From Twitter’s Jomny to MIT‘s Jonny
An alien navigating the world of humans
Happiness, grief, love, life, and death are all subjects people have grappled with over the ages. Imagine how overwhelming such concepts would be for an alien visiting Earth, tasked with the job of observing humans. Such is the premise of Jomny Sun’s graphic novel everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too. Sun’s alien, together with a ghost, an uncertain owl, a lonely tree, and a host of other characters, explore topics from imposter syndrome to community to the creation of art, issues that Jomny — or rather, Jonny — has good reason to think deeply about.
Jonathan Sun G, a current doctoral student in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, wrote and illustrated this graphic novel under his online pseudonym Jomny. The book is a project that grew out of his Twitter account, @jonnysun, which delivers inspirational thoughts and quirky jokes to over half a million followers.
According to his Twitter bio, Jomny is an “aliebn confuesed abt humamn lamgauge.” Outside of the internet, Sun is “an interdisciplinary researcher, designer, engineer, artist, comedian, author, and playwright,” as outlined on his personal website. Each of these titles is well-earned; his life is a balancing act of technical and creative pursuits.
While he was an undergraduate studying infrastructure engineering at the University of Toronto, Sun also wrote plays, acted in musicals, and learned improv at Second City. Peruse his personal website, and you’ll find a polished portfolio developed during his masters in architecture at Yale. Look a little longer, and you’ll also find anything from installation art to Arduino-controlled light suits. Now, Sun juggles Twitter, book tours, TV pilots, a PhD thesis which studies social media communities, and more. The Tech sat down with Sun for an interview at the beginning of the month. Below are highlights from The Tech’s conversation with Sun.
I was really into [Twitter] right after high school, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I had a personal account, and I was tweeting movies I watched and sandwiches I ate. Originally, a bunch of my high school friends and I used it to keep in touch with each other, and then when I was directing comedy shows in undergrad, I thought, well, the internet is a new way that people are creating work. But then in grad school, I really started using it as a creative project and a creative form of expression, and that was mainly because I had found a comedy group in Toronto. I had found a family for writing and creative stuff, [but] I moved to the U.S. for grad school, and I lost touch with them and couldn’t write with them, and I couldn’t perform with them for sure.
I found a group of writers and strange comedy people on Twitter. I started hanging out with them and playing with that community, and so that became the place where I could constantly pop in and out and do something creative. Even when it’s just a small tweet, if you do that every day, you start to feel like you’re producing something, or there’s some sort of meaning to what you’re doing.
There was some point where I woke up one morning, and I said, “Oh my god, there’s this large amount of people who are reading what I’m writing.” Sometimes it feels very daunting, but at the same time, I’ve tried to be as genuine and authentic and as honest as I can be, and I think if that has connected with people, then the only thing that makes sense is to continue to be honest and authentic and genuine moving forward. I think this is true for everyone online or every sort of artist or creator or writer, but as soon as you lose that feeling of authenticity and genuineness, you lose that connection with people. For the most part, I try to combat that daunting feeling by being like, I’m just going to continue being as open as I can, and see where that goes.
On losing the pseudonym:
For the longest time, I was just trying to be this cartoon, anonymous account that was just tweeting and that had no connection to me, and I really liked that because I understood the power of that. I think there’s a lot of negative criticism about anonymity online. Absolutely, it has led to a lot of toxic discourse and toxic practices on the internet, but at the same time, I think in terms of understanding who you are and your identity, I think anonymity helps to express who you are in a way that isn’t tied to who you’ve always been.
The other part of it, too, was I wasn’t sure how I could enter the comedy space looking the way I did. There also is this conversation about comedy and entertainment and representation that we’re still having as a culture right now. I wanted to see if I could write jokes first, and just see if I could play as a cartoon account the way all these other anonymous, fun accounts existed, and do the back door, Trojan horse thing. Eventually, once I established myself and my position online, I talked about who I was, showed a picture of myself, and expressed my real name identity through Twitter. I saw the way it unfolded, and it became this cool thing where people had no idea I was an Asian writer.
I think there was something really eye-opening for them about it, for them to understand their own assumptions about who I could have been, and a lot of people had said, “I never had expected that you would be Asian,” and then a lot of Asian young people who had followed me were really delighted.
I felt like I needed to show people who I was. I consciously want to make the statement that I’m taking this space, taking up space, which I think is something difficult for the world to afford to writers of color. I think for me to say, this is intentional, this is my space that I want to take up, definitely drove me to do that. At the same point, it started to feel like I was putting so much into this world, this online side of what I was doing, that were at first anonymity felt a bit freeing, now it started to feel a bit disingenuous, and it felt a little shielded. This idea of well, if I’m going to be honest and open here, I have to show off myself at this point, was the personal reason to do so.
On his book and creative work:
I started the book the first year that I got here, in the PhD program, and part of that was I recognized that I was putting too much of myself into school and into academia, so I needed to create something. [The book] became a therapeutic project to help balance the academic stuff. I think, for the most part, I’m trying to steer most of my productivity into something more on the creative side. I think I’m slowly understanding and course correcting that this is the direction that makes the most sense to me, but I took a long time to get there.
I realized in coming to this course correction that a lot of the stuff that I did in undergrad — I don’t want to say, “Oh, all the stuff was for waste,” because it wasn’t. All of that was so integral to developing how I understand the world, how I understand myself, and how I understand the ways that I can work productively. I’ve learned, too, that creative work is mainly about building structures and understanding the structure that stories are told, and being really good about figuring out the scaffolding and filling it in with different things, but it’s all still formulas and equations and structure and rigor and very intense study.
The idea for [the book] was to take the social media timeline and turn it into the structure of a book. Taking it from Twitter to book format — I think that type of analysis, at least for me, the way I [arrived] at understanding that, was through understanding structure in engineering and technical fields.
We didn’t know what was going to happen, and I totally didn’t expect the response that happened, and I’m just so blown away. I spent a year by myself, writing it and then illustrating it, and I just stuck to that mantra of being personal and honest and genuine and trying to talk about the stuff that I wanted to talk about as openly as possible. I knew [the book] was something that I really felt accurately described what I wanted it to, and described a part of me, and none of us had any idea how it would be received, so the fact that people are connecting to it means so much, because it feels like it’s just a part of me that I put into a book, or put on paper, and I’m really happy and grateful that people are finding it and connecting with it.
On future work and balancing pressures:
I think I feel well-fulfilled in creating and in making things, and for me, I’m always chasing this feeling of making something and then looking back and saying, there was nothing here before, and now there is a thing that is here. In terms of my work, that’s the thing that drives me, is finding those projects that feel like that and make that happen. Then in terms of being a person, I’m still working on it. I’m trying very much to be open and to be honest that a lot of my lifestyle and my habits that I’ve grown in trying to be super productive and trying to be hyper-productive in terms of so many things has led towards unhealthy lifestyles and led towards anxiety and depression and my struggles with mental health. The way I’m trying to unlearn that and combat that and speak out about that is just to write as openly as I can, both in a way that hopefully helps other people learn and also helps me, I think, learn about myself.
We’re in a school right now, where you look around you and you feel like you’re surrounded by geniuses, and everywhere you go another person’s achievements are being celebrated. Because you’re constantly inundated by it, it feels like it’s happening all the time, and I think that I’ve been trying to check myself against that. I’ve realized, no, everyone isn’t constantly making these huge breakthroughs every day. This is someone’s life’s work that got them to this one point, and there’s so much work, and there’s so much that has to happen before you get to any of those points and those landmarks, but we obviously don’t see that part; we just see when MIT celebrates a thing or someone celebrates a success. That’s wonderful, but when I see all the achievements laid out in front of me, it feels like I should be achieving all those things in order to keep up. I need to take a step back and say, this is the work of thousands of lives over thousands of combined years, to get all those points, and so it kind of takes that pressure off a little bit.