By Michell C. Clark
If you’ve ever felt alone in your thoughts and feelings — almost like you’re an alien from another planet — you’re not the only one. Jonny Sun gets it.
Whether on social media or in his book, everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too, the writer and illustrator strikes a balance between weighty social commentary and relatable humor. His work is simple, but powerful, and starts conversations about being open and vulnerable about traditionally stigmatized feelings such as loneliness, sadness, and fear. That process, he says, can be comforting and cathartic.
“There’s this confessional nature to social media,” the Calgary, Alberta, native said during a recent TED Talk, entitled, You Are Not Alone In Your Loneliness. “It can feel like you are writing in this personal, intimate diary that’s completely private, yet at the same time you want everyone in the world to read it.”
“Every time we post online, there's a chance that these little micro-communities can form,” he added. “And sometimes, through the muck of the internet, you get to find a kindred spirit.”
If you go by Twitter numbers, Sun currently has almost 600,000 kindred spirits following along as he reasons his way through the highs and lows of life. Through a mix of jokes, sincerity, and illustrations, he’s hit a chord with followers, especially those who relate to alter ego, an alien named Jomny, who provides an endearing outsider perspective on the creatures that inhabit Earth. Through oftentimes humorous dialogue with different animals and plants, Jomny uncovers many of the social dynamics that cause conflict in human interactions.
It’s fitting that he writes for Bojack Horseman, a satirical Netflix original series that uses the main character’s cynical, trauma-induced worldview to tackle dark themes through the lens of the entertainment industry — including addiction, imposter syndrome, abuse, and death — while providing viewers with glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel. And Sun also allows his creative pursuits and academic research to synergize each other; he is also a doctoral candidate at MIT and a creative researcher at the Harvard metaLab studying social media, virtual place, and online community.
MTV News spoke with Sun about how he found the courage to be so honest about his feelings, how he commits to using social media for positive purposes, and the process of building a digital community of your own.
MTV News: You recently gave a TED Talk — how did it come about and how did you decide what you want to discuss?
Jonny Sun: TED approached me about giving a talk. We had a lot of back and forth communication with their curative team to figure out what the topic should be. I wanted to talk about creativity, and to create community around shared feelings of loneliness and sadness. I also wanted to talk about breaking the stigma that comes with speaking publicly about anxiety, depression, and mental health.
My original idea was more academically oriented; I wanted to incorporate my academic work, which examines online communities and the way that groups of people come together online. But as we were working on the talk it became more oriented towards my creative work. I’m happy with the result, because we brought together a lot of topics that I wanted to touch on for the final version.
MTV News: Do you ever feel challenged to find a balance between your academic pursuits and your creative work?
Sun: At times balancing the two does feel like a tug of war, but I’m working on thinking of it as a process where one side meets the other. I’m not picturing them being at odds with each other. Instead, I’m allowing the stuff that I have been reading academically to inform my work and practices on the creative side. I’m also allowing the work that I do as a creative to inform the topics that I examine as an academic. Right now, I have to question how much bandwidth I have to focus on these different things. Where am I going to direct my attention and my energy? I believe that in the long run, being able to strike a balance strengthens my work in both of these fields.
MTV News: What did you hope people took away from the Talk, and what did you take away from the experience?
Sun: To be honest, I'm really bad at letting myself enjoy a win. For a long time after the talk, I felt anxious. I partitioned it away in my head and didn’t devote much thought to it. It still feels surreal. I don’t feel like I gave that talk. I kind of blocked it out.
I wanted people to look at the Internet as something that brings people together. I also wanted to talk about how creating work that touches on our shared feelings of loneliness and sadness can bring people together. It speaks to people. Those are the things that I care about the most.
MTV News: You’ve expressed that you generally feel more comfortable writing through a pseudonymous identity rather than using your own face. How did it feel to deliver your Ted Talk as Jonathan Sun the man, instead of Jomny Sun the character?
Sun: I’ve been starting to use my real face and my real identity more often over the past year or so. It’s been a slow process. I think that there is power in pseudonymous character work. At times, people connect more to fictional characters than real people. It’s really interesting to observe, in so many ways.
Lately, I’ve felt drawn to show people who I am and what I stand for. I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying that I enjoyed hiding behind a certain character, or a certain way of doing things, because I don’t think that communicating anonymously or pseudonymously is always related to the feeling of hiding. Talking through the alien character that I created helped me to be more open, because it was less scary to be honest and vulnerable. My direct identity wasn’t tied to the character.
Now that my face is on front stage, my present work requires me to continue to be as open and as honest as ever. That’s why the talk was so scary and difficult. It felt really bare. There was no one else but me on that stage.
MTV News: At the beginning of your TED Talk, you explained that you started writing jokes on Twitter to cope with feelings of loneliness and intimidation as you started your doctoral program at MIT. Did you ever worry that others would judge you for sharing such taboo emotions?
Sun: Absolutely. During my first lab at MIT, I told my colleagues that I couldn’t make it to a meeting because I had an appointment with my therapist, and people looked at me like I had just said the most inappropriate thing in the world.
In certain spaces, it’s still very taboo to talk about therapy, mental health, anxiety, and depression. There was pressure to come off as “perfect.” It felt as though we weren’t allowed to admit that we were struggling or feeling anything negative. That kind of culture permeates everywhere. Twitter provided an outlet for me to talk about how I really felt, and a release from those unrealistic expectations. Trying to ignore those emotions would have led to more self-destructive emotions and behavior.
MTV News: What about Twitter appealed to you as a platform for sharing your work? Did anything about that process surprise you as you kept going?
Sun: Talking about difficult topics is easier on Twitter than it is in real life. There’s a different quality to conversations on Twitter. I don’t attribute those differences entirely to anonymity or pseudonymity, but I feel the contrast. Having a cartoon alien avatar on Twitter and speaking through that platform made the sentiments that I shared more palatable and digestible.
Everyone who knew me at school was aware that I had this account. It wasn’t a completely anonymous effort. As I began to share my thoughts, I became part of a community that talks about a lot of the same things that I talk about. Whenever I get online I feel connected to the friends that I’ve made. I wasn’t the first person to ever write about my feelings. I’d never say that I built a community around me as much as I would say that I discovered a community.
I was surprised to find other people who were discussing mental health and wrestling with feelings of loneliness and sadness. The bonds felt very organic. We’re a loosely-connected group of people who always existed. I’m writing but also feeling seen by seeing others having similar discussions in their own ways. It feels like a true community and support system.
MTV News: When did illustrating come into the mix?
Sun: I had always wanted to be an illustrator. I’d also done visual art in the past at architecture school. I was really interested in visual representation. When I started to write jokes, I had this hope in the back of my head that one day I would find the time and discipline to do a web comic, or a recurring series where I would illustrate something every week. That never coalesced properly, so I tried to focus on a finite, project-based effort with a definitive end point. I decided to work on a book. That book became everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too. I definitely want to revisit illustration, and I’m currently figuring out what my second book will be.
MTV News: Your work is often a mix of dark humor and soft reassurance. How do you strike that balance?
Sun: I've always felt drawn to like work that like dark and sad. Oftentimes, I find that strong feelings of sadness are comforting, because they allow me to acknowledge that people have these emotions, and that not everything has to have a happy ending. Life is dark and complicated, and it’s alright for us all to feel these negative emotions.
I’m comforted by stories that illuminate that more so than by stories that pretend everything has a happy ending. The balance comes when you acknowledge and discuss dark feelings and emotions in a way that leads to comfort and warmth. That’s a main theme of what I want to address with my work.
MTV News: When you started working on Twitter, did you have an end goal, or imagine you’d do something like land a gig on BoJack Horseman?
Sun: Not at all — BoJack was such a huge inspiration for me early on. It’s a landmark career accomplishment. It’s actually part of how I understand that balance between humor, sadness, comedy, and comfort. It’s been surreal [to join the writing team] because of how long I’ve been a fan. It still doesn’t feel real.
MTV News: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced thus far as part of the writing team?
Sun: It’s been a challenge for me to deal with my emotions as a first-time writer. I felt a lot of self-doubt and heavy doses of imposter syndrome. Those feelings definitely got in the way of my ability to contribute at the beginning. I felt intimidated, and wondered if I was good enough for the task at hand. Luckily, the team is full of amazing people who are wonderful, smart, and kind, which helped me to work through those feelings.
MTV News: What fundamental changes to social media platforms would you like to see implemented for the good of the billions of people who use them?
Sun: Social media platforms need to do a better job of addressing hate speech, hate groups, and online violence. The reason that platforms are failing to do so is because they drive traffic. There are a lot of capitalism-driven reasons to keep these groups online. I believe that there are a lot of parties interested in hacking these platforms and these algorithms to further hate speech, violence, and hate groups. I think that’s the obvious issue that they have to address first.
MTV News: What keeps you coming back to social media every day?
Sun: When I first started to share my thoughts on social media, it was a public exercise. I decided that no matter what was going on, I’d try to sit down and tweet either one joke or thought every day. I wanted to share one thing every day that I felt was good enough to tweet out.
I eventually found people whose thoughts, work, and opinions I wanted to hear as often as possible. Those people have incentivized me to be more present online. That’s part of what has kept me there. Finding human connection was the most important thing for me — which is why despite all of the terrible issues that we have with these platforms, I’m still drawn to them. There are interesting people I like with whom I can only connect through the internet.