Weird Twitter Leaves Irony Behind on Instagram

How an MIT grad student is curing Internet comedy’s irony addiction.

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Dec 5 2015, 4:00pm

Image: Jonathan Sun.

With 117k followers—not to mention an extremely viral Will Smith-related bit of trolling@jonnysun is one of the most popular members of the loosely affiliated online comedy movement known as Weird Twitter. But where most of Weird Twitter's default tone is made up of arm's-distance irony and absurdity for absurdity's sake, @jonnysun mixes de rigueur surrealist deconstruction with quiet moments of occasionally cosmic introspection. The fascinating friction between one-liner comedy and deeper concerns reaches another level on his Instagram, where screengrabs of his tweets work as a jumping-off point for unexpectedly sincere confessional writing on themes like self-doubt, loneliness, and trying to be the best person you can. He's the closest thing Instagram has to its own Kurt Vonnegut.

When he's not exploring social media's potential as a humanist art form, the IRL Jonathan Sun is a graduate of the Yale School of Architecture and a PhD candidate in urban studies at MIT, exploring the possibilities of using Big Data to analyze people's relationships to the cities around them. On top of that he's also a playwright, visual artist, and improv comedian. In other words he's not just funnier than you, but about a million times more productive.

We got on gchat with Sun to try and figure out what he's all about.

MOTHERBOARD: One thing I don't like about Internet Comedy is that a lot of it (including a lot of Weird Twitter) keeps itself so emotionally distant and wrapped up in irony that it precludes any sort of ability to make that kind of connection.

@jonnysun: Yes totally.

But your stuff doesn't feel that way at all.

I appreciate satire but I'm not very good at it. I can't figure out how to do it well without coming across as what I think is either mean-spirited or just completely emotionally disconnected. I don't know if that "irony" online is really trying to be satire or it's just something else.

It feels to me like the comedic equivalent of Buzzfeed quizzes. Just something to consume and forget about completely.

Right. I think if you can't make an emotional connection to something, it's a lot less likely that you'll find it valuable or find a connection to it. I know that everything that I love is really because it made me have a serious emotional response to it. But I don't know if everyone agrees with that. I know that people just want to laugh too.

I'm really interested in the relationship I see between your Twitter and your Instagram. Your tweets are completely self-contained jokes, and your Instagram captions of the tweets give kind of an emotional "punchline." Did you intend for them to have a relationship like that?

Kind of, yes! I've always loved what I call "secondary punchlines" in comedy. They're like the silly things they do in online sketch comedy videos where they sketch ends then there's a tiny short clip at the end that's an extra joke or continuation of it that just adds a tiny bit more to the joke. It's like an easter egg almost because you don't need it to appreciate everything else in the sketch. Same with webcomics—they do that a lot, like the "alt text" that you have to hover your mouse over to see a secondary punchline. I love that stuff. So in a way that's where the Instagram caption idea came from. I also personally find it difficult to "just write" so I've been using some tweets essentially as writing prompts—if there's an idea that's in the original joke somewhere that prompts me to explore something else through writing it out, then I'll follow that. Sometimes they are just like extensions of the jokes, other times that writing prompt takes it in completely new places but it still (at least to me) maintains some sort of connection.

It's kind of how in some Louie episodes, the episode is really just two separate 10 minute shorts, but they still feel somehow related and paired together intentionally.

There's always a very real sense of emotional vulnerability to them. Do you find it difficult to put yourself out there like that, or is that even something you worry about?

Definitely scary every time, though I used to feel that way about writing any sort of jokes online too because that's scary as well. Especially because the internet can be vicious and unforgiving. But, I'm trying to use it to be a better writer and to figure out how to write honestly, so it's worth it. I feel like if as a writer you're able to be honest–no matter what the medium–people will connect to that. Honesty is so important.

I've found your Instagram captions to be very relatable. What kind of feedback have you gotten from them?

It's all been really, really great. I think I have the advantage of having people who are already interested in reading what I have to say, which I'm eternally flabbergasted about and thank for. Because I'm really writing for me, as a way for me to sort through the world and I'm happy that it's connecting with others as well. I actually have found that I get the most positive feedback from the longer, more honest writing I've put on instagram so it's inspiring me to write more like that. Which is really fun and exciting but more tolling and difficult so it's more difficult to do consistently.

In a lot of confessional writing you get people trying to make basic universal life events seem like dramatic trials that only they have ever endured. I'm a big fan of Achewood and one thing I love about it is that it speaks to these very small, specific things that everyone's gone through and sort of celebrates the fact that we've all dealt with whatever specific kind of crap they're talking about.

Writing is all in the details. I think just by being true to the details you already get all the sense of profoundness and connection–you don't need to work hard to make those come across by blowing them up into big things. Just write the details. That's enough.