Meeting Wil Wheaton at Dragoncon 2011

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I met Wil Wheaton at Dragoncon 2011. I was totally surprised and pleased that he recognised me from posts I had made on his blog and so on. That's the short version. The long version with background follows, and I've made it its own page because there's a lot.

Background: Ancient History

I always loved Wil's work as an actor. Stand By Me was one of my favorite movies as a kid. I liked his work as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I didn't see Wesley as a hero so much as someone I could relate to. I knew a lot more about computers and technical stuff than anyone around me. Remember, this was 1987-91. Microsoft was a small but growing software company. Computers were considered a moderate oddity, something to keep an eye on but not yet changing the way the world worked. There were modem-based bulletin-board servers, but I wasn't plugged into any of that.

I think I ran back across Wil when his site was featured on slashdot sometime in 2001 or so, while I was in graduate school. I thought it was totally awesome that someone who had played the quintessential computer nerd on Star Trek was actually a real-life one. I followed a bunch of ideas from Wil. The reason that this domain is craigsteffen.net is because Wil had a site at wilwheaton.net. Very shortly thereafter, I set up my web site at the same hosting provider that he used, logjamming.com and used (and still use) the same domain registrar, domainmonger.com. I think the early versions of craigsteffen.net were table templates more or less copied from wilwheaton.net.

It's hard to knwo when someone you see on TV or in movies is actually a nice person or not. Acting like someone you should like or trust is, after all, an actor's job. And lots of famous people post (or have people post on their behalf) in a semi-casual way. It's hard to know that someone, even someone who writes seemingly fairly honestly about their own life, is really genuinely a good person.

Like I said, I started following Wil seriously on the net sometime in 2001. He made a post in 2002 that convinced me that he really is a genuinely real person who's actually aware of the real world. He was selling autographed pictures on ebay, and they kept going for really high prices. He realized that would mean a lot of people couldn't afford to buy them, so he sold a big batch of pictures for a low, flat price. The original link to the sale page no longer works, but there's a preserved version on the Internet Wayback Machine. Just in case that goes to the land of wind and ghosts too, here's what Wil says on that page:

Every time I auction an autographed 8x10, the winning bid is between three and five hundred dollars, putting the photo out of the reach of most people.

So here's what I'm doing: I have three different pictures here, and I'm offering them, personalized if you wish, for $35, which will include shipping. I poked around on-line, and found that the average price for a non-personalized picture is 30 bucks, so I figure this is comparable.

Here's how it works: You choose one of the three photos below, purchase it through PayPal, and when you make your payment, include what you'd like inscribed on the photo, along with an address, and I'll do the rest. Shipping is included to domestic US addresses. International orders will be more, depending on where you live. If you want something over-nighted, that's fine, but you'll have to pay whatever the actual cost is.

Talking to famous people

I have pinged Wil over e-mail from time to time, and certainly made lots of comments on his blog. Mostly without direct response, but occasionly I would get one. This bothered me a lot less when I went to Penguicon in 2003 and saw Neil Gaiman there. That convention is pretty small, something on the order of 1000 people, and every time he sat down at the table in the big ballroom, he had a line out the door of people who wanted to meet him and to sign for him. I realized then that Wil's e-mail inbox must be like that; he must have thousands of messages a day of perfectly well-intentioned people; it's just not possible for him to respond to them all.

The other thing is it's sometimes hard to meet someone that you admire, because they're in dealing-with-fans mode. I met Douglas Adams at Indiana University a couple of years before he died. I went to his talk, which was awesome, and I stood in line to have stuff sighed. I was fairly far back in the line, and Douglas was pretty tired by the end of it. I asked him something about if they'd been taking good care of him, and he sort of stared through my left shoulder. Dissappointing but not surprising. I do intellectually understand that when you're interacting with hundreds our thousands of people who are all thrilled to see you but you just want to go to bed, it's very very fatiguing.

Wil isn't on the Star Trek circuit as much any more. I dont' think he travels to the eastern half of the country much. I went to Penguicon to see him, and had to settle for seing (and meeting) Neil Gaiman instead. :-)

I did manage to see Wil for the first time at w00tstock in Minneapolis in July (I think) in 2010. That's another story for another time, but it was hella funny and Wil was great.

For the last few years, Wil has been attending and heavily featured in the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) on the west coast, which during that time was on Labor Day weekend, which meant that Wil wasn't going to come to Dragoncon (which is always Labor Day weekend) but since I've gone to Dragoncon 4 out of the last 6 years, I wasn't going out there either.

However, this year (2011), I was totally jazzed when I saw Wil Wheaton show up on the guest list for Dragoncon. Apparently PAX moved this year, so Wil was able to go to both, separately. So my plans went from "mostly, probably, yeah" as far as going to Dragoncon to "absolutely hell yes". I realize that he's still well-recognised, and lots and lots of people are very fanninsh and want to meet him. As a fellow computer person, I was indeed hoping to chat for a few seconds, make a minor impression, and exchange an actual genuine "hey thanks for coming!".

The Line

Wil posted his DragonCon schedule in his blog, which consisted mostly of stints in the "Walk of Fame" and a couple of panels/performances. The walk of fame is where stars have a table where they sign autographs. A friend who showed us around DragonCon the very first time we were there referred to it was the Walk of Shame. As you go through, you can see the stars that have a constant steady line (usually people in a current or very recent series). But then again you have people who haven't been, and sit there with no one asking for their autograph. It's sometimes really odd, too, which is which. Two years ago I have a lovely chat with Peter Jurasik (from Bablyon 5) because, well, most of the stuff he's been on on TV was more than 10 years ago.

DragonCon assumes (correctly) that the super-famous stars will have huge lines of people wanting their autograph or photos, so they usually have signing areas in a separate area of the building. Patrick Stewart, William Shatner, Leanard Nimoy, Carrie Fischer, those sorts of people. They assume that people who have tables in the walk of fame will have a steady line of 5 to 10 people or less. They have taped lines that go through the center of the room to manage lines for stars who are more popular than expected.

A few few people have lines that form so quickly that they take the line and move it to the outside of the ballroom by the entrance, and then bring people 5 at a time in to the inner line to get stuff signed. They have someone patrolling the inner line who directs anyone who wants something signed to the line back outside the ballroom. I've only see a few stars have that setup. This year Patricia Helfer had a line like that, and Wil Wheaton. Here are a couple a photos of the line of people to see Wil. To aid my own counting, I've put dots on all the people that were in line (some of the others were just walking through or doing something else).
Here's the overflow line just outside of the ballroom doors:

...aaaaaand here's the overflow from the overflow line:

So at any one time there were 30-plus people waiting in line. These photos were taken around 6pm on Sunday of DragonCon; the convention has been going on for two days. The lines for everyone else in the walk of fame were severly thinning out by this point.

Meeting 1

Back to the narrative. We got to our hotel on Friday mid-afternoon, valeted the car, checked in, and I headed down to see if I could catch Wil at the walk of fame before things got too busy. I did wait through a line of 20 or so people. I didn't mind--I was happy that it seemed that the east-coast crowd was showing Wil that he was welcome and appreciated. I got in in 30 minutes or may be a little more.

When meeting anyone, famous or no, I like to ask them something that maybe isn't the standard thing to generate a real connection and a bit of conversation. My plan meeting Wil was to suggest to him to write about his stint as part of the company that made the Video Toaster; since I think that would be really cool and I suspect that's not in the standard set of question that people ask. I noticed on his schedule post that he was selling DVDs with a collection of his work on them; I figured I'd buy one of those.

Wil's done a lot of comedy and non-fiction writing in the past several years, but he's done a big of fiction writing too. He printed a few short storyies in a limited run earlier in 2011 called The Day After, and I snagged a copy. I had it along for him to sign, because again, I figured that it was not something that everyone would bring.

I got to the front of the line and handed him the book to sign. He recognised it, smiled, and signed it. I then asked him if he had the DVDs to sell. He frowned and said that he'd forgotten them in his room. He said to come tomorrow morning, to not wait in line, come to the front and I could buy one then. He indicated the person next to him taking money for autographs, said "This guy will fix you up" and then turned to the next person in line.

I was slightly disappointed. It wasn't the cold stare I'd gotten from Douglas Adams, but it wasn't much of a connection either. I hadn't said what I'd really wanted to say. I paid and headed out to other stuff.

This meeting wasn't as bad as all that. I saw two interactions with other people that were very cool that happened just in front of me. Phil Plait, the "Bad Astronomy" blogger, stopped by and said hello to Wil; that was fun to see. Two people in front of me in line was a very short slender woman who was dressed as Wesley from TNG before he was a StarFleet officer. Wil saw the costume and totally freaked out in delight. He ran around the desk, and had his photo taken with her. The photo was taken with me roughly behind them; after the photo snapped, Wil had turned to me suspiciously and asked "Did you photobomb me?" to which I genuinely replied "I wish I'd thought of it." So while my interaction with wil in this meeting was standard-issue thanks-for-being-a-fan type, I got to see two very cool interactions at close range, which were very cool.

Meeting 2

Saturday morning, I headed down to the walk of fame so that I was there not long after it opened. There was already a short line for Wil, so I got in it. I got to the front of the line, he looked up, and and his face fell, he turned and rummaged through his bag, and swore. He knew who I was, and was genuinely annoyed and explained that he'd taken them out of his bag but hadn't brought them down. He turned to his handler and asked him to make a note that over lunch to get the DVDs. He turned to me again and said that he would take a lunch break from 1 to 1:30, and that he would be sure to get the DVDs then, and that since I'd waited in line twice to definitely no do so again, just come to the front.

I thanked him, and said my bit, that as a computer person, my suggestion was if he ever runs out of stuff to blog about, that I'd love to hear stories about his time at the Video Toaster company. He seemed genuinely pleased at this, and said "Thank you very much" and that he appreciated the request.

Mission accomplished. Connection made. I can now say that I've met Wil Wheaton, had a very brief chat. (This all happened at around 10:30 am Saturday.)

Meeting 3

I wandered into the walk of fame about 1:15, which was supposed to have been during Wil's lunch break. The line outside for him was as big as ever and growning. Inside, he was signing away and doing stuff.

I asked the DragonCon staff guy running the inside line whether or not Wil had gotten lunch and if he had the DVDs now. He didn't know but suggested I come back in a while and check, and in the mean time he'd find out.

I wandered back in a while. I don't remember if he knew if the DVDs were there or not, but in any case, he said that I couldn't go to the front of the line in any case. He said the Rules were that anything that involved exchanging money required a wait through the full, official line. I explained again that I'd been through the line twice, had already chatted with Wil, and that really I'd be happy to just give him the money and get the DVD in return. He said that he couldn't authorize that but that he'd ask his supervisor.

(I would just like to say here that the line/crowd-control people were being very professional, very curteous, and doing a terrific job. It really irritates me when people get all entitled and cut in lin or do other obnoxious stuff. They're just trying to make sure everyone has an equal, fair chance. I have seen DragonCon staff pull some stupid stuff, but that has been the vast exception rather than the rule. Far and away DragonCon staff are pleasant, curteous, professional, and quietly efficient.)

The supervisor showed up, and I explained the situation again to her. I said that there was a specific DVD that I'd wanted to buy, that the first question was it there, ane if it was, I'd be happy to just pay her and get the DVD back. She went up to the table, and conferred. She came back to me, said that they did have the DVD, and said that I could go to the very front of the line. I was suprised, but did so. I waited while the two people talking to Wil took their photos, chatted, got stuff signed. Then it was my turn.

This is where it gets weird. (Keep in mind that as far as I'm concerned, I've had my chat with Wil, made a real connection, and feel slightly badly about having cut in line, however inadvertently. I'm anticipating a reaction from Wil anywhere from no recogntion to "hey, thanks for coming back." By the way, this transcription is entirely from memory two weeks hence.)
WIL WHEATON: (sees me) Ah! (picks up stack of DVDs in paper envelopes and fans them out.) Would you like Six, Seven, or Eight?
ME: Definitely Seven. (I now regret that I didn't say "Six...no seven! Aaaaaaargh!" but I didn't think of it at the time.)
WW: (pulls out DVD #7 and readies it for autographing.) Who should I address it to? (or something like that)
ME: To Craig, please. (I took my badge off and set it on the table in front of him so he could read it. It says my name, "Craig Steffen", and above that my twitter handle, @gevmage.
WW: (begins to write, stops, frowns) I've seen that twitter handle before. (Looks up.) Have we interacted on the twitters?
ME: Er...yes. We've exchanged a few messages here and there.
WW: (Looks down at my badge again, then stands up and looks at me) Wait--holy shit, are you Craig Steffen?!?
ME: Um...yes?
WW: I know you from [web site I've never heard of]. You post to my blog! I've like your posts -- you entertain me! I'm so glad to associate a face with the name! I think I might break my rule--
ME: (I cut him off) No, that's not necessary. It's a pleasure to meet you, and I woudln't want to give you con crud. (gives nerdy sci-fi fist-to-chest salute) At some point, when there aren't fifty people waiting in line, remind me to tell you about the Playstation project I worked on.
WW: (smiles, bows, sits down, signs DVD, hands it to me) [says something I don't remember]
ME: (nods, pays payment dude, and heads out)

A bit of explanation about that last exchange. I don't remember the specifics right now, but Wil has a couple of conditions that add up to him having a less than super-robust immune system. It's not a problem in day-to-day life, but for years every time he would come home from a convention he would get sick. So a year or so ago he just decided to not to shake people's hands or touch them when signing stuff. Some people have been really pissy about it; I think it's perfectly reasonable.

I was completely floored by Wil's reaction. As I said above, since he'd seen me twice before, I didn't expect much of a reaction, and I was perfectly Ok with that. No-one, not ever in my life has ever said "Wait -- are you Craig Steffen?". (I have had a few people react with the "are you the Playstation guy?" but they were reaction to the concept of something I'd done at work, not to my name or me specificially.) I could be wrong, but as I was picking my brain up off the floor, my read on his train of converstaion was that he was goin to offer to break his no-touch rule and shake my hand. Which is fine, but 1) it wouldn't have been nearly as cool as the reaction I'd already gotten and 2) I have the kind of immune system that causes germs to leap to their death in despair onto any other object in my vicinity. I didn't know it at the time, but the week after DragonCon Wil was filming, and I definitely wouldn't want to be the person who kept Evil Wil Wheaton off of The Big Bang Theory.