Zittrain: Welcome, every­body. I think we can pay the high­est com­pli­ment from our cam­pus to you, which is a total­ly full room on a sum­mer day.

Sun: Yes…

Zittrain: That’s quite extra­or­di­nary.

Sun: Thank you for com­ing out.

Zittrain: And Jon was actu­al­ly curi­ous and I am too about who’s in our room. We have a num­ber of peo­ple I think lis­ten­ing online. But let’s just slice and dice it. How many folks gen­er­al­ly turnout for Berkman Klein Center stuff so you’re turn­ing out for this, too? How many peo­ple gen­er­al­ly turn out for Johnny Sun stuff so you’re turn­ing out for this, too?

Sun: Oh, hey. Okay.

Zittrain: So the soft­ball teams cre­ate them­selves. How many peo­ple have fol­lowed Jonny on Twitter for at least a week? Alright, that’s…everybody. The rest of you, you have your chance. Any oth­er demo­graph­ic ques­tions we want­ed to ask?

Sun: I think that’s great. Yeah.

Zittrain: That sort of gets us start­ed.

Sun: How about are you hav­ing a good day today? Alright, yay!

Zittrain: It just got bet­ter.

Sun: Yeah!

Zittrain: How many of you con­sid­er your­selves an alien? Alright. We could revote at the end.

Sun: Yeah, alright.

Zittrain: And we thought in the spir­it— Often torts is taught in this room. So in the spir­it of tort, not that of injury but of Latin, we have a prin­ci­ple called res ipsa loquitur” which is the thing speaks for itself.” So we thought to start us off we might do a lit­tle res ipsa loquitur with some of Jomny’s tweets.

Sun: Sure. Yeah, I’m gonna go over here and DJ them. JZ asked me to pull up some my favorite tweets that I’ve done.

Zittrain: You want to embiggen it?

Sun: Yes! How do I…?

Zittrain: Ctrl-+ usu­al­ly does some­thing. Or Ctrl-Shift-+? There we go.

Sun: There we go. Embiggening. Okay. Do I need to read these out loud or can you all read them?

This was kind of in rela­tion­ship to the Joe Biden/Obama memes:

This is kind of like the spir­it of my entire writ­ing project:

Another one of my favorites:

Audience Member: That’s so fun­ny.

Sun: Thank you!

This one’s a bit of an expla­na­tion, but I tweet­ed this and I said omg.. Will O. Smith and Jada N. Smith” with Google search result images of Will Smith’s mid­dle name, Oliver, and Jada Pinkett Smith’s mid­dle name, Naomi, which refers to their kids Willow and Jaden, right. Willow Smith and Jaden Smith.

It went kin­da viral, 50,000 likes. But I doc­tored these search results. So, their mid­dle names aren’t actu­al­ly Oliver or Naomi, I think it’s like Christopher and Koren or some­thing. But this is kind of like I pre­ced­ed the fake news thing by tweet­ing this in late 2015. And so this was like a fun fake news piece as opposed to every oth­er fake news piece.

And I thought, giv­en the tech thing that we’re in right now:

So yeah, that’s a lit­tle intro on me. I’ll flip it over to the PowerPoint and… I just put some pages from the book in the back so we can kind of loop it as we go along and hope­ful­ly it’ll help us set the tone for this talk.

Zittrain: That’s won­der­ful. Thank you so much. And I can’t help but also by way of intro­duc­tion— This is a love­ly book, by the way. Available over here after the pre­sen­ta­tion. And there are few­er books than there are peo­ple, so… You know.

Sun: So run.

Zittrain: Lord of the Flies.

When he isn’t tweet­ing, Jonathan Sun is an archi­tect, design­er, engi­neer, artist, play­wright, and com­e­dy writer.” Which is a fair­ly long list of things.

Sun: Yes.

Zittrain: But tell us about, first, the title of the book.

Sun: Sure.

Zittrain: Authors choose their titles very care­ful­ly. They often have sec­ond thoughts about it. everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too:”—

Sun: Yes.

Zittrain: a book”

Sun: Yes.

Zittrain: I love how the sub­ti­tle is…“a book.”

Sun: Oh it is a book, yeah. Explain what’s going on?

Zittrain: Unless you think it speaks for itself.

Sun: I mean, I think this is one of the things— This title kin­da came about after I’d done the book. And it’s a line in the book and it’s one of those things where when you see the line in the book you’ll be like, That’s the title of the thing!” And it’s kind of the entire theme of both the book and my work in gen­er­al. I think I kind of have float­ed through the world feel­ing like an out­sider and feel­ing a bit like an alien, I guess. And along the way I’ve met so many oth­er peo­ple who have felt like that too, and I think this is a cel­e­bra­tion of that kind of diver­si­ty and of that kind of out­sider­dom.

Zittrain: And are aliens… I remem­ber my dad once told me that when he went to col­lege there were a bunch of fra­ter­ni­ties. And then there were peo­ple who didn’t join the fra­ter­ni­ty who joined some­thing called the Nonfraternal Union.

Sun: Okay.

Zittrain: And I was like “…” Is that not…a fra­ter­ni­ty?

Sun: Yes.

Zittrain: And he’s like, No no! It was the Nonfraternal Union. And we had meet­ings and did activ­i­ties and—”

Sun: And mem­ber­ships.

Zittrain: Right. So are aliens a cohort, or is the whole point of being an alien that when every­one else is an alien… [crosstalk]

Sun: Yeah.

Zittrain: …we’re aliens from one anoth­er?

Sun: Yeah. I think I love that delight­ful para­dox. It’s kind of like the nice ver­sion of when everyone’s spe­cial no one’s spe­cial. And maybe this is like the pos­i­tive flip of that, when everyone’s an alien you’re an alien too. And I think it’s part of say­ing that being an out­sider is okay, and kind of a cel­e­bra­tion of that. And I think that we can kind of spend more time kind of cel­e­brat­ing every­one else’s dif­fer­ences and mak­ing that the high­light instead of kind of cel­e­brat­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties.

Zittrain: Yeah. Now, in some of the wonderful-to-read cov­er­age of you, pro­files in antic­i­pa­tion of the book, you’ve been described as sort of… It’s prob­a­bly the kind of thing like the anarchist’s club had bet­ter not have a pres­i­dent. I assume Weird Twitter does not have a leader.

Sun: Sure.

Zittrain: But cer­tain­ly a denizen of Weird Twitter.

Sun: Mm hm. Yes.

Zittrain: If we were play­ing word asso­ci­a­tion, tell us about Weird Twitter. And demo­graph­i­cal­ly, how many peo­ple— I don’t know if this is like ask­ing if you’re a hip­ster, because… How many peo­ple would say, Weird Twitter. Yes, I iden­ti­fy?” Alright, so not that many.

Sun: Well, Weird Twitter was a thing I think around 2012, 2013, I’d say. Like this move­ment of loosely-connected com­e­dy peo­ple who were writ­ing with anony­mous accounts and just like, mess­ing up every­thing about Twitter and mak­ing weird aes­thet­ic mis­cues and mis­spellings and mess­ing with gram­mar and syn­tax, and real­ly just using Twitter as this text-based medi­um in a way that I’d nev­er seen com­e­dy used before. And so it was total­ly absur­dist, total­ly sur­re­al­ist. But also kind of remind­ed me of the Fluxus move­ment from the 60s, which was a group of poets who real­ly looked at the aes­thet­ic of the form of the type that showed up on the page and played with that, and were explor­ing the effects of what that would do.

Zittrain: So that’s a fas­ci­nat­ing expla­na­tion ground­ed in syn­tax. But I guess—if our medi­um is our mes­sage” there’s also— Is there a mes­sage hav­ing to do with what you were talk­ing about before about diver­si­ty or out­sider­ness or some­thing or…anybody can use weird syn­tax?

Sun: Well, I found that the under­ly­ing spir­it of that kind of move­ment was that— And there was a tweet that said, I don’t think we’re using Twitter for what it was intend­ed for.” And I think that was kind of the spir­it of the whole thing. It was this total­ly sub­ver­sive kind of rebel­lion against the plat­form itself. And I think that’s what I found so fas­ci­nat­ing, because at that time I think a lot of what Twitter was being thought of was things like, I’m eat­ing a sand­wich” or like, Go watch my movie,” or, Go vote for my par­ty” or what­ev­er. And then all these peo­ple came in with no desire at all to kind of use it the way that oth­er peo­ple were. And so in a sense every­one was try­ing to break Twitter by doing this.

Zittrain: And you speak about it kind of in the past tense. Is Weird Twitter no longer Weird Twitter or around because its aims were achieved? Twitter now is pur­pose­less? Or what caused the end of Weird Twitter as you would describe it?

Sun: I mean, I think so many online com­mu­ni­ties and online lit­tle groups, they have their moment and they kind of work for a while and then they nat­u­ral­ly fiz­zle or dis­band. Or peo­ple just start kind of— It starts being this small thing and it starts get­ting more and more dis­parate.

Zittrain: Woodstock can only be so many days before the mud takes over.

Sun: That’s right. And I always have to say with quote Weird Twitter” unquote (because that was not a label that any­body liked), it was a thing that was beau­ti­ful because it was small and no one knew about it. And at the time, hav­ing 200 fol­low­ers was a spe­cial thing. And even­tu­al­ly it just became more and more pop­u­lar, and I think more peo­ple were pay­ing atten­tion to it. And because of that there was this lifes­pan where you had like the gen­uine first kin­da wave—

Zittrain: Yes.

Sun: —peo­ple who were doing this. And then it got some atten­tion and oth­er peo­ple are com­ing in who were essen­tial­ly try­ing to mim­ic the voice and the aes­thet­ic of it with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly grasp­ing the spir­it of it. And so you had the sec­ond wave of peo­ple. And then those waves even­tu­al­ly kept going until the voice or the look of it was what peo­ple were going for.

Zittrain: There was some kind of busi­ness book like how to sell your prod­uct on Weird Twitter.”

Sun: Yeah! And that’s kind of like, that’s like the weird thing about the mon­e­ti­za­tion of Internet con­tent any­way, right, is that as soon as some­thing catch­es flame, oth­er peo­ple want to use it for their own pur­pos­es. Whether to grow a fol­low­ing or to get enough eyes on it to sell some­thing. And so it kind of became dis­band­ed.

Zittrain: Now, some of those tweets you showed as demon­stra­tive of your account had tens of thou­sands of retweets, and you’ve got like a quar­ter of a mil­lion fol­low­ers?

Sun: Uh, 400,000 now, yeah.

Zittrain: God…

Sun: Yeah.

Zittrain: …a lot hap­pens in a week.

Sun: Yeah, exact­ly.

Zittrain: And, so do you have a secret account, kind of like Jerry Seinfeld wear­ing a mask to do stand-up, where you’re try­ing things out?

Sun: It’s fun­ny because this, is sup­posed to be that. This was sup­posed to be like the secret place that no one was sup­posed to know about. And some­how now it’s what I’m known for.

Zittrain: Note he did not answer the ques­tion.

Sun: But I also do not have a secret sec­ondary account. I kin­da treat this as like my per­son­al place where I get to voice all this stuff. So I do see it as my per­son­al account and not a char­ac­ter thing.

Zittrain: Now, in the pub­lic eye, when peo­ple talk about Twitter these days or wring their hands over it— And there’s a lot of hand-wringing about what has Twitter become? What kind of over­all expe­ri­ence is it? Tons of neg­a­tiv­i­ty, cyn­i­cism, out­right hos­til­i­ty, misog­y­ny, you name it. You now have a high enough pro­file that you could have a tar­get on your back, metaphor­i­cal­ly, rhetor­i­cal­ly speak­ing. And yet I think it’s safe to say your rep­re­sen­ta­tion there and with­in in the book is nev­er, it seems, with cyn­i­cal dis­tance. Maybe with dis­tance, but with an earnest­ness that you would think would make trolls sali­vate. And I’m curi­ous what your expe­ri­ence is now, hav­ing the pro­file you do, tweet­ing with the form and con­tent that you do.

Sun: Right. Well, I think part of what I’m try­ing to do is—and maybe not explic­it­ly, but cre­ate like a pos­i­tive space online and prac­tice empa­thy and kind of cre­ate lit­tle moments of kind­ness and delight and joy. Especially giv­en the cyn­i­cal, poi­so­nous waste­land of the Internet as it is right now. I think hav­ing those lit­tle moments—

Zittrain: Let the record show he’s say­ing that with a smile. Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it, it’s just…

Sun: Yes. It’s a chal­lenge to play with. But I think because of that it’s even more impor­tant to try to cre­ate those moments where peo­ple kind of see things and feel a lit­tle bit [inaudi­ble; crosstalk]

Zittrain: And do you have a sense of the recep­tion of that? I mean, I imag­ine your men­tions look like, what is it, “RIP my men­tions.”

Sun: Yeah.

Zittrain: Are your men­tions per­ma­nent­ly rest­ing in peace? Or are you sift­ing through them…

Sun: Yeah…

Zittrain: And is it a Skinner box? Are you like…you know, some­thing gets a ton of stuff, you’re like alright, more of that.” And then oh, this didn’t get good reac­tion, less of that.”

Sun: Yeah, I mean it’s real­ly hard to… I mean, part of the joy of Twitter’s hav­ing that instan­ta­neous response. It’s kind of like the clos­est you can get to mim­ic­k­ing being in front of peo­ple doing a stand-up set, right. Because you get the imme­di­ate reac­tion from peo­ple. But at the same time there’s a dan­ger of look­ing at those num­bers and turn­ing it into data and turn­ing it into—

Zittrain: It’s like dur­ing a debate when they turn the dials and Frank Lutz is like, That’s it, Trumps gonna win.”

Sun: Yeah, exact­ly. There’s a dan­ger of doing that and kind of turn­ing into a par­o­dy of your­self, I think. So part of it is, my men­tions are kind of…a mess. And you asked about the kind of harm­ful speech stuff a lit­tle bit.

Zittrain: Yes.

Sun: And I do have a tar­get on my back and I do have a very ded­i­cat­ed group of trolls and peo­ple who hate me.

Zittrain: I was like props to them for their devo­tion!”

Sun: Yeah, it’s like shout out to them. Shout out for stick­ing around for four years and con­tin­u­ing to do this.

Zittrain: Have you engaged with them? Because so much, too, of your work, almost every instance we see is a dia­logue of some kind. It’s not a pro­nounce­ment, it’s a dia­logue.

Sun: Yeah.

Zittrain: And so how much of your work when you’re on Twitter is post­ing the dia­logue and then on to the next, ver­sus engag­ing in dia­logue, whether with peo­ple who are either try­ing to pick [up] the ball and car­ry it fur­ther, or just react and say great,” or react as one of your devot­ed trolls?

Sun: Right. The book is kind of a cel­e­bra­tion of… Like, it’s fun because the main char­ac­ter of the alien is main­ly a lis­ten­er and main­ly more on the qui­et side and some­one who would rather kin­da learn about every­one else’s lives than project their own lives to every­one else. And I think it’s part of the chal­lenge for writ­ing the book was cre­at­ing a pro­tag­o­nist that the world, like the sto­ry is cen­tered around, who actu­al­ly doesn’t do a lot of the dri­ving of the sto­ry. Who would rather kin­da take the back seat and lis­ten. And I think that kind of reflects [crosstalk] my…

Zittrain: An everyalien.

Sun: Yes. Yeah yeah. And I think that kind of reflects my view of Twitter best prac­tices, in a way. I used to respond a lot to haters and get in fights and kind of pick fights or retweet them into my time­line so oth­er peo­ple would pick fights with them. But now I’m kind of more okay with just see­ing that stuff and kind of being like okay, I hear that but I’m not going to respond.

Zittrain: I can’t tell if this is a jour­ney where you’ll end up as Cory Booker, who has these won­der­ful, weird owns of love back at his haters.

Sun: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there’s so much… And this is some­thing like Susan [Benish?] is here. And we’ve kind of been talk­ing about harm­ful speech online and the role of humor in kind of being able to counter harm­ful speech online, pos­i­tive­ly or in a pro­duc­tive way. And that’s some­thing I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in find­ing the bal­ance of. Of how to do it in a way that kind of deesca­lates the con­ver­sa­tion instead of mak­ing it—

Zittrain: Yes. And humor has, I think, so acknowl­edged… I was think­ing of Mark Twain’s thing about a lie gets around the block faster than the truth while it’s still putting on its shoes kind of thing. But there’s maybe a corol­lary to that where humor can reach peo­ple in a way that just earnest dec­la­ra­tions of what you think is true, fired at them like a Gatling gun… But humor also if it’s to have that ele­ment of shift of sur­prise, of whiplash that is often what humor is, can be mis­in­ter­pret­ed, can be mis­un­der­stood. People might not under­stand that this was sar­cas­tic. Especially when you’ve got 140 char­ac­ters.

Sun: Yes.

Zittrain: Do you find your­self pulling back from some­thing that is humor but you’re already antic­i­pat­ing the eight ways 10% of the peo­ple see­ing it are going to find it hor­ri­bly offen­sive?

Sun: Right. I mean, I do spend a lot of time fig­ur­ing out what the right way to write a joke, a short, a short piece. And some­times I’ll spend like half an hour just fig­ur­ing out the word­ing or fig­ur­ing out the angle for these things. I think there is a huge dan­ger of— Like there’s a quote that I think it goes some­thing like satire doesn’t work if the peo­ple who are main­ly the fans of it believe it’s true,” right. Like are a lot of—

Zittrain: I’ve always won­dered about all the peo­ple that watch The Office

Sun: That’s right. Yeah.

Zittrain: And they’re like, Oh my god, those goof­balls,” when many of them work in offices—

Sun: Right, exact­ly.

Zittrain: —and might…be the goof­ball.

Sun: Exactly. Or peo­ple who think The Onion is like, a real news­pa­per.

Zittrain: Spoiler alert. Or The Colbert Report was great.

Sun: Absolutely. There was a big Republican fan­base for that. And I think gets kind of mag­ni­fied online. Because of how short the snip­pets, the tweets are. There’s this huge chance of it get­ting mis­in­ter­pret­ed. And I think part of what I’m try­ing not to do is I’m try­ing to stay away from the iron­ic side of Twitter. Like there is kind of this voice of irony. Which to me is kind of like being a jerk, then if peo­ple think you’re a jerk you’re like, Ha ha! Gotcha. I’m not actu­al­ly a jerk. I was just pre­tend­ing to be a jerk.”

Zittrain: Kinda like tweet­ing fake news.

Sun: Yeah, it’s kin­da like this weird—

Zittrain: [inaudi­ble]

Sun: Yeah, you’re right. So, that was in 2015 so I’ve stepped away from that.

Zittrain: Which was just me being a jerk.

Sun: Yes, exact­ly. But there is—

Zittrain: You don’t have to agree that quick­ly.

Sun: But there is some­thing about the online dis­course that those mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions like, when we’re in per­son we can just agree and be like, alright that’s great. And we agree and move on. And we get each oth­er. But then online there’s so many ways that these things can get mis­in­ter­pret­ed or you pass by each oth­er. And so on some­times those deep lev­els of satire or irony I think are more coun­ter­pro­duc­tive than pro­duc­tive.

Zittrain: Now, it’s trite to call some of these amaz­ing tweets gems. But they have the a gem-like qual­i­ty maybe of… I’m curi­ous how long they spend being pol­ished and sort of buffed and pre­pared. You men­tion it might take half an hour to kind of get it right. But at the begin­ning of the half hour is maybe when you had the idea, or you might be work­ing on some­thing for like a week?

Sun: It real­ly depends. Sometimes it just comes out fully-formed, like the moon one. The good­night moon one, it just came out just fully-formed and I just tweet­ed it. And I remem­ber it was exact­ly 140 char­ac­ters and I’m like, This is a sign.” This is fine. I’m just going to put it out there.

But treat it like any oth­er writ­ing project. Like I don’t treat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly from play­writ­ing or sketch com­e­dy or writ­ing essays or any­thing. I kind of will…I have this notes thing on my phone that I just any time I think of some­thing I just jot it down real quick and then I can refer to it lat­er and just keep going back and fig­ur­ing out if there’s an angle or some­thing that I want to say with it. And there is this process of I guess writ­ing the ideas down and then fig­ur­ing out which of these is worth kind of explor­ing more and then kind of pol­ish­ing it. So I think I real­ly want to try to boost the work that peo­ple do on social media as a gen­uine form of cre­ative out­put.

Zittrain: And it seems like there may be no top­ic explic­it­ly off lim­its for you to engage with. The book as I look it over can some­times flip from the most… From whim­sy, maybe even twee, sud­den­ly into exis­ten­tial­ism. Like on the next page our alien encoun­ters a skele­ton. It’s dead. It’s like oh, this is a baby that’s real­ly all grown up.” And them some­body else is like, Don’t touch it.” Next. page.

Sun: Yes. Yes.

Zittrain: And I’m won­der­ing— It’s like…I don’t know, I can revis­it. Should I give this to my 7 year-old nephew, or?

Sun: Right. Yeah.

Zittrain: And you did a tweet in the wake of one of the recent mass shoot­ings, I think, that said some­thing like the year 2030,” then it was Son: dad what were things like when youwere a baby? And dad says, Believe it or, son, they weren’t every day.”

Sun: Yeah. That’s right.

Zittrain: And that said… So I don’t know, I’d be inter­est­ed to hear a lit­tle bit about, is there any top­ic off lim­its for this modal­i­ty for you?

Sun: I think it’s just find­ing ways to make it um… That’s a real­ly good ques­tion. I think part of it for me is find­ing ways to take a spe­cif­ic thing and kind of gen­er­al­ize it a lit­tle bit and make it a piece that not only applies at the moment but applies like five years lat­er, ten years lat­er, and some­thing that you can go back to and both see it as a snap­shot of what was hap­pen­ing at the time, and then also still rel­e­vant or applic­a­ble lat­er on.

I don’t think that by prin­ci­ple there’s any­thing that I want to shy away from, but I do think there are a lot of top­ics that I rec­og­nize as like a straight, cishet male that I’m not in the right posi­tion to be the one mak­ing these state­ments. And so I like to use Twitter as also a plat­form to expand oth­er voic­es and to kind of be the micro­phone, and kind of give a plat­form to oth­er peo­ple who I think have a bet­ter per­spec­tive and a bet­ter, clear­er way to say some of the things—

Zittrain: And does that mean a healthy dose of like, retweet­ing with­out com­ment kind of stuff?

Sun: Absolutely, yeah. And find­ing peo­ple whose per­spec­tives I real­ly appre­ci­ate, and kind of sig­nal post­ing, and kind of find­ing ways to to do that pro­duc­tive­ly.

Zittrain: And are there peo­ple who did that for you back in the day?

Sun: I think so, yeah. I think that’s kind of how social media works, is like you kind of make friends and you kind of fig­ure out who… You find like kin­dred spir­its, in a way. And I think the cool thing about Twitter is that even though it’s through text, it’s short pieces, often­times you don’t even know what the per­son looks like that you’re kind of inter­fac­ing with. But I think maybe because of that, you get a truer sense of who they are, in a very strange way. Like I’ve had so many meet­ings with peo­ple that I’ve known through Twitter who had become like my very close friends. Yeah, and there are so many cas­es where I feel like the first time I meet them in per­son, if I’ve fol­lowed them for a while I already know who they are and I’ve skipped like the first five times hang­ing out with them. I’m on till it’s like already being their friend and we kind of it’s like we’re pick­ing up a con­ver­sa­tion instead of start­ing one.

Zittrain: Ten years ago the then-Berkman Center host­ed Wikimania 2006 here on cam­pus. And it was just amaz­ing to see all of the meet­ings of Wikipedians that had only known each oth­er on the— Oh so you’re HotPants15! It’s so great to meet you.” And it was like the first meet­ing of the Arbcom in per­son, the Arbitration Committee. And it’s like you know, you were expect­ing you know…Ruth Bader Ginsburg to turn up and oth­er peo­ple in robes. And it was just like oh… But they still emanat­ed pow­er, let me be clear.

You had a great McSweeney’s piece. It was a dia­logue with a stand-in maybe for you or some­body maybe gen­tly try­ing to push Twitter to increase the char­ac­ter size, and Twitter explain­ing again and again why it would nev­er do such a thing. If you had root access to Twitter what’s the one change, if any, you might see your­self want­i­ng to make to it?

Sun: I think the biggest issue Twitter has right now is issues of harass­ment and abuse, still. It’s been the prob­lem with the plat­form I think since the begin­ning?

Zittrain: Yes.

Sun: And I think it’s like— I under­stand it’s a very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion. But amongst every­one, like all my friends on Twitter and I guess amongst every­one I kind of inter­act with, the com­mon thread is if we can kind of curb the amount of neg­a­tive, harm­ful speech get­ting tar­get­ed towards us, we’re all going to want to use it more. And I think a lot of the pub­lic per­cep­tion now is peo­ple are kind of resis­tant to join­ing Twitter and to get­ting on it because they’re afraid of tweet­ing some­thing wrong and get­ting a lot of tar­get­ed stuff—

Zittrain: And do you have an instinct— Is it loose­ly… Come on peo­ple. Just make some decent rules or stan­dards and then invest what it takes to enforce it. We all kind of know it when we see it.” Or is it, No, we have to inno­vate entire­ly new design fea­tures or some­thing to…”

Sun: Yeah, I mean there are some very— I think there are basic things like find­ing the Neo-Nazi groups and ban­ning their accounts or some­thing. Which there was a piece that I saw recent­ly where I think Twitter banned Neo-Nazi— Had delet­ed Neo-Nazi accounts that orig­i­nat­ed from Germany because that was German law, but refused to do it for accounts from oth­er coun­tries. Which means that that there is a capa­bil­i­ty of find­ing and tar­get­ing those accounts but kind of like an unwill­ing­ness to do it unless it’s like doc­u­ment­ed and ille­gal. So I think there are ele­ments of that as well.

Zittrain: Certainly much more to explore there, but why don’t we open it up. Anybody want to ask a ques­tion or make an inter­jec­tion or begin a dia­logue for which we need to get a micro­phone to you, if that’s the case? Sarah, yeah. Welcome back from vaca­tion.


Discussion

Sarah Newman: Thank you. It's nice to see—

Sun: Feel free to say who you are.

Newman: I'm Sarah Newman. I'm a creative researcher at metaLab and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center. My question is about the drawings. And if you could talk about your style of drawing, what inspired it, how you feel it works with the text and also about sort of audience. Whether you feel like it changes the audience, expands it, limits it. Or whether there's different audiences for… Sort of some people are more drawn to the drawings and some are more drawn to the text.

Sun: Yeah, totally. That's a great. question. I'd also been working in visual arts for a long time, and this was kind of like a thesis on… Well this is all basically a tribute to the types of books I read as a kid. And there's a bit of like Bill Watterson, Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak and all the kind of delightful—and a little bit dark—and a little bit thoughtful writer-illustrator type people. And that's kind of the spirit I wanted to get across with the illustrations. I was very interested also in the parallel to Twitter and creating a metaphor to the experience of being on Twitter through the book, which is very loose, but I was interested in creating drawings that were very iconographic and reduced to like this minimalism and simplicity that allowed you to kind of see them as icons or avatars and stand-ins for actual people. And so that was the digital design side that I was thinking of as well.

And I think for the audience, I'd hope that it kind of appeals to anyone who would pick it up and just see it and be like, "This is a strange, kinda cute thing and maybe either I'll like it or my kids'll like it."

Zittrain: And again, it has the reassurance that it is in fact a book.

Sun: It is in fact a book, yes! And I was very excited that my editor let me put "a book" on there, because he was like, "Everyone's going to know it's a book." But I thought that was a cute little— It was also a cute thing to say, like you might know me from the my work on Twitter, but this is—

Zittrain: It's a different form.

Sun: —very adamantly a different form and like a launching point into a different kind of medium.

Sun: Other questions?

Audience 2: I had a question about your spelling, and if there's any pattern about it or if you kind of are just a really bad typer or if you kind of type out what you actually want and then go back and change each letter. And I notice on your tweets you do the same spelling errors, so I was kind of wondering about that.

Zittrain: Yeah, do you have an autoincorrect tool?

Sun: I wish I did. That's a great question. The fun thing about the typos again that messing up of the aesthetic individual was… I think people attribute it to me now because I think I'm the only one who kept doing it, maybe the only one foolish enough to keep doing it? But I think around the "Weird Twitter" zeitgeisty thing, everyone was kind of playing with form and playing with messing up typos, or grammar and syntax and stuff. And there was this spirit of just breaking the English language. And so I kind of found my own way to do it.

And my inspiration was kind of like the fat thumbs kind of thing, where most of the typos I make are not phonetic but keyboard-based, like adjacencies. So like "aliebn," the B and the N letters are next to each other on the keyboard.

Zittrain: So you could do a Dvorak version of your misspellings.

Sun: That's right, yeah.

Zittrain: Somebody should write the tool.

Sun: Yeah.

Zittrain: If this, then that.

Sun: Yeah, that's right. And a lot of them are based on the keyboard adjacencies. There's like B/Ns and then replacing Ns with Ms a lot. And things that… Eventually I actually created a style guide for my copy editor for the book. Because when they—

Zittrain: Did your copy editor get danger pay?

Sun: Seriously. When I met about doing the book with HarperCollins, they were like, "Our copy editor's going to want to kill you." And so to make life a little bit easier I did make a style guide that was like, "Okay, if you see this, that's an intentional one. But if you see a typo that isn't on this list that's probably a real typo." So they had to cross-reference my actual style guide. Yeah. So there is a consistency to it and something that I tried to create.

Zittrain: I love that you can be so punctilious about typos.

Sun: Yeah, no. I love it.

Zittrain: But only the right kind.

Sun: Yes.

Zittrain: But it's also interesting because I was thinking that in a way it was meant to emphasize the alien as new and different and still learning and all that, the way somebody who has any language as his or her second one could be. But this is not that. This is just…something different.

Sun: Yeah, and it's a little bit of both because I think like… I mean, growing up as someone who wanted to be in comedy but is an Asian male, I was very aware of how my identity kind of became the butt of jokes a lot of the time. And a lot of the time it was based on a misunderstanding of language, and I never wanted it— I think because of that experience I never wanted my humor to sort of be exclusive and laughing at someone for not knowing something. Instead I really tried to make this something that was sort of an inclusive thing. And part of the learning a new language aspect of that, which I [did] want it to keep in this, was really creating a new type of grammatical error. Because I didn't want to fall back on English as a second language-type humor. Or immigrants coming to America and having to learn English-type humor. I really focused on creating a voice that was different and unique from that, and hopefully separate from that type of—

Zittrain: Literally alien—

Sun: Yeah.

Zittrain: —rather than the terrible deployment of the word for "people not from here."

Sun: Exactly, yeah.

Zittrain: Susan.

Audience 3: You play this irresistible, adorable, cute, bewildered creature…alien, on Twitter. You also sometimes at least seem to be very much playing yourself and revealing some quite intimate details of your own self and your emotions. And from what I've observed, your followers assume that that's real. That that's "real" in quotes. That it's you. And seem to tremendously appreciate that you're for example willing to say "I feel sad." Could you talk a little bit about that as a part of this phenomenon. And does it have something to do with why the trolls may salivate but not go after you, to pick up Jonathan's question?

Sun: Sure. Yeah. Well, I think part of the thing that I stumbled into with the account is that I found actually having a bit of an avatar and a bit of an identity distance, or crafting a new identity, has actually allowed me paradoxically to be more honest and to be more myself. I think there's… I feel like if my face were literally attached to this, and my full, properly-spelled name were attached to this, I wouldn't be able to to be as honest and to divulge as much information as I do with this account. And I'm not really sure what that phenomenon is, but I'm really appreciative of that.

I also think there is this bounce between character and personal that I've kind of been really careful about finding that balance. Because I know that there's sort of a… There's sort of a, I guess skepticism to accounts that are character accounts, or accounts that specifically try to be one thing. Especially online now, because you see so many people trying to use that as a way to monetize, or… The sort of insincere use of the Internet to create content for other purposes.

And so I like to set up the character thing and then break it by just interjecting my own voice into it and creating that balance—

Zittrain: And is it demarcated when you do that? It's pretty clear it's you?

Sun: Sometimes. Sometimes I will drop the typos and tweet as me. And now I'm in a weird place now, trying to promote the book and also doing it through this account. Because now I have to write the jokes and write the content, but also be like, "Hey, I'm at the Berkman Klein Center." And it's a difficult thing to balance. But I also trust people online to be smart enough to know when it's me tweeting and when it's me tweeting as this creative project. And I don't think I need to create like, "Jonathan Sun, author" account and "Jomny Sun, character" character account.

Zittrain: Yes. Over here. We'll meet up over here. [indicating next question] I'm also curious, just word or sentence association. Brands online. Do you engage with brands? Do you poke fun at brands? Do you rue their arrival?

Sun: The most successful brand online I think at the moment is the Merriam-Webster dictionary Twitter account. Which is so…it's just at the right place at the right time because it's doing essentially the role of a dictionary in a social media landscape. It actually is reporting on which words are looked up now, and the accurate definition of words considering that the people in power right now are misusing language so badly. So I think that's a very productive brand, in a sense, because it's using the identity of it to actually do something.

Fun brands, I guess like— I used to interact with the SpaghettiOs account. Just because I thought it was hilarious. And this was when the SpaghettiOs account had 1,000 followers and I was kinda just like talking to it.

Zittrain: Were you talking to it as a credulous…like, was it thinking that you were just another consumer or were you…

Sun: Oh, I think it was like yeah— I was kind of like well, I love SpaghettiOs, will you send me SpaghettiOs, and I had this little thing. I actually got two cans of SpaghettiOs, so.

But the funny thing with those accounts is like, that social media person on that account left at some point. And you realize it because—

Zittrain: It became less saucy.

Sun: It became less—yeah, exactly.

Zittrain: That was my alter ego speaking.

Sun: But you you can tell when that happens and I think that's part of the skepticism with brands, too, is because you know that it's not from a personal place. You know that it's from this company paying this person to do this. And so to close that SpaghettiOs story, a year later I tweeted back saying, "Hello, old friend," and they just said like, "Hi! If you have a problem with SpaghettiOs please contact me." And I was like, "Noooo!"

Zittrain: It's like the skeleton just reanimated and it was undead rather than alive.

Sun: Exactly, yeah.

Zittrain: Sasha.

Audience 4: Hi. So you talked a little bit about the tweet around the mass shooting. And I'm wondering how do you make the kinds of determinations around— We have a lot of those kind of moments these days. There's a lot of political moments you could engage with. My question is kind of about how do you determine when and how to use this character to engage with the explicitly political. It doesn't seem like it happens a lot, so it's infrequent and occasional. And have you been tempted, given the recent turn of events, to do more of that type of thing? I'm especially thinking about the Supreme Court's hearing of the…the alien ban.

Sun: Yeah. I think it's such a balance because I never want to seem to be using the platform and the account and the voice to sort of pander in a way to current events and current issues. So I never want to pander to that or treat it as a talking point that I could just use to put something out there. And so I've lately become a lot more conscious of that, and instead what I've been trying to do is find other voices and find other perspectives that I think have a more insightful take on it and trying to boost those voices instead. I think I have a responsibility not only to speak sometimes but also just to step back and let others speak, and if I can help those voices get put out there then I think that's a great way to go about it.

Audience 5: Hi, I'm Justin Emmerich[?]. I don't if I'm maybe the person that's further away— I'm from Ohio. I just happened to be in Boston. I follow you on Twitter. I feel like we know each other. Well, I know you.

Zittrain: And you're well-labeled with an Ohio State shirt.

Audience 5: I need to get retweets by you so I have 500,000 followers or whatever. I just— A couple things. I'm a teacher, and I just wanted to personally thank you for a few things. First of all thank you for giving my students that look at themselves as outsiders or fellow aliens an avenue, a friend, online. I have multiple students that follow you and they are not the kids that talk out or anything but I'll see them retweet you and that's pretty impressive.

Second of all, some of your tweets have been excellent just in my classroom to discuss. The tweet about from the stars… The astronaut and going back to earth or going to the stars. And just that conversation. There was another one about making…it was along the lines of doing things for others and then that makes you stop doing things for yourself. Just the depthness we've had from 140 characters is pretty impressive.

My question, though, is about your book. How do you see this being used, maybe by middle school or high school teachers? Do you see that?

Sun: Oh, man. I have not actually thought about that. Uh, let's see.

Zittrain: And if he were to prepare a derivative work called a teacher's guide, would you sue?

Sun: I would absolutely not sue. I think part of the academic side of this was again creating a metaphor— Like, I think the mission for this was kind of take that writer/author/illustrator-type book and update it for an audience that kind of is primed for social media now. For an attention span or for— I mean, "attention span" is such a shitty word. So not an attention span, for just like, primed for that sort of narrative form, I guess. And so this really reads as both a concise narrative piece that has a beginning, middle, end, but also jumps around characters a lot and jumps on different narratives, and things intersect and weave in and out. Much in the same way that I've observed the Twitter timeline or the social media timeline working. And so part of the theoretical mission of this book was to take that type of online narrative and put it into I guess a more traditional form. So I don't know if that helps.

But yeah, and then the other thing is all the characters sort of represent a different on kind of idea or anxiety or personal internal struggle of mine. And so I feel like I've split myself into like eight, ten, fifteen different characters and kind of am working through them by working on the book. And so I hope maybe there's a character guide or something as well.

Zittrain: And just as a quick follow-up on that, what's your view on remix, as it were? Especially… I mean, this is probably the wrong example to suddenly tilt everything towards, Pepe the frog has been one of the most remixed, transform, characters in history. How do you feel about if kids or others were to take up your own characters, add one or two, deploy then in their own directions?

Sun: Right. It's such an interesting thing, because the Internet has thrived so much on remix culture, right. And I don't know what the IP or like the copyright side of things are, or just the ownership side of things. I would love for this book to kind of be taken and used however the Internet wants it to…to a degree. [Zittrain laughs] But I've been telling everyone who wants to use it as a coloring book to use it as a coloring book. It's their book when they have it. It's no longer mine when it's kind of in your hands.

Zittrain: But like, he could assign his students if they wanted to write some continuing adventures.

Sun: Yeah—

Zittrain: You could even see doing so templates…

Sun: Yeah, absolutely.

Zittrain: What about like a green screen challenge?

Sun: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, that's something that um…I think that's inevitable anyway, and for me I spent so much of my high school writing fanfiction and taking the characters that already exist and imagining them in new situations.

Zittrain: Who were your favorites?

Sun: I wrote an Indiana Jones comic. And this graphic novel that I think it was about…what was it about? It was about the monkey king, and it was kind of based on an existing script that got the nod for like the fourth Indiana Jones?

Zittrain: Do you realize your agent is like, "Come on. [inaudible]"

Sun: Yeah, but so many of… I think the ways young writers learn to write and to create work is by looking at existing things and taking the pieces that they love and trying to imagine those in new situations. So there's no way I would ever want to deny that as well. Because that's how I learned how to do all this stuff. I grew up drawing Calvin and Hobbes over and over again until I figured out how to draw and how to make narrative in visual ways, just by copying my favorite art and kind of working and playing with that.

Audience 6: So, I first found your Twitter account when I was a graduate student living abroad, so it was a really kind of cool thing to see. But secondly my question is how do you find that your creative process differs between platforms, where you do stand-up and you do Twitter and you do your book and architecture. Like, is it the same or are there distinct process that you go through?

Sun: I think it starts out the same. I think it starts out with like a spark of an idea and then it's about— For me it's about figuring out where that is supposed to be slotted in or which mediums I want to play in. I think the way my brain works is that if there's something I'm a fan of, I really just want to do something in that style or in that genre or in that platform. And so for me it's kind of what the idea is, and where I think it should go and what I want to play with at the moment. So whether that's taking this one-liner thing and trying to turn it into a play, or thinking about a space and saying "oh, this would be really cool if there was like a thing here" and then working to create an installation that's site-specific for that place.

But it all comes from the idea first and seeing— For me it's also what the challenge is, right. Maybe not necessarily taking it the most simplest way. Like for the book, this was originally supposed to be a web comic. And I just thought maybe I'd just illustrate my tweets and put it out like three times a week and just make it a thing. But then I was like but, this would also be way more confusing and headache-inducing if I tried to make it a book. So I'm going to do that instead.

But I think that challenge is part of the fun, right. Like I think at the heart of it creativity is just puzzle-solving. And so that's how I approach, I think, everything that I do.

Zittrain: Isaiah Berlin had this distinction between a fox and a hedgehog. For academics, and among other things I don't mean to accuse you, but you are an academic pursuing a doctoral degree.

Sun: Correct.

Zittrain: And the fox is somebody who is into a lot of things, and just any new thing might interest the fox.

Sun: Sure.

Zittrain: Write something here, build something there, cartoon something there. And I think Berlin was on Team Fox. And a hedgehog is like, "I'm gonna get really good at this one thing." Like, sound. Or whatever it is, you get really good as a hedgehog. And a lot of these fields that you have interest and talent in…design, engineering, writing, they do require layers of stuff. And here you are pursuing a doctoral degree, which is the ultimate like year after year of hedgehogging. So I just…this is a little bit Barbara Walters, what's next?

Sun: Yeah!

Zittrain: What's next for Jonathan Sun? Is it continuing to do spread spectrum, or might it be like, "I'll see y'all in five years after I build a new airport for Belgium."

Sun: Sure, yeah. I actually don't know. I think my role as an academic has been an interesting one because partially what inspired this work is the fact that I was here and feeling very lost and having a lot of impostor syndrome. And I thought well, the thing that I actually have a grasp on that that can ground me is by working on something creative. And something that I feel like I have control over, because sometimes I think academia, maybe just for me in a place like this surrounded by geniuses and feeling totally overwhelmed, is…there's this, there's a lot of pressure involved with that.

Zittrain: [inaudible] out on a limb.

Sun: Right, yeah! But I think I do want to continue working on a PhD, but I want to find creative ways to do that and maybe think a bit outside of the box and figure out how to make that happen.

Zittrain: Got it. One more question from this zone. I realize I've been positioned diagonally. Wherever the mic finds itself.

Audience 7: Hi. So you've been talking a lot about sort of different identities and separation between identities. And and also about different disciplines. And when I read through this, you're an architect, designer, engineer, artist playwright, comedy writer, and also you refer to yourself as an author and illustrator, which sort of combines two separate things. Do you see all of these as separate identities or lives, or are they all sort of expressions of you? Are there overlaps between them or are they separate entities?

Sun: Oh, I think they're like total…I think they're all part of the same thing. Like I don't really see them as separate things at all. Just because I think I just want to make…things, for like my entire life. And so for me it's just about where the fun is in making the thing.

Zittrain: I'm still trying to figure out what food you would prepare if you were a chef.

Sun: [laughs] I'm really good at Italian.

Zittrain: [inaudible] is that cinnamon in the steak? You're like, "It's a typo."

Sun: Right! It's an intentional one. The recipe called for cardamom. Yeah. I don't know. I do think it's… I consider it all the same. And I'll have you over for dinner one night. And we'll see.

Zittrain: Very good. Saul Tannenbaum, maybe, for our last question. Make it a good one. No pressure.

Saul Tannenbaum I actually…it's a quick follow-up to the typo question. Is the B in "aliebn" meant to be silent, or is it "ali-eh-bin?"

Sun: The funny thing is I've always thought of the typos as a purely text-based medium and it's meant to be read and not spoken. I think of Twitter as this thing that the power of it is that the reader is kind of filling in the voice in their head and it's not meant to be performed, right. And so obviously I have this problem where I'm promoting a book with a typo in it and I don't know what to do with it. And I'm still trying to figure it out. I'd rather just hold it up and let everyone read it and say, "Memorize this book. This is what it's called." But I've calling it "alien" just because I think part of it is like, these are keyboard typos, and so they're still intended to be spoken as words.

Zittrain: There's just a massive "sic" at the end of the book.

Sun: Yeah! They've had to do that a lot in the press releases and stuff.

Zittrain: We actually have time for one more bonus question unless there's something more you want to to ask everybody or say.

Sun: No no no. Let's do one more.

Zittrain: Back here.

Audience 9: Well, this is much more personal. Looking at what you do and the range of several things that catches your interest, what's your me time like? You know, what do you do? What's your ideal time 24-hour scenario? What do you do? How do you prioritize things? Do you take a particular thing a day or you just move from one thing to the other within the span of 24 hours?

Sun: Oh, man. I'm very bad at any structure and any schedule. And I think part of it is I think I have a strange tendency to fill up free time. Like I feel like if I have free time I'm wasting it, in a way. And so it's maybe an unhealthy habit, but I do tend to kind of see that and be like "oh, I need to find a way to fill this." And then whatever kind of interesting way I can do to be productive is the thing I'll follow and then I'll look up at the clock and it's four in the morning. And I'll be like "oh, this was a bad idea" again, to do this. So I have very little structure and I'm trying to work on it.

Zittrain: And is it right to describe you as an introvert?

Sun: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Zittrain: It's just the way you recharge is to do something, but alone.

Sun: Actually, yeah. I really like making and I think the thing that drives me is just kind of the fact that I can look at something the day after and be like "oh, there was nothing here before, and now there's a thing here." And all that happened was I sat down and I willed it into existence and isn't that cool? And now can't I share it with everybody and be like, "You can do this too and isn't that cool?"

Zittrain: A mere hour ago there was a big pile of burritos. There are fewer. And yet we are enriched. And we have [inaudible] for the use of this hour. And Jonathan thank you so much for coming out and for giving us so much to follow in your exemplary work. Thank you.

Sun: Great. Thank you, Jonathan.

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