Episode 4 – Nontrivial Consequences
An alumna is crowned champion on the Jeopardy! game show, only to realize that her well-being is in jeopardy.
Guest: Lillian Chin, MIT Class of 2017, SM 2019, Course 6, Random Hall, and East Campus.
This episode is about the unintended consequences of fame and one woman’s attempt to contend with the dark forces of the internet.
Dive Deeper (after listening to podcast)
Content from Lilly
Jeopardy! clip: Who is the spiciest memelord?
Academic paper: Understanding “The Spiciest Memelord” via temporal dynamics of involuntary celebrification
Webcast: How to survive a public faming
Article by Nick Bilton: Alex From Target: The Other Side of Fame
Article by Nico Lang: The rise and fall of Ken Bone: This is what happens when real humans become Internet memes
Article by Talia Levin: Big Tits for 600: The Ugly, Sexist Aftermath of Appearing on ‘Jeopardy!’
Lilly: I didn’t really realize how big of a deal Jeopardy! is to the American conscience. I originally wanted to be doing biology in medicine with engineering and that sort of changed over time. I think Jeopardy! is this culmination of when those hopes and dreams started to fracture into reality.
Host: That’s Lillian Chin, MIT Class of 2017, SM 2019, and current PhD student, Course 6, Random Hall, and East Campus.
In 2017, during her senior year, Lilly achieved national fame by winning the college championship on the Jeopardy! game show. In a moment of mischief, in order to get Alex Trebek to say something he’s never said before, she delivered a Final Jeopardy response about memes, only to realize later, to her horror, that she had become a meme, an object of the internet that could be manipulated in any way. This episode is about the unintended consequences of fame and one woman’s attempt to contend with the dark forces of the internet.
I’m Ravi Patil. And this is Institrve, true stories about MIT, a trove of wonder discovery and madness. This podcast explores the diversity of the human experience. The question of what it means to be human is a timeless one. By hearing the stories of others, we just may find a piece of ourselves and be inspired to transcend our own limitations.
Before we dive into Jeopardy!, let’s explore Lilly’s background.
Was there a childhood moment when you experienced the wonder of science?
Lilly: So I remember as a kid reading Magic School Bus books and there’s one where they shrink the magic school bus down and they explore inside the human body. And one of the lead ups is where one of the kids swabs their cheek cells and puts it under the microscope. And I remember showing my parents, “Oh, this is so cool!” And because my parents are neuroscientists, we just went to the lab and did the experiment.
My parents are immigrants from China and Taiwan. They actually met in Iowa of all places. I really grew up in their lab.
Science isn’t just something that you do in books. It’s you; it’s around you. And I think that really inspired me to explore more.
Host: And did you want to study biology at MIT?
Lilly: It became clear that I was interested in electronics and mechanical things, which my parents didn’t really have as much experience with but they were excited to support me.
And this was always the goal of doing neural prosthetics. Prosthetics that can actually communicate by brain to things. So that was the big dream. I think that really put me on the track to interdisciplinary research.
And I’ve continued sort of this interdisciplinary approach in my current robotics research. It’s already very multidisciplinary, of electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical. I’m trying to bring in material science, but even more broadly, I’m trying to bring in a lot of things from media studies, science, technology, society, into robotics.
Host: During her senior year at MIT, Lilly put her trivia knowledge to the test by auditioning for Jeopardy!, but let’s rewind a bit. [sfx: tape rewinding] During her childhood, Lilly’s father watched Jeopardy! to better grasp American cultural references as he was puzzled why some jokes on Johnny Carson were getting so many laughs. So Jeopardy! became part of the family.
Lilly: You get your dinner and then we have family dinner in front of the TV watching Jeopardy!
Host: How does one get on Jeopardy!?
Lilly: You first do an online test and then if you do well enough on that, you get invited to in-person auditions.
And so the in-person auditions are actually how good you’re going to be on camera. Can you follow directions? Do you have an extroverted personality. People don’t usually think of Jeopardy! contestants as the most charismatic but there is a selection process.
For some reason, they decided that there was going to be a dance off. I do a lot of dancing in my spare time, I was just like, “Yeah, I’m probably not going to get picked. Let’s just like dance.” And I’m like 90% sure that’s why I got picked because even months afterwards, Maggie, the contestant coordinator was like, “Oh, you dance so well.”
Host: A Course 6er busting the dance moves. I like it!
Lilly: Yeah. I auditioned in October 2016 and then by December 2016, I had gotten the call of “Hey, you’re going to come to LA in a month.” Then, it’s off to the races pretty much.
Host: So you’ve made it to the college championship tournament. How is it structured?
Lilly: They already have 15 people picked out. The first week of games, there’s five games being played. The five winners of each game will get to move on. And then the next four highest money totals will be wildcards and then move to the semifinals. So that’s the first round. So it’s mostly just making sure that your money is high enough past historical cutoffs.
Then the next three days are semifinals and that’s just single elimination. Only the winner gets to move on. Then the last two days are a two-part final. So it’s your score on the first day added with your score to the second. I think the expected value of doing the college tournament is much better because one, you don’t have to pay for your flights and your hotel room (most people don’t know if you’re on the regular show, you have to put that upfront). Two, you get a minimum amount that you get paid. You have this on the regular show too, but it’s much less than what’s on the tournament.
Host: All said and done, how many games did you play? You have the two from the final and then how many before that?
Lilly: So I only played 4 games and also one week of filming is done in one day. I was the first game. And so I was just like, “Oh, I’m here. Now I’m done.” But even just doing that, I was exhausted going back to the hotel.
If you’re on the regular show, you only get five minutes between each game, so you’d be filming for the entire day. And that’s also why the cutoff to getting to the tournament of champions is win five games. You’re coming off of the high of the first game that you’ve won. And then it’s “Okay, now do this four more times.” And that’s an entire day.
Host: I’ve heard a critical element of Jeopardy! is mastering the timing of the buzzer. [sfx: buzzer]
Lilly: For pretty much all of the questions, everybody knows the answers and all that’s the difference is how you buzz in. It doesn’t look like that to the home audience.
Since the question is just all on the screen and you can’t interrupt, Alex, the person who’s reading it, you have to wait until the end. There’ll be some lights that come on right after Alex finishes the question and that light unlocks the system so that everybody can buzz in. Actually, if you buzz in earlier before the cue, you will get delayed. And since everybody pretty much knows the answer, there’s no benefit for going in fast. Just buzzer speed is critical.
Host: Ah. Okay. So your timing it as soon as you see the light, you basically hit the buzzer.
Lilly: Yeah. I would go off of Alex’s voice rather than the light, but yeah, people have different things they do.
Host: So you’ve made it through day one and then the semifinals, which meant you qualified for the two-game final. Game two is going well and you’re faced with Final Jeopardy.
Lilly: That was the most double-check piece of arithmetic that I’d done, because I was like, I think I have a lockout based on the two-day total.
Host: The Final Jeopardy topic was 17th century Germans.
The answer is astronomer who began his epitaph, “I used to measure the heavens. Now I shall measure the shadows of the earth.” Remember to phrase your response in the form of a question. Instead of playing the actual Jeopardy! jingle, here’s a non-copyright infringing substitute.
If you answered who is Johannes Kepler, you are correct. Congratulations! Lilly knew the answer, but decided to give an alternate response, a clever, internet savvy answer that would come to plague her later.
Lilly: I had thought about this beforehand. There would be a chance that there would be a lockout game and lots of people have done this in the past of putting a funny answer down. I want to say dank memes but I’m not sure how much the censors will be happy about that.
So I’ll do spicy memes. Then the “Who is?” format. So I was like, oh, okay. I’ll just do “Who is the spiciest memelord?”
Host: “Who is the spiciest memelord?” would eventually get all kinds of laughs from Lilly’s peers but it would also get the internet stark side revving. More on that later.
So you’ve just won you shake hands with Alex, you get your trophy. Did you go back to the hotel room and checkout?
Lilly: No, we gotta film more b-roll! We got to have the awkward YouTube video of me explaining what a memelord is to the 65 year olds in the audience. And then, there’s a cast party. It’s finally a chance where everybody finally got to relax but then at the end we’re like, “Hey, who wants to go get dinner?”
We don’t have to wear the college sweatshirts anymore. And we’re just going out to a CityWalk, where we were put being put up. And just getting to talk to other people, like normal college students, that was really nice.
Host: Lilly takes a flight back to Boston from LA and joins the rest of MIT for Independent Activities Period (IAP). But remember, Jeopardy! is a pre-recorded show and she couldn’t reveal the results to anyone. Otherwise, she’d forfeit her 100 K payday.
You get back to East Campus and your hallmates on Tetazoo have no idea what’s happened.
Host: How long was the wait between when you had won and it being announced?
Lilly: Six weeks.
And then it’s also stretched out over time. It was two days of filming for me, but for my friends, they’re like, oh, they’re watching every day. Cause they want to see who my competitors are and things like that.
I was actually doing grad school visits at the time. So when the tournament was airing, I visited Stanford and one of the other contestants, Viraj, is also at Stanford. So we met up and I think I went to his frat and he was joking. He was like, “Ah, she won the whole thing!” and I was like, “No, don’t say it. I want my money.”
Yeah. But that was also wild of going around the country and seeing my friends from Stanford and they were also hyped to see me on air.
Host: Was this the most difficult secret you’ve had to keep in your life?
Lilly: I don’t know about most difficult secret. That seems like a high bar.
Host: Interesting how life comes full circle. Lilly’s father originally watched Jeopardy! to understand American culture. I’m imagining him having dinner on the couch watching his daughter on the very same game show, yet not grasping the reference to a memelord. But Lilly was just a phone call away.
Lilly: My parents didn’t realize how big of a thing this was until it was starting to show and it was like, “Oh, you’re on TV.” And then they’re badgering me about how it’s going. And then my boyfriend is very sweet and so he wasn’t bothering me, but he saw me filling out some press forms, peeking over my shoulder.
Host: As Lilly waited anxiously for her episodes to air, she had a growing sense of dread [sfx: brooding sound] about her impending fame due to a comment from a fellow contestant.
Lilly: It was literally at the cast party at the end of shooting where the contestant Julia from Georgetown. She was like, “Oh, your answer was really funny. You’re going to get so many hits on Buzzfeed.” And I was like, oh crap. I literally did not think about this at all.
So it was definitely six weeks of marinading. Of just really thinking about the consequences of my actions but still not really registering how it was going to really feel.
One of the articles written by Talia Levin called a “Big Tits for 600” was just documenting the harassment that you’re going to face as a female contestant on Jeopardy! Once I joined the alumni network, there were like, “Welcome to women of Jeopardy! Here’s how you two factor all of your accounts.”
Host: Two factor authentication is simply adding another layer of security to your online accounts. For example, if you log into your bank account and it sends you a text message with a code, that is the second factor beyond your initial password. We’ll explore online security and privacy in another episode.
Lilly: But there’s just no infrastructure anticipating that this is going to happen.
That you need to protect yourself, otherwise, this is going to get really bad. And there was just that anxiety. Jeopardy! is from a different time. They put your first name, last name, what school you go to, where your hometown is, and your year in school. So you can back solve my age from that. That’s an incredible amount of information to be put on there to the point where we’d call that like being doxxed on the internet. All your personal information.
And sure enough, we got letters to my parents’ house. It’s fan mail but please do not contact me at my house. I got a random text from someone. And I was like, “Oh, hey, thanks for congratulating me. I don’t think I have your number.” And they’re like, “Huh, I just found your number online.” And I’m like, “That’s creepy.” And they’re like, “Yeah, bye!”
And so it’s that kind of things that you’re not really expecting.
I made a harassment bingo card for myself of just guessing what kind of slurs I was going to get called. I have a weird sense of humor.
Host: Oh, no. How bad did it get?
Lilly: On my first night seeing what the subreddit was saying about me.
“Oh, Lilly literally looks like a person who would go to MIT.” And I just read this and I just started laughing because it was so petty, of just like these people who think that they know me from this little sliver of literally 20 minutes of television. And they think they know me and can comment enough about me.
And so then all this stuff of “Oh, Lilly looks like a boy with a woman’s voice. Oh, really? I think she looks like a girl but with a man’s voice. How strange.” And just seeing all these things are like very petty. It just felt really funny to me.
Host: The college Jeopardy! finals featured all Asian contestants, two Chinese Americans and one Indian American. This also attracted racist comments.
Lilly: I’ve written in my blog post I was starting to think about all the things happening.
“Do not write an academic paper about this, Lilly, you don’t need to do this.” But then obviously here I am with my academic paper written.
Host: In addition to her engineering workload, Lilly took time to publish an academic paper on public failings. Not public shamings, but public famings. A word she coined to describe involuntary celebrification. I’ve added a link to this paper in the show notes. You’ll find many examples of the harassment Lilly endured. Examples include an image of being sexually assaulted by President Biden and John Travolta at the same time, as well as body horror, a photo of Lilly where her head was replaced by an open clam shell.
Lilly: I didn’t realize that I was getting just straight up harassed until I got invited to the Tournament of Champions.
Host: This took place 11 months after Lilly’s original victory in the college championship.
Lilly: And so this was November 2017 when it aired. I was with my friends and I was like, “Oh, let’s see all the harassment, like what everybody said. And it’ll be funny.”
But as I was compiling the comments, people were just nice. They weren’t talking about who I was personally. They were just comparing, “Oh, she should have gotten these questions. She should have done her betting strategy.”
And I actually started crying because I wasn’t expecting people to just be nice to me on the internet. I had built up this armor of humor as a defense mechanism for this harassment that didn’t come. I had realized I’d built up all of this armor for nothing. I was not prepared for it. This should be the experience of going on the internet. You shouldn’t be expecting people to say all of these nasty things to you just because you were on television.
I always keep forgetting this. So early drafts of me presenting my paper to people, I was just like, “Oh, yeah. And then people said all this stuff about me. And everyone was like, “This is horrifying. I’m so sorry that you went through all this.”
Host: It may seem strange, but a person being harassed may not realize it right away. It can take time to admit to yourself that you’re being harassed.
Lilly: And I’m just like, oh, huh, this is harassment. This is why I use language of trauma and processing to describe these experiences.
Host: Part of the reason why Lilly didn’t admit to being harassed is that she also enjoyed the benefits of being a Jeopardy! champion.
Lilly: It’s really hard to see at the time because this is nominally a positive thing.
I made lots of money. I got fame. I got recognition that translated even into professional success by getting special access to speaking engagements and things like that. Part of being a researcher is not just putting out good research but having a name and a reputation that people could be like, “Oh, I recognize you.”
And I had research collaborators be like, “Oh, you’re the Jeopardy! girl.” That’s part of any sort of recognition that I get is helping people remember my name and then hopefully look at my research. So it’s hard to say, right?
When you’re having this nominally positive thing happening to you to be like, “No, this was really crappy and even hard for myself.”
Host: What complicated Lilly’s ability to process everything that happened was the difficulty in accessing her memories given the intensity of her experience.
Lilly: I don’t have strong memories of that time in January 2017. And so the only official record is what is edited, those episodes. I’m very glad that I have contemporaneous blog posts about it because I wouldn’t remember otherwise. I read those posts and they’re really funny, but I think it’s also this recognition I should call a spade and this was harassment that took awhile for me to really understand.
Host: I find it fascinating how you translated this harassment into “Isn’t this funny. Ha ha!” Just laughing it off.
Lilly: I got interviewed by the Comparative Media Studies department probably March or April 2017. And I only realized then because the interviewer there also commented, “It’s really weird that Lilly keeps using the word funny to describe these experiences.”
And that’s what caused me to take a closer look at why I keep on saying this. And then, November 2017 was the Tournament of Champions. That really set it.
If there’s anything that I’ve learned from this Jeopardy! experience, that it’s the importance of narratives, right? It’s how you portray it and how you or someone else will take bare facts and then turn them into something that services their own narrative.
Host: Any examples?
Lilly: Being used by large institutions, like Sony Pictures and MIT to have their narrative of star student. “Hello fellow kids, please listen to us.”
At the same time as this internet thing where I’m a media object. I’m up for debate. My feelings about this don’t matter because I am now in the public sphere to be discussed at will and these sort of simultaneous things makes it hard to process.
It makes me try to have distance with humor to depersonalized from myself. To treat myself as a media object, like to write a whole paper about myself, of “That’s not really Lilly. That’s some other person who just has the same name and face as me.”
Host: Could you describe why Jeopardy! loved your spiciest memelord answer so much.
Lilly: I don’t have any evidence for this. This is my cynicism talking. But part of the reason why these tournaments happened at the times they do is because there’s a thing called, sweeps or something. I don’t remember, but it’s a TV term of when the Nielsen Rating Families are going to watch the show and determine how popular it is.
And Jeopardy! is a show that is popular among 65 plus audience. The core demographic that is good for advertising to is 18 to 35. So that’s why having younger people on the show is a good thing.
And then when the spiciest memelord thing happened, they were really excited about it. They put an Instagram filter out. They put all of these ads. They even had a picture of myself with “Deal With It” sunglasses on that said, “This could be you.” And a lot of my friends got this ad and also it was on our /r/Hello Fellow Kids, which is a subreddit to mock overreaching efforts of boomers to appeal to the youths.
I also wondered why was I getting invited to MIT Corporation dinners and stuff like that? And the cynical part of me is “Oh, somebody gave MIT a lot of money because I was on the show.” That they were really excited to see this positive representation.
I think that one is more conspiracy theory because I’ve had some friends who have ears into more senior administration being like, “No, just as MIT wants to celebrate the achievements when the faculty gets a Nobel Prize, we want to celebrate this achievement.”
Host: Let’s dive into your paper a bit. What’s the difference between a celebrity and microcelebrity?
Lilly: A traditional celebrity is who you’re expecting, like movie stars and famous pop artists and stuff. There’s something that we’ve deemed as celebrity, a special class of people. It’s been unclear what celebrity really means as we get onto the internet. So you no longer have the traditional gatekeepers. It takes a lot of money to get TV cameras and the TV studio to put this altogether. Instead, now with the internet, all you need is a webcam and you can be a YouTuber and all you need is a microphone to become a podcaster.
Host: Roger that on just needing a mic to become a podcaster.
Lilly: So starting in the 2010s, you start having Instagram influencers, YouTubers, people who are able to have this large audience, but that is still limited. And that’s micro-celebrity.
With new ways that people can access media markets, you might not be famous to everybody, but you could be famous to a specific set of people, but have the same cultural cachet as say, George Clooney does.
What I talk about in my paper is that there’s this whole category of even tinier celebrity fames, like being famous for a very brief amount of time. And I use the term public faming to describe this.
Host: A well-known example of a public faming is Alex from Target. The example is instructive and happened seven years ago, Alex was a handsome teenager working at Target bagging items in the checkout line, just doing his his job. A girl snapped a photo of him without him knowing and posted it on Tumbler. A week later, another teenage girl stumbled upon the photo and tweeted it with the following caption “YOOOOOOOOOOO” in all caps. The tweet went viral in minutes. Alex would appear on Ellen Degeneres’ talk show shortly thereafter.He and his family would also receive death threats. All for what? Simply doing his job, minding his own business. Here’s another example.
Lilly: I think the most well-known one is Ken Bone who asked a question during the 2016 presidential debates and then got insanely popular. “Who is this man? Why is he wearing a nice sweater?” But it’s not for any particular reason but it’s just suddenly being elevated to this.
Host: While Ken was offered some praise, he was also turned into a meme. His red sweater outfit was reportedly turned into a sexy Halloween costume. He was also offered a porn contract. All for what? Asking a genuine question about energy policy during the Clinton-Trump debates.
Lilly: I just showed up on television and said something funny. It’s not really a lasting sort of fame, but what I argue in my paper is that it’s still worthy of study because there’s still a real person behind there. And it was nonconsensual to suddenly have this fame and be expected to deal with it.
Host: Could you describe some recommendations for reclaiming your own narrative?
Lilly: The theoretical kind of intervention that I had made is called “radical reciprocity.”
There’s other terms like counter shaming which Signe Uldbjerg uses to describe how survivors of sexual assault tried to reclaim their narratives by counter shaming their aggressor.
But in this case, I had a more general term because it’s not just about shame or fame. It’s about reclaiming. In the paper, I talk about how there’s these two modes, which celebrity or microcelebrity can act. Celebrity is working on the temporality of scarcity. Microcelebrity is acting on this temporality of now and accessibility. These concepts come from Anne Jerslev in 2016’s paper.
So knowing that there’s these two different modes in which celebrity acts, what I say is you can fight against this by pulling out this Uno card and saying, “Ha, ha, reverse onto you.”
It’s using the same things that hurt me in these media forms. I reversed back to try to get back at what hurt me. So if we’re talking about institutions, they’re acting in this temporality of scarcity, of inaccessibility. And they do this because they’re like, “I’m MIT. I am well-known. I’m powerful. People, listen to what I have to say.”
So the sort of fight back on the same grounds. It’s “Hey, I’m famous now. I, Lilly Chin, am the spiciest memelord and I’m going to call you out on your things.” And so it’s using whatever position that you’ve gained to be like, “No, I am famous and I have a voice and I should speak out.”
This has the obvious pitfall. Nobody really needs to listen to me in the same way that these traditional institutions of power can be listened to but it is the smallest of soap boxes. And it’s something that you can stand on.
Host: So one way is to exercise your fame and speak out on issues that matter to you. You also had another approach.
Lilly: The other way that I tried to reclaim my narrative is by compiling all of the comments in the first place.
The people who are saying like, “Oh, Lilly is a C-word or something,” don’t expect to be put on blast. They don’t expect me to ever read this in the first place, but by taking it and by compiling it and seeing a pattern, it’s less of “Wow, a lot of people hate me” and it becomes “This particular person has issues.” It’s easier to write them off.
If it’s so easy to Google me, I’m going to do the same things against the people who are harassing me and show how harmful these platforms can make it.
Host: So when people were harassing you, they were direct messaging you, it wasn’t for the broader audience. And so you took it and posted it to the broader audience.
Lilly: I did not. Do I think people should go after and harass these people? No, absolutely not. Otherwise, aren’t you repeating the same cycles of violence?
But the one person who I do put on blast from my DMs is this one guy who would just not stop messaging. And then it culminated into a dick pic. And so, at first, I was just going to block him and move on with my life.
But then I had remembered people actually letting friends and family know that “Do you know that your friend is doing this?”
[sfx: stringed instrument]
Host: So Lilly turned the tables on her bully by identifying his friends and family and letting them know about his offensive behavior. But they didn’t believe her!
Lilly: They were like, “Oh no, I bet he’s gotten hacked. That can’t be.” And I’m like, “Look, he’s from California, I’m from Massachusetts. I would not find this guy unless there was a connection.” So he ended up blocking me which is funny probably to be like, “Oh, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But I do have the caution that this is just straight up like cyber bullying. By being forced to work in what the platform has to offer, you do run the risk of violence. There needs to be systemic change rather than just retreading the same things.
But in the moment, when you’re just an individual, trying to keep your head above water, maybe it’s okay to do these things, but it is definitely a fine line.
Host: What takeaways do you want to leave behind for the audience?
Lilly: Things look given. This is the way that things are done, right? But cultures are not monolithic. A culture is made up of individual actions such as your own and you are an actor in a system. No matter how small you feel, your contribution is, you are making a difference. So it’s not just in dramatic situations like being on Jeopardy! It really just only takes a couple of people to speak out and be like, “This isn’t right” to make a difference. And obviously, the more voices that chime in, that’s when you start getting to a big culture shift.
Host: So make your voice heard.
Host: Lilly has spent a great deal of time reflecting on her fame and its wide ranging consequences. Understanding the importance of narratives from her Jeopardy! experience, Lilly has used her voice to bring about change on campus.
I wish her the best of luck as she finishes her PhD research on robotics and I look forward to seeing how she furthers equity and ethical behavior in her career.
While we clearly see the beneficial aspects of the internet, the ease of passing judgment and instantly reaching a large audience also brings forward the worst of human behavior.
It’s up to all of us to reinforce civil interaction.
Choose happiness. See you next time.
© 2021 Institrve