Jonathan Sun is a Berkman Klein Center Affiliate and Ph.D. student at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies + Planning. He runs the @jonnysun Twitter account, which has more than 480,000 followers. He recently published Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book.
Harvard Political Review: What are you doing at the Berkman Klein Center?
Jonny Sun: I was a fellow there. I still am a fellow there for this academic year. The program is interesting because I went in there with a rough idea of what I wanted to do. Through the Center and meeting all these people there, I figured out my goals and my own academic intentions with them. I started looking in-depth at online humor and the different roles that humor plays in social issues, the propagation of news, the spread of information, and the influence of public opinion.
I started a working group with a colleague, Susan Benesch, a law professor. We would all get together and discuss the stuff that happened over the week, especially the memes that arose from current events, or just the ways the Internet was responding to world issues, particularly through humor. Within that was a discussion of the alt-right’s appropriation of Pepe the Frog and what it means to use this ironic, memetic image as a hate symbol. We talked about how people are getting away with hate speech by disguising it or by claiming it as humorous speech. There is a huge tie between humor, harassment, and abuse. On the flipside, we were looking at how humor could play a role in downplaying those effects and how people who were facing a lot of targeted harassment online could potentially use humor as one way to de-escalate that kind of discussion.
I was very interested in how the discussion online, especially on Twitter, would affect or be reflective of popular opinion and if somehow the discussion on Twitter played a role in the ways that journalists report things. That particularly becomes interesting and entangled when you have people like John Jannuzzi, who was the head of Twitter Moments, saying things like, “The people’s reaction to the news is now part of what the news is.” Especially since Trump is on Twitter, too, it is part of this larger news discussion.
biden: cmon you gotta print a fake birth certificate, put it in an envelope labeled "SECRET" and leave it in the oval office desk
obama: joe pic.twitter.com/UTtv1JkE5o
— jomny sun (@jonnysun) November 11, 2016
HPR: Do you have any examples of when you saw that?
JS: There is a greater focus on Twitter, particularly because of the election cycle and because the story seemed to be that Trump was able to energize a base that was primarily active on Twitter. Their activities and the stuff that they were doing online became newsworthy in and of itself. That discussion is more of a social media and journalism thing, but there were elements where humor played a role.
Certain journalistic groups were reporting on Internet culture in a way. Part of that was Pepe the Frog again, but they were also looking to Twitter almost as commentary for social and current events. One kind of silly example was right around November last year, people were lamenting the end of the Obama-Biden presidency. Many comedians were making these silly memes of Obama and Biden sharing these imagined moments together, which for some reason a lot of news outlets were reporting on. It is interesting now that something that can exist as this funny meme that circulates the Internet is now important enough to warrant stories. To me, it is kind of cool, because that is reflective of a social standpoint. It is how the Internet can express, or how society expresses a collective feeling, or a collective grief. It comes out now in the form of these collective memes.
The other thing that came out of my fellowship at the Center this year was the Online Humor Conversation Series at MIT. It was six talks. We invited notable online comedians and people working with online humor to the Media Lab. They had a conversation with leading academics and researchers to discuss their work in comedy and the roles that they thought they were playing. It was interesting to bring people who were practicing comedy online with people studying its effects.
ive worn the same shirt everyday for a week
[packing for vacation]
hmmm. i'll prob change a few times a day so thats…32 shirts
— jomny sun (@jonnysun) July 5, 2016
HPR: You practice comedy on Twitter through your @jonnysun account and study its effects. Has your work at the Berkman Center influenced the way that you approach comedy?
JS: It has definitely influenced the way that I conduct my behavior and activities online. I have been more conscious of the responsibility I have as someone with a platform. Through the Berkman Klein Center, I have been able to find a lot of diverse and interesting voices in the social activism side, or even just in the comedy side of people who are generally underrepresented in mainstream culture. My feed is full of all these people who are taking it upon themselves to speak from their own experiences and shed light on perspectives that I do not have in my set of experiences. I have become more conscious about sharing those voices and using my platform as a way to get those important voices out there.
HPR: How is that different from when you first started your Twitter account?
JS: When I first started it, it was a personal account. I was trying to keep in touch with friends. All of my high school friends went to different universities.
When I started doing comedy on Twitter, I was very interested in a very specific group of genre of online comedy. For me, it was this Twitter-specific comedy that is often called “weird Twitter.” That type of comedy is characterized, in my opinion, by the fact that it is text-based. Most comedy that we encounter is meant to be heard or seen. It is performed. Social media humor is meant to be read. Twitter comedy, I think, is characterized by this specific way of formatting text and playing with the look of how text is presented in order to change how a viewer can read it. Some of that is format-based or script-based jokes. In my case, I was interested in changing syntax and creating typos and intentional errors that create a type of voice, which is what a lot of other people in that group were doing at the time. Entering that Twitter comedy space was like I found a lot of people who were hilarious; I wanted to play with them and tell jokes the way they did and feel like I was part of this funny community of people.
For the first few years, that was my timeline and that was my little circle of people that I found online. It was fairly insular in terms of perspective and even demographics. I do not know when that changed. Definitely this year, it has changed a lot because in general, the Internet and especially comedy has been a lot more politically and socially conscious. Definitely out of the election cycle, people had to be more aware of what was going on. Because of that, at least for me, my circle seemed to get dismantled and I was able to find new voices and enrich my experience on Twitter and my perspectives.
SON: dad what were mass shootings like before i was born
ME: well it may be hard to imagine but on some days they didnt happen
— jomny sun (@jonnysun) December 3, 2015
HPR: Your tweets often seem like they are juggling humor and philosophy. There is also a political dimension; people point to your tweet after the San Bernardino shooting. How do you create that balance?
JS: That is tough. For the most part, I approach Twitter as a writer. For me, it is mainly an exercise or challenge in first identifying issues that I feel compelled personally to write about and the challenge of putting words to those ideas to concretize those abstract notions. It is all very personally-driven. I see it as this writer’s diary, trying to find ways to describe things I want to work through in writing.
Part of this now is asking if I am the right person to be talking about these things and, if not, if I can find those people who are best suited and share what they are saying. I think that is ultimately more helpful than having me try to inject my voice into every discussion. A lot of my time now has been looking and trying to find people who are able to talk about a lot of these issues in more in-depth ways than I can. In terms of the political dimension, when I try to write stuff like that, it is mainly me trying to process my own reactions and emotions to these things. I try not to have a take or a joke assuming some sort of expertise or supreme knowledge or moral authority over this. But it is mainly reflective of trying to collectively understand what is going on or collectively find some sort of grip on the world.
HPR: That sounds like a really personal process. When you write, are you aware of the many people who will read your tweets, or do you try and keep focused on your thoughts?
JS: It is a very fine balance. I definitely side on the side of it being more of a personal thing. I will only feel confident writing something that I personally find compelling or funny. I like to figure out things that make me laugh and make me feel proud that I made this joke out of nothing. That has always been the thrill for me as a writer, to be like, “Oh, I figured out how to put words to this idea.”
I am aware of how many people are seeing it. I do like to go through all the mentions and all the people who are responding to those things. It is kind of cool that Twitter has given so many people this ability to instantly connect to a lot of other people. That kind of instant conversation or instant response is rewarding as a writer, to put something out there and see how people are reacting in real time to it. It is a thrill.
The danger of that is making sure you never tip into the side of pandering or trying to say what you think people want, because then you lose your voice as a writer. You lose that personal drive and connection to what you are doing. The best part about having people read my stuff and respond to it is that you get to connect with a lot of people. A lot of my non-humorous stuff that I write is me trying to find words for my anxieties and things that I try to sort through every day. The fact that I can put that out there and then have other people relate to that and feel like those words also helped them put words to a feeling that they had is the most rewarding part.
HPR: Do you have a particular moment or tweet that you are proud of and stands out to you?
JS: There are a lot of them, and it changes all the time. Twitter is so interesting to me because it is this daily writing project. I try to be as open and consistent with it as possible as a writer’s diary. It is really like, “Here’s the stuff that I’m figuring out every day.” It is only when I get the chance to look back on some of the things I feel like, “Oh, I forgot that I made this joke,” or I will be walking down the street and I will be like, “Didn’t I think of something like this a year ago?” Then, I will go find it and think, “Oh, cool, I was able to put words to that.” A lot of it is just in retrospect, seeing the stuff that had been there, that exists there.
The joy of doing Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book was that I took a deep dive into my old tweets and into my body of writing. I got to go through that and pick out certain existing tweets that would fit really well into the narrative that I was trying to craft for the book. That was a rewarding process where I was able to take things that I had figured out how to word without thinking of any broader context and saying, “Oh, this actually works really well in this narrative that I’m trying to piece together now.” It was a process of finding things that repeat and fitting them into this story. It was like a problem to solve.
i hav cat-like reflexes
*looks at a cat*
(instantly) i like that cat
— jomny sun (@jonnysun) January 3, 2015
HPR: You do so many different things between your Ph.D. and your work at the Berkman Center, and then on Twitter. What is next?
JS: I am not entirely sure. I did the book because I felt compelled to, and I eventually was thinking about that project long enough that I was like, “Oh, now I have to do it” just because if I did not do it, it would continue to eat me up. In terms of the creative projects, I am waiting for the next thing to come and weasel its way into my head and take up space there and continue to grow. I am in the moment when I get to take a little bit of a break, and I get to go on tour for the book, which is amazing. I get to take some time and think about what this last project meant, and really just sit with it for a bit. I am waiting to see what the next thing is that becomes really interesting and compelling. On the academic side, I am still in the Ph.D. program, I am an affiliate at Berkman next year, and I am going to continue doing my research, going through my studies and trying to make progress on my Ph.D. That will also be happening while I wait for the creative stuff to work itself out.
Image Credit: Jonathan Sun and Christopher Sun
This interview has been edited and condensed.