In a coffee shop not far from Book Warehouse on Main Street, where he is about to host a book signing, Jonny Sun—Twitter star and now author—seems pretty relaxed. When you’ve got a digital audience of 483,000, an in-person gathering of even a few hundred probably feels like a breeze.
Sun had “no expectations” when he joined Twitter back in 2009. “The thing that attracted me in the beginning was the great comedy community on Twitter,” he says. Fair enough. But Sun caught fire with the caricature of himself that he created online: an alien also named Jonny Sun who is lost in space and finds an outlet for his thoughts in 140 characters or less.
The alien’s posts are redolent with what Sun calls “fat thumb mistakes,” in which various typos appear in his tweets (including his spelling of his own name: Jomny). It is amusing, certainly, but somehow Sun imbues his text with real wit and some soul as well. “The character was natural and organic,” he explains. “I came to be known to be messing with the genre, and exploring the effects of messing with syntax, grammar, and spelling.” When he says “natural,” he means two things. One is that his early career was in stand-up and sketch comedy, sometimes performing, often writing shows and sketches. When he decided to go to architecture school, he still wanted an outlet for his comedy impulses, and “Twitter was great, since I only had five minutes here and there.” The second is that the Twitter character is almost indistinguishable from Sun himself, so there is not a whole lot of artifice involved. “The character appears a bit aloof, but also genuine,” he says. “I want it to be casual, not pre-planned.”
HarperCollins came calling at one point, and a book based on the Twitter character, EVERYONE’S A ALIEBN WHEN UR A ALIEBN TOO, is now out. For Sun, who is a Berkman Klein fellow at Harvard, and now a doctoral student at MIT (a world in which he is known as Jonathan Sun), the tour for his book has been a great way to connect with fans on a different level. “Things click best when you stumble upon them, I think,” he muses. “And with this tour, I meet people in person, so it is no longer one-directional, which is great. I actually expected zero people to show up, so it is amazing to actually meet them when they come.”
At the bottom of it all is a sincerity and authenticity, to his character but also to himself. His popularity is measurable in his number of followers, but he is thoughtful about that. “The numbers are such an interesting thing. I think people can smell it out if you are only in it to build numbers,” says Sun. “For me, it gets in the way if someone is using the platform for ulterior motives.” Therein lies his true strength; the platform may be virtual, but Jonny Sun is very real.