Jonathan F. Sun would prefer we avoid the MIT Media Lab.
“I hate doing anything in the Media Lab lobby, because that space governs everything else. You can’t be there and be an individual,” says Sun, a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. Instead he suggests the Brain and Cognitive Sciences building—he says this is a better interview location.
“I have no affiliation with this building, but I wandered through one day, and I was like, ‘Oh, I like this building now,” he says.
Just inside and overhead is a massive golden mobile. It’s a constellation of neurons, dendrites and all, dangling from the distant ceiling in a convergence of art and science. Sun stares up in wonder.
“Lately I’ve been trying to merge the academic stuff and the creative stuff a little more closely,” says Sun, who just the week prior completed his Ph.D. qualifying examinations. “So I’ve been trying not to think about them as two separate things anymore. I’m trying to see them all as part of the same practice.”
This is a tall order to say the least. “Academic stuff” refers to Sun’s scholastic work in engineering and architecture.
And by “creative stuff,” he means his Twitter persona jomny sun (@jonnysun). Sun tweets in the voice of a naïve and grammatically challenged alien, whose thoughts about the peculiarities of human interaction are in turn both hilarious and endearing. These tweets have brought him over half a million followers, praise from the likes of Will Arnett and Lin Manuel Miranda, and a 304-page book published just last year.
A tall order, indeed.
“I started just playing online.”
Nothing about Sun screams ‘Twitter-famous.’ On this brisk February evening, he wears a black turtleneck, his herringbone pants cuffed over worn leather boots. A latte-colored overcoat is strewn over a nearby chair.
“My first actual tweet was something like, ‘Japanese money is really cool,’ because I was really into the design of currency,” says Sun. “That was as Jonathan Sun, the 19-year-old who just graduated high school and was trying to establish himself as a person.”
By all accounts, Sun could have established himself as any kind of person he chose.
“It was hard to define him. He just seemed to do whatever he wanted to do,” says younger brother Christopher Sun, a Ph.D. student in Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto.
“He got into parkour. Pretty heavily,” continues Sun, referring to the street sport that involves running, climbing, and jumping over obstacles in urban areas.
“I think it was one of the first few days of drama class, and people were talking up Jonny Sun as this parkouring dude,” recalls Kevin Vidal, a high school friend and long-time creative collaborator of Sun’s.
Parkouring was not Sun’s only forte. He was also a skilled swimmer, rapper, thespian, and playwright. In 2016, Vidal produced Sun’s original one-act play “Dead End” at Theatre Lab in Toronto. Vidal describes the show as “essentially Waiting for Godot, but with a zombie.”
Though Sun eventually chose to pursue an undergraduate degree in Engineering Science at the University of Toronto, he very nearly studied theater instead.
A self-described “science-and-math kid, and also a drama kid, and also a visual arts kid,” Sun applied to both engineering and theater schools. Choosing between them was no simple task.
Sun remembers the advice his mother gave him at the time: “It’s more difficult to go back and get engineering training and an engineering background than it is to foster an artistic creative path at any point in your life.”
“At the same time, she also said to me how any experience I have, in any direction I take, is fuel for creative work in the future,” Sun continues. “So these experiences in engineering school might be interesting places to draw from when I make creative work.”
Following his graduation from the University of Toronto in 2012, Sun moved to the United States to pursue a Masters of Architecture at Yale. The transition was not easy. Sun dealt with “a little bit of culture shock” upon his arrival, and struggled to find a creative community.
“I had found a comedy family, and a sketch-comedy crew, and people to write with, to perform with, and to direct,”Sun says, describing his undergraduate experience in Canada. “And then I moved away for architecture. I couldn’t go and write with these people all the time, and I definitely couldn’t perform with them.”
While an undergraduate, Sun used Twitter simply to keep in contact with friends. After his move stateside, though, Twitter became something more: a way of staying in touch with his comedic and Canadian roots.
Sun deleted his tweets as Jonathan Sun.
jomny sun was born.
“I turned to the internet as a space where I could find like-minded people,” Sun says, explaining the community he found after creating the online persona jomny sun. “That became a really safe and positive and helpful space for me to go to whenever architecture school got stressful, whenever I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Humor forms a natural sublimation technique for Sun. Many of his tweets are quite funny, in their own silly, offbeat way. The following from 2014 is one of Sun’s more popular tweets:
LIFE HACK: give ur next child a normal name
ME: are u still mad that ur mother and i named u Life Hack
Other tweets seem deeply personal. “I do see [Twitter] as a very confessional space,” says Sun.
One such tweet from this past January reads:
when ur in bed thinkig abt how the way u interact w each person in ur life is based on who u think they think u are and not who u realy are
The accompanying image is of a plush Ditto—a pink, blobby, and usually joyful Pokémon—lying in bed, peering sadly over its covers and clearly caught up in some kind of existential malaise.
“He is a warm and kind person, and at times funny,” says friend and fellow Ph.D. student Chaewon Ahn, describing Sun. “But there's more of a sadness, rather than being this happy-funny person.” This sadness sometimes bleeds through into his tweets, and it seems like jomny speaks with two voices: the happy aliebn, and the sad aliebn.
Sun embraces this dichotomy.
“I think the fun sweet spot that I’ve been able to inhabit is that balance of saying something honest and raw, but also packaging it in a way that’s fun and funny: the idea of being able to talk about your deepest darkest fears but also in a way that still makes it accessible.”
Sarah Kay, a prominent spoken-word poet and close friend of Sun, says she can clearly see the niche he has created online. She recalls one of Sun’s book signings at the Strand Bookstore in New York City.
“Someone in the room at some point in the night, not loudly but quietly to another person said, ‘I feel like this room is the friendliest corner of the internet,’” Kay says.
Sun’s Twitter does not limit itself to jomny-style content. Sun often replies to fans, publicizes his book signings, and retweets content he supports.
“I’ve made it a goal of mine to help signal boost other people, and give voice to trans communities, or LGBTQ communities, or other communities of color, and just help get those sorts of ideas and perspectives heard by a larger group of people,” Sun says.
In February, Netflix announced that Jared Leto, a Caucasian actor, would portray a yakuza—a Japanese gangster—in the upcoming original film “The Outsiders.” Immediately following this announcement, Sun’s twitter became strewn with retweets expressing outrage and accusing Netflix of whitewashing.
Sun has struggled with his identity as an Asian humorist.
At first, jomny sun was not at all connected to Jonathan Sun—Sun posted no identifying information on the account. He decided to tell jokes anonymously, citing concerns that his Asian identity would limit the audience his jokes could reach.
“That comes from a place of me growing up and not having many Asian comedians or writers to look up to,” says Sun.
Anonymity soon became more constricting than freeing. Says Sun, “There was stuff from my real life that I wanted to talk about more but couldn’t.”
“Over the years, I’ve peeled back the layers. I’ve tied my real identity to my online identity much more.” He vividly remembers the first time he posted his photo online.“A lot of young Asian people who had followed me started messaging me and saying, ‘I had never thought that you would look like me.’”
“Even to say that I have anxiety, and I’m dealing with mental health issues, and I’m also worried about all this stuff, and I have hopes and dreams and fears—even something as basic and humanizing as that—isn’t afforded to Asian characters most of the time,” he says.
Sun believes his mission is to be a “whole person”—a person of color with more than two dimensions.
It’s a lot to pack into 280 characters. But taken together, Sun’s tweets—ranging from lighthearted to angst-ridden—point to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
“They’re all these small grains of sand that build up to a whole identity,”Sun says.
“I've always said ‘alien’—the typos are for visual effect.”
Sun’s book, “everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too,” is an orthographer’s nightmare. Spelling and grammar errors are abundant, and create a mood of freewheeling simplicity and childlike naïveté. Across its pages wanders an inquisitive alien, sent to Earth by its straight-laced brethren to observe mankind. The ensuing odyssey, ripe with misunderstanding (the alien mistakes animals for people and a snowstorm for the apocalypse) is one of innocent discovery. At its core, the book tells a story about finding one’s voice in a strange, new place.
“everyone’s a aliebn” takes its stylistic cues and emotional direction from Sun’s lovingly crafted Twitter-verse. The story’s alien protagonist, tubby and four-fingered with a large bean-shaped head, began its life as Sun’s Twitter avatar.
“Twitter was my notebook of all this stuff that I’d been thinking about and dealing with,” says Sun. “At some point I started looking back, and realized there were different threads that started to show up again and again.” Piecing these individual threads together led Sun to the concept for “everyone’s a aliebn,” and soon, a HarperCollins book deal.
Sun wrote and illustrated the book while a Ph.D. student, all the while maintaining the active Twitter presence he’d begun during his time at Yale.
He is now letting these experiences on Twitter inform his own academic research.
For his first-year Ph.D. research project, he undertook an analysis of geotagged tweets. Labeling these tweets as either “positive” or “negative,” Sun attempted to map out the happiest—and unhappiest—areas of cities. The project remained a proposal.
“I found that that was a very difficult thing to actually do,”Sun says with a laugh. “But I might revisit it.”
Going forward, Sun is unsure exactly how his future Ph.D. research will bring together these academic and creative pursuits. As a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, Sun hosted the Online Humor Conversation Series at MIT. The event consisted of panels and presentations bringing academics side-by-side with internet comedians.
Sun floats the idea of re-staging the series on a much larger scale—with upwards of 200 humorists featured—as a possible direction for his research. But that’s a concern for another day. With exams behind him, Sun finds himself in the midst of a well-earned break.
Post-interview, Sun will be flying out to Chicago for book signings, and he is ecstatic to meet his fans in the real world. “When you have a bunch of people fill a space, it’s immediately more real and present, and more emotional, than seeing a bunch of people tweet at you.”
As Sun becomes increasingly well-known for his creative work, the unusual path that has led him to this couch in the Cognitive and Brain Sciences building is all the more intriguing. It all seems to originate with his initial decision to pursue a degree in engineering as opposed to one in the dramatic arts.
“That’s something I constantly go back to,” Sun says.Would I be here if I made a different choice? Would I be further along? Would I be further behind?”
Sun ponders this for a few seconds. “I always go back to the idea that… having to choose between two is a false setup. You don’t have to actually choose one or the other. You can do both.”
In addition to turning to his mother for advice, he says he also asked his drama teacher. “She said something like, ‘It doesn’t matter what you choose. If you can live your life without wanting to make stuff, and without wanting to be an artist, go for it.’”
“But ultimately, if that drive exists, or if that kind of thing exists in your head, it’s going to find you. And you’ll be compelled to do it anyway.”