The one-sided John Mulaney Twitter debate

On feeling trapped in Twitter’s washing machine of takes.

Does anyone know how to use Twitter when they’re not mad? —Kate

I’ve famously muted many words on Twitter, but that still doesn’t exempt me from the discourse of the day. And so on Wednesday I was subjected to eight thousand tweets about John Mulaney. 

I’m a genuine fan of John Mulaney, saw him live in the comedy capital of the world (Ohio), and was sad to hear about his substance abuse issues and divorce in the past year. Which is all to say that I believe I have a pretty normal celebrity-fan relationship with the comedian. So when I found out yesterday that he and girlfriend Olivia Munn were expecting a child, my reaction was: Oh! OK.

Other people had different reactions. Some, I hear, were upset that a comedian who branded himself as a wholesome wife guy was actually a normally flawed and complex individual. But I never actually saw those responses. Instead, I awoke to Twitter users condemning the reactions of the John Mulaney fans who were upset.

If you search “John Mulaney” on Twitter, the top tweets alternate between those congratulating him on the pregnancy and those criticizing his fan base for feeling “betrayed” by Mulaney’s personal choices. I actually had to scroll for a minute or two before I found a tweet that exemplified the behavior the criticisms were about—and even then, it was a screenshot of a reply taken for the purpose of criticizing it. 

This happens a lot. News breaks. I open Twitter, and some people are already negatively reacting to the reactions other people had to the news that I had missed. Except it’s not like I arrived late. I was just on Twitter. So unless all these people with deplorable initial reactions to the news exclusively crawl out to post them while I am sleeping, I’m not sure these deplorable opinions are as common as the reactions would have you think. Twitter has wreaked such havoc on our discourse that users will into existence discourse to be mad at, and proceed as if it’s getting tons of traction that must be refuted. 

I don't doubt that there are people out there who have fucked up and insensitive reactions to this news, and that they’ve shared those reactions on Twitter, and that people have agreed with them. There are definitely people indulging in a parasocial relationship—Twitter’s new favorite word—who feel genuinely betrayed by this turn of events. But I have not organically seen a single tweet, let alone a popular one, vocalizing this opinion. I have, however, seen probably over 50 tweets on my timeline alone from people talking about why this opinion is wrong—this opinion that I wouldn’t even be aware of had these people not popularized it in their own reactions over and over again. That is, in the words of TikTok, enough slices

Exaggerating a take to be mad at and turning it into a news cycle is something I’m familiar with, and I understand that when something becomes the discourse, no matter how inauthentically, it behooves people to capitalize on it—I’m doing it now! But it does bring me back to something Ryan Broderick wrote in Garbage Day in December 2020: Twitter is a dying website, suffering from “message board rot.” 

To me, the John Mulaney news cycle does not feel like the product of a thriving community. I wouldn’t feel this way had the discourse manifested as actual discussions between people. Instead, it was just person after person tweeting the same public-facing take, inspired not by any real opposition, but the serotonin of posting what was increasingly proved to be a widely supported and agreed upon sentiment. 

If you’re reading this and you posted a John Mulaney take, I don’t actually think you, as a person, are the problem. I think we are at the inevitable outcome of the great Twitter experiment. While the app keeps trying and failing to introduce new features, it doesn’t really have anywhere else to go, so users simply wallow in a stagnant pool of all the learned behavior the mechanisms of the app incentivized over the past decade and a half. In other words, we’re just talking to ourselves.