Felicia Day calls herself “situationally famous,” and those situations are absurdly specific. The actor/writer/producer can walk around in most public places with anonymity intact, but the closer she gets to an epicenter of geek culture, like a comic book store or a video game convention, the higher the chance is that she’ll be mobbed by fans. There’s also a “huge barista recognition factor—75 percent,” she notes.
‘Tis the life of the “Queen of the Geeks.” It’s a label Day resists—”I’m not a monarch, and I’m not above anyone else”—but it crudely spells out the truth of her career. Despite never landing a starring role in traditional film or TV show, she’s still carved out a sizable kingdom in the realm of nerdy pop culture, especially on the Internet. In addition to acting in several Joss Whedon projects, (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the web musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) she scored an unlikely hit with her web series The Guild, about a group of World of Warcraft addicts. In 2012, she launched a nerdtastic digital content channel, Geek & Sundry. The 36-year-old’s latest project is uncharacteristically analog: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), a memoir chronicling her childhood and rise to quasifame.
But You’re Never Weird feels less like literary nonfiction and more like an extended diary entry. Day breezily bounces from tales of her unconventional upbringing—she was home-schooled and an antisocial violin prodigy—to an online gaming addiction, and brushes with Gamergate. It’s all written in a conversational tone with a brand of humor so self-deprecating that it borders on self-loathing (“It might be genetic, but it feels like I’m a stupid flouncy flower, destined to wilt at any second,” she writes in the book). I spoke with Day on the phone at the end of her book tour about her insecurities, successes, and life on the Internet.
You talk a lot about your insecurities and social awkwardness in the book—do you think acting, performing, and now book touring have helped you overcome that?
I still feel anxiety and social awkwardness in daily life. If I meet someone who knows video games or comic books or who has a reference in common with me, I feel more comfortable. But if I’m at a random party where I don’t know anyone, my impulse is to run out the door and drive home. It’s a way I’m wired and how I was raised and it’s something, but as I say in the book, your shortcoming can be shortcoming or they could be your superpower—everything has a black and white, a good and evil to it. I was able to create a career path for myself that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have those things.
What’s your superpower?
I guess my superpower is not backing down when someone judges me for being different. I really love to stand up and be proud to be different. It’s my badge of honor, in a sense. I can embrace my individuality and know that it is my strength in life instead of something to be ashamed of or excluded for.
I identified with your life story a lot because I was also super shy and quiet and nerdy and addicted to video games and I didn’t come out of my shell until college.
I think fitting into a Hollywood mold is always going to be a struggle for me; it’s not something I embrace, especially in a mainstream way. So when I started to do improv, and letting my unconscious be my guide in a certain sense, I really did feel a sense of belonging and self that I didn’t feel before, and being included in groups and working off other actors there and their spontaneity, that kind of joy of play . . . coming from a home-schooled and sheltered background, I don’t know if I had that much in my regular life. When I discovered improv and comedy, it really made me feel like I could raise my inner flag so to speak.
You say you’re situationally recognizable. Is that preferable being superfamous and being stalked on TMZ?
I never want to be that well known. You know, it’s always been a struggle because as you become more recognizable, you’re treated more as an object rather than a person. What I love about the digital world is that people see my flaws and see me on my good days and bad days. I treat my social media like I’m IMing a friend. I would never trade that for this position where you’re constantly being examined.
Because of the Internet, I think the lines seems blurred in terms of what is a celebrity and what isn’t. Do you think that’s true?
Reinforcement and Facebook likes certainly influence the perception of what is popular and what is likable. I’m not sure that’s always a good thing, especially with women because it’s always your looks and your sexiness that get you those thumbs ups and likes over everything else. But at the same time, I love the idea that a person who has come from shooting videos in their garage can be really well known yet not really be someone who is always stopped in street. Someone who has connected with a million people across the globe but yet wouldn’t get a second glance at the grocery store. You never feel like you don’t belong on the Internet; it’s the underlying theme of the book.
What about the downsides? I read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and was struck by all the regular people that are being treated terribly on social media in ways once reserved for politicians and major celebrities.
Yeah, the anonymity and the perception that you get access to anyone on a one-to-one basis is a positive thing in some ways and then a harmful thing, especially when people use it to to cloak their behavior and do things they never would to another human face to face. That kind of cyberbullying and dogpiling—the mob mentality online—it’s a form of bullying and a form of assault in a sense. So I think the first step is to make sure you have a support system, so that if you’re alone in a comment section and everyone is bullying you, you don’t need to give in those feelings of being ashamed of who you are and of your opinions. You don’t need to let people enter your house and punch you in the face, so to speak.
Was there something unique about Gamergate in terms of this kind of thing? I feel like I’ve seen toxic dialogues in politics, sports, just about every topic on the Internet.
Gamergate was a culmination of a lot of years of resistance and pushback. There’s a lot of shaming about women being more prominent and more vocal about loving games and being gamers. It was a situation where you had a uniform culture, in perception at least, who were not willing to embrace new voices. It’s a small minority of voices and I think that’s key. In every subculture, you have vocal minorities that can be negative. It’s a lot to put up with. But what happened was that a lot of leaders have said, ‘This isn’t acceptable. This isn’t what gaming is about.’ The industry, creators, and fans are pushing back. Yes, there’s a lot of people who are toxic and hateful in other industries: sports, music, celebrities. I think it stems from a lot of unhappiness and [is] connected to not having your face attached to your actions. The more you can set a tone of positivity in the face of negativity, I think dissuades people in thinking they have power in that negativity.
Yet it seems like those online actions rarely spill over into the offline world. I wonder about that when I go to these comic book and gaming conventions and see all these warnings everywhere about behavior and all of these security guards. Do you think there’s a need for that?
I think it’s conscientiousness and educating people. I think that kind of proactiveness is awesome because setting a tone is awesome. The very negative players are very small minority. But taking proactive steps and saying this is an environment where these things are unacceptable . . . I mean, some people might go over the edge and not think about it and . . . It’s definitely outlier incidents, but I think you need leaders to say, this is how we all want to live together.
I’ve been thinking a lot about geek culture over the last few years. It seems like everyone is freaking out about the new Star Wars or watching The Walking Dead. Do those terms “nerd” and “geek” still have meaning to you?
It’s certainly become a lot more popular and less of a device of shaming. It’s more a badge of pride now. There’s also definitely more of a commercial aspect because the things that geeks tend to love are permeating pop culture. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, it lets people love what they love without being ashamed of it. Geek to me is an outsider who loves something, despite another person’s judgment. And to share that love with other people, it’s almost a counterculture in a sense. I think that bravery to really be yourself is counterculture.