened so quickly. I knew that going in, I had broken double digits with the number of episodes I taped. I won a lot of money, so I expected that to get a lot of attention, but I didn’t expect to get as much as I did early on. Before that even happened, when they only aired four of my episodes, there were already people blowing up on Twitter talking about me, I was getting phone calls. You don’t have any time to think about it. You’re just reacting in the moment, which is why I try not to judge how other people react because it’s so unpredictable.

It happens overnight. I would say if it happened to me 10 years or even five years ago I probably would have reacted very differently. In order to be able to handle yourself and that kind of controversy where you have thousands of people having an opinion on you, you have to have a strong support system and a strong foundation on who you are and what you’re about — otherwise you’re going to just drown in it.

What was the most surprising thing about your Jeopardy! experience?

There was this huge reaction to me on Twitter after my first night on Jeopardy. There was a moment where I was like, “Okay, this isn’t going away; this is going to be a big thing.” That was that moment where I had to make the decision of “Do I go forward or hide in a hole until it ends?” For better or for worse, I made the decision to go forward and try to ride that wave of publicity. It’s turned out okay so far. I guess the other thing would be the shocking moment where I wrote something and I saw it getting shared all over the place. For the first time, people are talking about something I wrote on its own terms, sharing it without even knowing who wrote it. That was a big moment for me — how many people know me as “Arthur Chu the writer” versus “Arthur Chu the Jeopardy guy.” I was so pleasantly surprised every time someone said they knew me from my writing and didn’t realize I was on Jeopardy!

So since you used that Jeopardy! spotlight to give a platform to issues in Geek Culture like Gamergate, are there any other issues in Geek Culture you think aren’t being talked about enough?

I think everything is being talked about if you go to the right places. It’s how you break out of your bubble and talk about it to people who need to hear it that’s the big issue. I just came back from GamerX, a gaming convention for LGBT people focusing on queer issues in games. We talked a lot about women in gaming and in nerd culture and how there’s this presumed audience in tech and gaming and a lot of places of “white, straight man.” But I think what’s complicating that more is the straight part, as well as the male part.

There’s this assumption of heterosexuality — when we talk about being more inclusive to women, we imagine a white straight guy and then we imagine his female counterpart and how it would appeal to her. But there’s a lot more. There’s race —which is a big thing — but there’s also sexuality. The idea that everything is still built on male and female interactions, guys going after girls and this narrow idea of what sexuality is. That’s how we sell things; that’s how we imagine things working in companies and communities. The world is much more complicated than that. If anything, nerd culture, being an outsider culture, has been the breeding ground for a lot of whole new forms of expression and discussion about sexuality, but in these little bubbles.

We know there have been discussions about identities on Tumblr — these are issues that affect all of us but have a reputation of being discussed in these very narrow places. One good thing nerd culture and the internet can bring up is a more open discussion on these things and bringing it out into the wider world.

So where do you see nerd culture going?

The term “nerd” means a person or a group of people who have these interests that they pursue regardless of how popular it is. We had a much narrower bandwidth when there were fewer ways for people to communicate their interests. Like Star Trek fandom — it was this one cult show that attracted a lot of weird people who were into science fiction and it was the one thing they had to organize themselves around. It took money and time to start a game or a paper publication where you could share ideas. You couldn’t just go online and do it.

What’s happened is as time goes on, the barrier of being a “nerd” has gotten lower. What that means is the definition of a nerd has gotten broader. It’s much easier now to be a nerd about anything: any show, story, or random thing that people are interested in. You can go online and find a community about any hobby you cared about. I think it’s a good thing overall that nerd culture ceases to exist as this specific thing.

When we’re talking about being a nerd, we’re talking about whatever random interest all of us have, and we’re coming to accept that there is a no mainstream, really. We’re all sort of tribal. We all have a thing that we’re nerdy about. I think the more of a chance we get to express that, the better off we’ll be: The more fun we’ll have, the more interesting stuff we’ll come up with. It’s a process that takes time and obviously there’s a pushback against it. You see people like the gatekeepers who try to define what is and what isn’t; we see the battle still being fought.

One thing that we learned from the past couple years is, when you try to say an identity is over or no longer relevant, you’re going to immediately get pushback from people who will fight for that identity. I think that’s going to continue. I don’t think there’s a way to wave a magic wand and it’ll go away, but I do think that those people will have less power as time goes on. In just three years, GamerX has turned from this small thing into a relatively big conference with sponsors like Intel and Blizzard. There’s going to be conflict, it’s not going to be perfect, but we are going to hear more about what women of color want more from the media; what queer people want. What all these people who identify as different things want, and it’s not going to stop. That’s a heartening thing.

Gamergate is obviously an ongoing issue; do you see anything else like that on the horizon?

One of the things I’m paying attention to is people talking about the Golden Age of TV. That’s largely because the market for TV has splintered. The days of the two or three big sitcoms that everybody watches on primetime broadcast is over. We’re watching TV on all different places, so we’re not segmented by demographics as easily anymore. People can watch TV whenever they want, however they want. There’s much more diversity in what’s being made.

But one of the things I’ve noticed is that the prestige TV is still stuff that’s focused on the story of the angry white man. Breaking Bad and so on are about a very specific demographic of person, aimed at a specific demographic of person, and those things get much more instant respect than stuff focused on other people.

What I find encouraging is that we’re seeing stuff like Empire: it’s a huge ratings monster and it’s very much centering the black experience rather than the white experience in America. People saw that as a “surprise hit” even though, with the number of African American viewers in the country, it shouldn’t be a surprise. We’re seeing a lot of people in the TV space experimenting with telling stories about different kinds of people. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m excited about the amount of credit shows like Orange is the New Black or Master of None are getting. Shows like Transparent are exploring stories that at one time would have been thought of as very niche, but we’re reaching a point where “mainstream audience” doesn’t mean anything anymore. To me, that’s exciting.

Are you working on anything right now you’re excited about?

I’m procrastinating on a book proposal. We’re seeing a wave of people doing stories about growing up in the internet age and telling the story about how our generation is different — screwed up in a different way. This is sort of the kernel of what I want to write my book about: my experiences being someone on the internet and the lack of romance that any of us were given for etiquette in how to deal with each other. It’s made us so much more connected than we were before, and it’s a situation that we hadn’t been in before.

I’ve experienced it from both sides: Being the fan and saying something directly to the person you’re a fan of, and then having people who are my fans — who are aware of who I am — coming to me and breaking the ice and trying to talk to me about something. There’s no roadmap or etiquette guide.

We’re in a very strange period in history where we all have this power to reach out to people and connect, and we don’t know how to use it and are often using it very irresponsibly. It’s important to be aware what interactions look like from the other person’s point of view, because the tools that we’re given make it easy to be unaware and thoughtless. We have a self-centered way of looking at the internet as a tool: It’s designed to focus on you and your experience. I think it’s very important to remember that there’s another person on the other side of every interaction, and everything you do adds up to how that person’s day is going to go.

It’s easy to make a flippant joke or say something that you think is reasonable because you don’t know what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. I think people have a hard time imagining what it’s like to be hyper-visible. To be at the center of controversy having people pay attention to you all at once — and we’re not wired to deal with the stress of that. We don’t have a good way of dealing with that asymmetry of that; of understanding that we collectively have a lot of power. We can really mess up someone’s life by each doing one little thing: Talking trash about them, criticizing them in an aggressive way, following them around and gathering information about them. That’s something that can really screw up another human being and we’re not aware most of the time that we’re doing it. That’s something I want to talk about more in the future.

In the future do you see internet etiquette being something taught in schools or taught for job training?

I don’t think the solution to the problem is telling people what to do. I think individual people should be more aware of the consequences to their actions and try to be nicer people, but I don’t think that having a class on it or anything like that is a long-term solution. I think a long-term solution is changing the nature of the tools we use. That’s not something we can do individually, I think it’s ultimately a systems problem. We set up the world to not be a very safe place right now. There are ways we can fix that, the people who sell these tools need to take a leadership role in fixing that and that’s a whole other thing. I’m in the backseat on that because I don’t work in the tech industry, but it’s an issue people are talking about.

Since your story is unique and your path is unconventional, there’s no real set advice you could give for someone in your shoes. But what advice would you give to someone who finds themselves under the glare of internet spotlight?

There was a guy on Jeopardy! this year who said the song playing in his head was, “Not Going to Miss My Shot” from Hamilton. My song that was going in my head on Jeopardy! was “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons. The line I like in that song is “don’t you understand I’m never changing who I am.”

For me this was the grounding thing. I was playing that song in my head and saying, “Whatever happens I’m still me, this is part of my story.” If I fail, if I succeed, my life changes either way. Through all of this stress; through my life going topsy-turvy, just thinking that the important thing is to believe in what you’re doing. I won’t write something that I wouldn’t stand by. The one thing that keeps me going when people are throwing me all kinds of shade and attacking me and accusing me — that’s the one thing you have to hold on to. It sounds cheesy, but I do feel like a lot of people let someone else define their identity for them. And then it’s too late when they look back and say, “This isn’t who I want to be.”

You see a lot of celebrities — especially overnight social media celebrities — come to represent something and then go, “Oh my gosh this isn’t who I am.” Like that girl who deleted her Instagram account and said it was all fake, “I’m upholding a lifestyle that isn’t me.” Then there was the conservative on Twitter who said, “This isn’t me I was writing this when I was 13-years-old and now it’s my job.” That’s the nightmare. I don’t want my voice or image to mean anything other than what I really stand for. That’s the advice I would give.