Q&A: Twitter made you famous. What would you do if the company went away?


Writer and comedian Jonny Sun says he’s not worried about losing his 250,000 followers, but …

In real life, Jonny Sun is a PhD student at MIT. On Twitter, he’s an alien.

That alien, “Jomny,” has amassed a Twitter following of more than 250,000 users, saying in its bio that it is “confuesed abot humamn lamgauge.” And now that persona is putting its name on a book titled, “Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too.”

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Details about the book’s story are still under wraps, and it’s not due to be released until June 2017. But Sun says “Aliebn” is about 250 pages long and will be “a novel-length picture book,” drawing inspiration from Shel Silverstein.

He took a break from finals week at MIT to talk with Recode about how he uses social media, why he’s writing a book and what he would do if Twitter disappeared tomorrow.

This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

For someone who has no idea who you are — basically, someone who’s not on Twitter all day — how would you describe what you do with social media?

For people who aren’t on Twitter or anything, I’d say it’s like a very Twitter-specific type of comedy and commentary.

It’s completely text-based and it’s 140 characters, but also moves at the fastest pace of news right now. If you’re on Twitter, the game you have to play is you have to comment on things that happened and so it’s very real-time commentary. But it’s also this comedic character that I’ve been developing for the last four years, this character of an alien.

When did you realize that this character was catching on? Was there a specific time, or a specific tweet?

I think I started around the same time as — and like I know everyone hates this term — but, quote, “weird Twitter,” unquote. If you print that, you have to put that in, like, dozens of quotation marks.

I’ll use scare quotes.

Yeah exactly, or else everyone gets mad. But I think I started around the same time when that community was just starting to become exciting and a lot of people were kind of playing with that style of humor.

I think the thing that has resonated with the most people is that bouncy castle tweet:

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I think it’s when I figured out my voice is to combine comedy with more purely emotional, or emotionally honest content. Sometimes on social media, there’s a tendency to like, be guarded and to be a little bit distant. There are a lot of accounts that are pure emotional honesty stuff, and a lot of accounts that are pure comedy, but I think mixing the two creates something, and I don’t really know what it is. You’re not sure what you’re going to get.

Serendipity?

Yeah, and you’ll get caught off guard and then it affects you even more. Comedy and honesty both work better when you’re not expecting it.

The cynical stereotype of a social media book is, “We printed out our Tumblr and bound up the pages.” Can you talk about how and why you decided to write this book and how you’re approaching it?

I would hate for anyone to kinda see this as, “Oh, he’s selling out or cashing in.” This is kind of how strange the culture of the internet is. Everyone’s on the internet, but everyone also hates the internet. Most people believe that if it’s online, then it’s not worth anything or it’s it somehow a lesser form of creative work.

But I do have the tendency to be like, “Oh, another internet book.” I have been very conscious of that and I was absolutely adamant that it’s not just a book of tweets that are printed. The goal of the book is that it could stand alone as a book and you don’t need to know my Twitter at all in order to pick it up and understand it.

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2016 has been a hectic year for a lot of people. As a Twitter-famous person, how do you see your role in talking about politics?

Everyone’s going through like this period of sudden change and a lot of people are experiencing it as — it’s kind of like a collective grief, or not even grief … Just, like, collective alarm. Everyone’s trying to figure things out.

I think that’s the state of Twitter and the internet and just America right now. Everyone’s just grasping for anything to hold onto, because we’re so destabilized. Personally, I don’t think the world needs more hot takes, especially from someone like me.

But I definitely do think discussing mental health issues and self-care stuff, that stuff is probably where I see my biggest impact.

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You started a Twitter account that reminds people to take care of themselves, right?

Yeah, it’s called @tinycarebot. That was a product of the election. The first week, after November 8th, I couldn’t get off Twitter. I was just obsessively scrolling through. It was like watching a train wreck. I just needed more and more news, and even if it was bad news, I just needed to know it!

With the bot, I originally programmed that just for myself. I originally had it as a private thing, and I found that every time I saw it, I would think, “Okay. This gives me permission to take a breath, to just take a tiny break.”

Do you think social media is making people unhappy? If Twitter and Facebook went away tomorrow, would we all be better off?

I think it’s really tough to to say for sure. Lately, I know that social media has become the thing everyone’s talking about because of echo chambers and the fake news and all that stuff. And I think that’s very true and very apt, that is a danger.

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But I think social media has to be given a lot of credit, too, just for the spread of positive change and the spread of ideas. So many positive social happened I’m directly out of social media so that shouldn’t be discounted.

Earlier this year, Twitter tried and failed to sell itself. As someone with a large following on the site, do you worry about the company’s continued existence?

It goes back and forth. Every time those reports come in about the future of Twitter, I get nervous and I know everyone else gets nervous, too. That attitude of the internet being self-hating also expands to Twitter. Everyone’s on Twitter, but for some reason everyone also like loves to shit on Twitter, as well. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to swear in this interview.

I think a lot of that comes from the confidence that it’s not going anywhere. If Twitter really were in trouble and people felt like it really was disappearing, there’d be a lot less snide potshots and more alarm.

If you’ll indulge me, one more question about Twitter. Hypothetically, what if @Jack DMs you and says “this is all shutting down tomorrow?” Where do you tell your followers to go?

I think I started trying to do that. I have an Instagram account, which isn’t as active, for sure, but it’s another place where I try to write things. I’m not really interested in putting my tweets on Facebook or posting my tweets on Instagram. I think every platform serves a different purpose. Instagram is my place now where I write a little bit longer-form thoughts and essays and very personal things.

If Twitter disappears, eventually something else will come up and people will find a way to reestablish themselves. If you were good on Twitter, if people came to you and cared about what you had to say on Twitter, then they’ll eventually end up finding you again.

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