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.
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.
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?
me: goodnight moon :)
me: goodnight stars :)
me: sry wrongnumber
moon: whos stars
moon: who is stars
moon: answer me
— jonny sun (@jonnysun) October 21, 2014
This was kind of in relationship to the Joe Biden/Obama memes:
This is kind of like the spirit of my entire writing project:
look. life is bad. evryones sad. we’re all gona die. but i alredy bought this inflatable boumcy castle so r u gona take ur shoes off or wat
— jonny sun (@jonnysun) November 8, 2013
Another one of my favorites:
on earth: a magiciam puts his hand in his hat
in the rabbit realm: The Hand emerges. it is time. the rabit council must chose a sacrifice
— jonny sun (@jonnysun) February 22, 2014
Audience Member: That’s so funny.
Sun: Thank you!
omg.. Will O. Smith and Jada N. Smith pic.twitter.com/6Dz6d5YB5Y
— jonny sun (@jonnysun) September 14, 2015
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:
as a child i asked my dad why the moon looks really really big sometimes and he said “simulations always have bugs” and i havent slept since
— jonny sun (@jonnysun) March 19, 2016
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.
Zittrain: But tell us about, first, the title of the book.
Zittrain: Authors choose their titles very carefully. They often have second thoughts about it. “everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too:”—
Zittrain: “a book”
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.
Zittrain: And I was like “…” Is that not…a fraternity?
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]
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.
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—
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: …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.”
Zittrain: Are your mentions permanently resting in peace? Or are you sifting through them…
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.
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.
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.
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—
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?
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.
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.
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.
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—
Zittrain: —rather than the terrible deployment of the word for “people not from here.”
Sun: Exactly, yeah.
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.
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.
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.
Zittrain: And the fox is somebody who is into a lot of things, and just any new thing might interest the fox.
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?
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.