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Bo Burnham and Jonny Sun Discuss Mental Health and the Internet at MIT

Comedians Bo Burnham and Jonny Sun talked angst and the internet at MIT on Friday.
Comedians Bo Burnham and Jonny Sun talked angst and the internet at MIT on Friday. By Courtesy of the MIT Communications Forum

An hour before “Digital Anxieties: a Conversation with Bo Burnham and Jonny Sun,” a line had already formed down the hallways of the Compton Laboratories at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On Sept. 27, students from universities in the Boston area gathered to watch comedian and director Bo Burnham and writer and illustrator Jonny Sun discuss mental health in the age of technology.

Burnham and Sun gathered onstage to discuss isolation and community in an over-publicized era, examining how social media can make mental health both better and worse — and how we can all encourage a healthier use of the internet.

“You are not alone in your loneliness,” Sun said.

In 2006, Burnham began uploading videos of himself singing on YouTube that went viral. He has since enjoyed a successful career in stand-up comedy, and has produced the shows “Words, Words, Words,” “what.,” and “Make Happy.” Most recently, he wrote and directed his first feature film, “Eighth Grade,” which received numerous awards.

Sun is the author and illustrator of the book “everyone’s a aliebn when you’re a aliebn too” and the illustrator of the New York Times best-selling “Gmorning, Gnight!” by Lin Manuel Miranda. He is a writer for the sixth season of “BoJack Horseman,” a Ph.D candidate at MIT, and a creative researcher at the Harvard metaLAB, where he studies virtual communities created by social media.

Both Burnham and Sun’s professional backgrounds equipped them to address mental health issues, especially within the context of social media. Both initially found success through online platforms — Burnham through YouTube, Sun largely through Twitter — and both have had to deal with their own struggles in the publicized social media sphere. Sun has struggled with depression, and Burnham often had panic attacks while performing stand-up. Sun currently studies online societies, while Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” addressed coming-of-age in a self-broadcasted era.

“I’ve had probably 20 panic attacks in my life, 19 of which have been onstage,” Burnham said.

Burnham and Sun began the discussion by talking about social media usage in their own daily lives. Burnham argued that many contemporary artists engage their audience too much in their creative process, dispersing fragments of information and asking for continuous feedback.

“You can’t be creative. You’re constantly in a dialogue with your audience,” Burnham said.

Sun also contended that the internet had an element of exhibitionism. “Everyone is performing to each other all the time,” he said. He cited reaction videos and a constant, rapid-fire exchange of ideas, which Burnham named a kind of “cultural cacophony.”

After the initial discussion, Burnham and Sun engaged in a question-and-answer session with the audience. One audience member asked a question about mental illnesses, to which Sun confessed that he created a bot that sent him notifications every hour or so to do something small to improve his mental health. When asked about the validity of virtual friendships, Sun said that connection is connection, “no matter where we find it.”

“[Burnham’s] comedy I think is something that provides a sense of light within darker times,” audience member Dillon Powell said. “When you’re going through a harder time he’s somebody that both relates to you and is still very human.”

Other members of the audience felt similarly. “When they were talking about finding greatness and being great to one specific person as opposed to a whole audience of people, I felt like that really resonated with me,” Nadine A. Jackson ’23 said.

When the discussion came to an end, the stage flooded with students clamoring for selfies, autographs, or a chance for brief conversation. The Internet is, after all, an inescapable phenomenon that resonates with a generation that has never known a world without it.

“I wake up on it, I go to bed with it,” Burnham said.

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