Filming celebrities reading a tweet insulting them, in the name of self-mockery: eight years after its creation, the “Mean Tweets” format is questioning. Does this “cult” segment of American television, which was adapted in France, reflect a distant era on Twitter, with more lightness and less ambient susceptibility? Or, on the contrary, has it helped to trivialise violence on social networks?
On November 4, the day after the US presidential election, the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show, on the ABC channel, aired one of its recurring segments, a real viral success for more than eight years. Called Mean Tweets, this format consists of filming celebrities reading aloud an insulting tweet uttered by an ordinary individual towards them and then their reaction, which can range from silent shock to embarrassed laughter, sometimes including a wrathful reply. All against the backdrop of a hit from REM, the aptly named Everybody Hurts. This format had become rather rare in the show in 2020: we do not know if the health crisis that has upset production is the only reason, or if its “dated” aspect played a part.
Because of the news, the Mean Tweets of last November was devoted to the American political world: from Bernie Sanders to Ted Cruz via Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry and Mike Bloomberg, many figures and elected officials, both Republican and Democrat, had thus been incited to “play”:
On YouTube, the November 4 video is described as follows:
“While the Presidency and even Democracy hangs in the balance, we know one thing for sure, that the internet is terrible and caused all of this. Social media is trying to kill us”.
Among the angry tweets read in this episode, one of them – intended for elected Democrat Adam Schiff – is signed @realDonaldTrump, the official account of the 45th American president, which currently has more than 88 million subscribers.
If the inclusion of compulsive White House tweeting here is a humorous nod, it symbolises one of the main changes in the political-media ecosystem that has occurred since the creation of Mean Tweets in 2012: a troll known for his aggressive logorrhea on Twitter was elected as the head of the world’s greatest power. And what has long been taken to be entertaining “malicious spirit” is now seen as online hate with dire consequences.
An instruction manual for harassment
Considering 2020, the format inevitably raises the question: Is Mean Tweets the relic of a fantasized Twitter bathed in self-mockery before losing its lightness due to the influx of new, increasingly susceptible users? Or, on the contrary, has this initially ironic format trivialised hatred on social networks, by making online aggression a comic spring for a program accessible to all audiences worldwide? Faced with this “chicken or egg” dilemma, we explored the 45 episodes of Mean Tweets which now total more than 118 million views. Let’s take a step back.
On March 22 2012, to celebrate Twitter’s 6th anniversary, Jimmy Kimmel hosts a show entitled “Celebrities read mean tweets”. His presentation almost sounds like a user guide to harass:
“One of the most interesting things about Twitter is that it connects celebrities directly to their fans, and vice versa. Many celebrities actually do the tweeting themselves, which means pretty much anytime you like you can send a message to them and unless it’s someone like Justin Bieber who has 18 million followers [he now has 113 million, editor’s note], they will probably read it. Your message goes right to their computer or into their pocket, which could be good and it can also be bad”.
“These are real tweets, sent and directed against the people you are going to see,” Kimmel warned before launching the pre-recorded segment – the participating stars are not filmed on set but beforehand, in a dedicated space:
Among the stars volunteering for this inaugural segment, seen almost 60 million times on YouTube, are comedians Joel McHale, David Cross, Jason Bateman, Louis CK and Anna Faris. What strikes most with the rediscovery, eight years later, of this video as of those which follow, is the gratuitous and first degree violence, anything but funny, which emanates from the great majority of the read tweets.
“Kristen Bell is so fucking ugly. Way too ugly to play Snow White in Snow White and the Huntsman”, reads the actress of the series The Good Place (while it is the actress Kristen Stewart who played the role in the film released a few months later: maybe this confusion was meant to be funny back then). Or this message to actor Andy Dick: “When is my turn to hit Andy Dick so hard that he shits his bones?”. The segment ends with a Will Ferrell reading “Will Ferrell is fucking dumb”, pants down and sitting on a toilet, before final credits roll that read “Thanks for six great years… Dicks!”.
A format embraced by Obama
Between the final sarcasm, the desacralisation of the stars lowering themselves to the level of the angry crowd and the general baseness of the selected tweets, this first episode clearly denounces the toxicity of Twitter, two years before the GamerGate, and four before the election of a reactionary troll in the White House.
For all that, is denunciation soluble in opportunistic repetition? Showing stars reading these nasty, free tweets on TV may be a way of exposing the emptiness and toxicity of Twitter, but making it recurring and making it a date becomes, to say the least, bitchy and hypocritical.
Faced with the viral success of this formula, Jimmy Kimmel’s late show did not resist the temptation to revisit the format a few months later. On July 25 2012, Zooey Deschanel, Matt Le Blanc, Kristen Stewart, and James Van Der Beek go to through the grinder, most of them laughed at for their looks.
By giving in to the temptation to repeat the experience to capitalise on large audiences, the relevant criticism of Twitter that we could see in the first Mean Tweets exercise has turned into a cynical exploitation of the torrent of sludge dumped daily on Twitter. And as an introduction to this second segment during which the insults read by the stars are punctuated by laughter from the audience, Kimmel even dares:
“Some people write extremely mean things to celebrities without even thinking that they are also human beings, so tonight I want to give you the opportunity to think about it”
After two Mean Tweets in 2012, the pace increases (5 episodes in 2013 and 2014, then 7 annually from 2015 to 2018) before decreasing with 3 episodes in 2019 and 2020 (including a best of during this last year, for Covid reasons). The format was broken down into editions devoted to a certain discipline (music, cinema, sport) and truly gained worldwide fame in 2015 with the participation of Barack Obama, during his second term. Viral success, this video will be ranked in the top 10 of 2015 on YouTube, excluding clips:
Barack Obama will repeat the experience at the end of October 2016, just before the election then promised to a certain Hillary Clinton. Reacting to a raging tweet from candidate Donald Trump – “Obama will be remembered as one of the worst presidents in US history!” – Obama retorted: “At least I will be remembered as president”. This line, a symbol of total denial as to the likelihood that Trump could win a few days later, has aged rather badly.
Confusion between criticism and insult
For Obama as for the other stars, appearing on Mean Tweets is a communication coup which consolidates a side which is “cool” and adept at self-mockery – at least within the limits of the goodwill of their professional entourage. In 2013, Kimmel told the New York Times:
“It’s always a touchy moment when you hand celebrities the list of nasties written about them. The funny thing is that some celebrity agents tell us “no, we’re not going to do that, I’m not going to show this list to my client”, while others tell us “do you have anything meaner?”, and the answer is always“ oh yes, there is more mean if you wish ”
The problem with Mean Tweets lies in the selection of the tweets, which is extremely uneven. The show maintains a permanent confusion between hate speech (physical denigration, threats, insults) and remarks criticizing the work of a celebrity. The former are a scourge that concerns all Internet users, while the latter are legitimate and guaranteed by freedom of expression.
The 3rd instalment of Mean Tweets, published in January 2013 and visible above, makes it possible to differentiate the two. The actress of the film Look Who’s Talking, declares “Kirstie Alley is a dirty whore. There, I said it”. Then the 7th Heaven comedian stooped down to read “My Asian orthodontist says Jessica Biel has horse teeth”. Pure sexism, while the tweet chosen for a younger pop star, on the other hand, is aesthetic mockery of her work: “Selena Gomez is on the radio at the moment. Is there a volume lower than “mute?”.
Even though the swear words are beeped and blurred – ABC is subject to stricter rules than a pay channel like HBO – these precautions do not mask the violence of the tweets declaimed over the seasons, among which we can quote “Kesha is a crack whore” (October 2013), “Sophia Vergara sounds like she has a dick in her mouth, I hate hearing her talk” (May 2014), “Gwyneth Paltrow, you ugly ass big bird looking bitch, shut the fuck up” (November 2014), “Elizabeth Banks is a whore” (December 2015), “Emily Blunt’s got a purdy mouth… that I’d like to poop in” (February 2016), “I bet Jennifer Lawrence gives really unenthusiastic headjobs” (September 2017), or “Miley Cyrus is a smelly pirate hooker” and “Pink is aging rather well for a pig” (October 2019 for the last two).
A show against cyber-harassment
Compiling selected tweets out of context over a long period of time darkens the picture somewhat, and should not make us forget certain less insulting and finer outbursts, such as here, in a tweet addressed to the British group Mumford & Sons in February 2016: “I love how music takes you away to another place. Like Mumford & Sons is playing in this restaurant, so I’m going to another restaurant”.
However, it is difficult to understand how some were deemed worthy of being read on the air during a sequence with a humorous vocation, like this tweet concerning a basketball player of the Boston Celtics, in June 2014: “Kris Humphries fuck YOU! You’re so pathetic! Seriously, kill yourself. Please. XX”.
This risk of the trivialisation of online hate has not escaped the Canadian Safe School Network charity. In 2015, it launched an effective campaign, recycling Jimmy Kimmel’s format via the Kids Read Mean Tweets video viewable above. We see young people reading the kind of violent messages that college students can exchange, and that each year push many young people to suicide. The president of the organisation explains:
“We wanted to use the ‘Mean Tweets’ model because in a way, those videos give the message that cyber bullying is ok – even funny. But adult celebrities have the maturity and confidence to overcome these hurtful words. Children don’t”
Crowdfunding was then launched to pay for a national TV broadcast campaign for the show, without success.
Media conquered, format reacquired
It should be pointed out that this well-made episode, although relayed through several news sites, did not benefit from media coverage as broad and benevolent as that received by Mean Tweets since its launch. For online media, this format is a blessing, like the other cult formats of American television such as James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke: an article on each new episode does not require a very long writing time (embedding of the video, list of stars concerned and quotes from a few tweets).
Easy audience, which comes with praise from the media. The French press is not left out, including feminine or committed sites: “a hilarious concept” (Cheek Magazine, 2014), “(…) with humour in good-natured spirit” (Marie Claire, 2016), “Our favourite segment of the American Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show is back” (Les Inrocks, 2016), “[celebrities] also put things into perspective regarding the unpleasant messages that we may receive in our lifetime” (madmoiZelle , 2017), “Everyone has enough hindsight and second degree to take it as a joke” (Grazia, 2017).
The worldwide success of Mean Tweets will even inspire several local variations, notably in France during a public service program now mostly forgotten: Un soir à la Tour Eiffel, broadcast on France 2 between 2014 and 2015. Hosted by Alessandra Sublet, who finds the format “extreme” and considers that “it feels damn good to do that”, this French rehash (called Very Bad Tweets) had notably targeted Carla Bruni, Josiane Balasko, Audrey Pulvar, Joey Starr, Sophie Davant, Cyril Hanouna , Gérard Jugnot, Michel Boujenah, etc.
In November 2014, Roselyne Bachelot (ex-Minister of Health and future BigWig, then Minister of Culture) had thus bowed down to the game, and had read the following tweet on the air: “Does anyone want to devote themselves to creating a new look for Roselyne Bachelot? She’s turning a bit into a decrepit old hen…”, to the laughter of the audience.
To hold Mean Tweets and its various spin-offs responsible for the evils overwhelming Twitter would be unfair and disproportionate. However, Twitter can thank Jimmy Kimmel and his teams: for eight years, the platform has benefited from regular advertising on the air, what’s more showing its most famous users.
Although ridiculous compared to Facebook’s, the number of Twitter users is steadily increasing – there were over 330 million monthly users in 2019. Mean Tweets’ spotlight, portraying Twitter as an “offbeat” place frequented by the stars, popularised this service while showing that we could make the viewers laugh with wicked insults.
In the conclusion of his book Wickedness in action in the digital age, the semiologist François Jost, who actually links the television medium to the Internet, writes:
“We did not wait for the media to designate scapegoats, to humiliate by hazing, to stigmatise an individual considered to be deviant. What changed the shift from lived-to-seen experience introduced by the television show is that the misfortune of others has become the happiness of the viewers targeted by the programs and that the producers have therefore been encouraged to manufacture sadistic devices. What the Internet has changed is that everyone can be the starting point for a bashing and that, at a time of convergence, any media can participate in this movement of mass destruction of its target”.