Revealing the Man Behind @MayorEmanuel

It was the best fake Twitter account ever, deftly satirizing Rahm Emanuel, and elevating the tweet and the F-word to the level of literature. But the mystery writer was never revealed -- until now.

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There were many storylines in Rahm Emanuel's romp to the Chicago mayor's office: a powerful presidential aide leaves the White House; a mayor's race without a Daley or even an incumbent; a candidate with a hazy claim on residency; the meltdown of former Senator Carol Moseley Braun; the terrible voter turnout; and more.

But for networked Chicagoans and political insiders across the country, the performance and identity of @MayorEmanuel, a fake Twitter account, captured the imagination nearly as much as the real politics.

Caricaturing the notoriously dirty-mouthed former White House chief of staff, the Twitter account was a sensation as the election came to a close last week. @MayorEmanuel wrote nearly 2000 tweets in five months and collected several times as many followers as Rahm Emanuel's real account. Since its last -- and apparently final -- update on Thursday night, some 1500 tweets have been issued about the fake account. David Axelrod himself, a frequent character in the stream, responded to a tweet Friday asking whether he missed the account, "You're freakin' A right I do."

The real Rahm Emanuel offered to donate $5,000 to the charity of the anonymous tweeter's choice if the creator of the account would out himself (Update: Even now, the offer still stands). The Chicago Tribune's editorial board begged the account not to stop, saying, "The fun is just beginning," and comparing the mystery of the account's author to the "intrigue surrounding the identity of 'Anonymous,' the author of the 1996 novel 'Primary Colors,' a devastating insider take on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign."

If that seems like a lot of fuss over a Twitter account, you probably haven't been following @MayorEmanuel. The profane, brilliant stream of tweets not only may be the most entertaining feed ever created, but it pushed the boundaries of the medium, making Twitter feel less like a humble platform for updating your status and more like a place where literature could happen. Never deviating too far from the reality of the race itself, @MayorEmanuel wove deep, hilarious stories. It was next-level digital political satire and caricature, but over the months the account ran, it became much more. By the end, the stream resembled an epic, allusive ode to the city of Chicago itself, yearning and lyrical.

For weeks, journalists and insiders have urged the person behind @MayorEmanuel to reveal himself, but he (or she) demurred. Until now. After a protracted email negotiation, the author has outed himself to The Atlantic. He's receiving no compensation.

The genius behind @MayorEmanuel is Dan Sinker, who has a heart made out of Chicago and balls of punk rock.

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Sinker is the founder of Punk Planet, a legendary zine that ran from 1994 until 2007. Sinker and his tiny staff put out 80 issues during that time and created a punk rock tent big enough to happily include Black Flag and the filmmaker Miranda July. Punk Planet wasn't just a music magazine. It was the distillation of a punk-rock worldview in magazine form. "Using punk's antagonist spirit as a guiding principle, Punk Planet transcended stereotypes to chronicle the progressive underground community, from thoughtful band interviews to exceptionally thorough investigative features," The Onion's AV Club wrote in its eulogy for the publication.

Sinker described the punk-rock mind-set in his introduction to a 2001 book that collected interviews from the zine. "[Punk] is about looking at the world around you and asking, 'Why are things as fucked up as they are?'" he wrote. "And then it's about looking inwards at yourself and asking, 'Why aren't I doing anything about this?'"

In some sense, the glory of @MayorEmanuel was that it exposed the dark humor that political operatives know and love, mixed with the drunken idealism that tends to drive the politicos. Politics is desperate and raw and exhausting, yet on TV it looks so polished and prim. It's a knock-down, drag-out war in which everyone has to fight in their Sunday best. @MayorEmanuel looked at that state of affairs and started cussing, not unlike what a lot of us do when we look at our politics. This take on politics would not be airbrushed, edited, or watered down. All the things public politics downplays, this feed would expand and celebrate. This feed would be festooned with anger and the drive for power and the F-word. It was the inverse of the real Emanuel campaign, or as the Tribune called it a "brilliantly imagined and unrestrained counter-script."

After Punk Planet's sad demise -- mostly due to distribution problems, Sinker says -- Sinker received a Knight Fellowship in Journalism at Stanford. He used the time to study how to deliver journalism in a world of mobile-device ubiquity. In 2009, he launched CellStories.net, which puts out one story a day exclusively for mobile devices. And he landed a gig teaching journalism at Columbia College in downtown Chicago.

As a professor, Sinker focuses on entrepreneurial journalism and independent media. A student in one of his classes described him as down-to-earth, knowledgeable, and interesting. She said he encouraged his students to build businesses around their work, helping underserved groups find places to congregate online. "He's DIY," she said and "big on building communities." Most important, in a journalism world drenched in negativity, she said Sinker inspired students because he's actually positive about the future of media.

Beyond editor and professor, Sinker has been active in leftist politics for almost 20 years. In his Punk Planet days, Sinker interviewed figures on the left, including Noam Chomsky and the program director of the Ruckus Society, which trains protesters in some of the more radical activist techniques. In 2000, he was in the streets for the protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington.

More recently, Sinker created the Chicago Mayoral Scorecard to track the race for mayor via links, news, and social media. That put him smack in the middle of all the news about the race, big and small.

Add it up:

Punk-Rock Attitude + Deep Feel for Chicago + New Media Storytelling Chops + Day-to-Day Political News Watcher = @MayorEmanuel.

This man was made to write this feed.

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What's stunning is that Sinker managed to preside over @MayorEmanuel without ever getting caught. Or at least outed. His secret was known only by his wife, a small circle of friends, and one Chicago Public Schools teacher, Seth Lavin, who figured out Sinker's identity when Sinker used his personal bit.ly account to shorten a link that @MayorEmanuel later tweeted. Lavin kept it mum. Others came close to identifying him, Sinker said. An intern at The Wall Street Journal was onto him early, as was a reporter at Crain's Chicago Business. But no one could muster any proof.

As the weeks went by, the pressure began to take a toll on Sinker's psyche. "The train rides became totally paranoia-inducing by the end. I would think, Is anybody watching this? Why is that guy looking at my phone? Who is this?" he said. "Your brain starts going a little crazy. I'm looking forward to my brain not feeling so crazy."

However it feels now to have been @MayorEmanuel, Sinker says it didn't feel momentous when he sent that first tweet from his living room.

"My wife has asked me,'Why did you actually start tweeting?' And for the life of me I can't remember," Sinker said. "I remember I was at home. I think everyone had gone to bed. And I remembered, Oh, I have that account. This might be kind of funny."

The account quickly took off. After three tweets, Sinker himself retweeted a message and @MayorEmanuel had a few hundred followers in just a few hours. Within two days, it had 1,000 followers, largely on the quality of its industrial-strength swearing. "At the beginning, a lot of the mental amusement was putting two words together, one of them is profanity and maybe the other one is also profanity and it's kind of weird," he recalled.

But that started to change around Halloween, during a particularly excellent hallucination brought on by eating too much candy corn. "I started to think, I can really tell a story about this," Sinker said. "And Halloween probably also marks the beginning of the end of creative profanity."

From then on, the swearing becomes merely a feature in a more lyrical and narrative romp through Chicago. "I was never really making fun of the guy," Sinker said. "I was making fun with the guy." The fun began to deepen.

The sequences began to outgrow the boundaries Sinker imposed during the first month, when he'd mostly tweeted mini-stories during his commute to work or after he put his 5-year-old to bed. Sinker is a longtime storyteller, and he couldn't help beginning to build an arc for this character, couldn't help making @MayorEmanuel more emotionally resonant than a fake Twitter feed has any right to be.

At the start, Sinker said, the joke was that his character knew he was going to be the next mayor of Chicago, so the whole election was solely a gigantic pain in his ass. "I'd seen the polling," Sinker said.

"But the character transforms. He even announces it on Halloween. He's reborn, and from that point on, he starts evolving into this person who, after achieving the thing he wanted to achieve, sacrifices himself for the good of the city. Even unintentionally, that's a pretty good character arc," Sinker said.

Sinker's favorite moment from his epic poem comes near the end, when @MayorEmanuel and Mayor Daley are on the roof of City Hall. Below, we took the liberty of combining several tweets into the story that surrounds Sinker's favorite tweet. (Celery salt is one of the distinctive ingredients in Chicago's famous take on the hot dog.)

And Daley's gesturing for me to follow him, and suddenly we're out a window and heading up a motherfucking fire escape. We're on the roof of City Hall. The wind is fucking strong and the snow stings when it hits my face. Daley heads into a glass dome. It's so warm and beautiful in the dome--green everywhere--and the air is pungent with the smell of... is that fucking celery? Daley fucking plucks a stalk. "Care for these. Let flowers bloom. Dry them. Harvest the seeds. Grind them. Mix with salt." He hands me a small pinch of powder and the sharp taste of celery salt crosses my lips. "Our legacy," he says, and points to the stalks.

The idea of Emanuel and Daley together on the roof in a celery garden occurred to Sinker in the early going as a key piece of the climax of his performance about "the pulsating heart of Chicago," and it stuck with him until the end.

"I love that little image, the sacred ritual. Yet it's ridiculous and really kind of beautiful," Sinker said.

By the end, @MayorEmanuel had become a story that could generate potent emotion. It was something. But what?

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There is no doubt that it is a cultural work of some kind. And at 1,942 tweets and probably 30,000 words, it's a piece of writing with some heft and depth.

The plot is simple: @MayorEmanuel is running to be mayor of Chicago. His adventures sometimes overlap with the campaign activities of the real-life Rahm, like when the latter visits Groupon or does a 50-ward tour or watches the Bears. But a lot of the time @MayorEmanuel's adventures occur in an alternate reality. He has wild dinners at his brother Ari's house in Los Angeles. He moves into the crawlspace of Emanuel's rented house in Chicago, and later into an igloo. He gets stuck in the sewers underneath City Hall and kidnapped by current Mayor Richard M. Daley. During that last adventure, he realizes that two Mayor Emanuels can't coexist and goes through a time vortex, ending the story (for now).

@MayorEmanuel is sometimes accompanied by political advisor David Axelrod and a cast of imaginary characters: Carl the Intern, Hambone (a dog), and Quaxelrod (a duck with a mustache).

It's as weird as it sounds, at times even reaching the Pynchonian realm of highbrow slapstick.

Get a taste for yourself, if you haven't already. Here are several episodes, including the wonderful climax laid out for your inspection. If you're already well-acquainted, feel free to skip this embed.

@MayorEmanuel is a new genre that is native to Twitter. When you try to turn his adventures into traditional short stories or poems, they lose the crucial element of time. The episode where the mayor gets stuck in the sewer pipes of City Hall just does not work when the 15 tweets aren't spaced out over seven hours. It's all over too fast to be satisfying. There's no suspense.

This is also a piece of fiction that could interact with reality in real-time. So, when right-wing Michelle Malkin lauded @MayorEmanuel, he could tell her to eff-off. The character could be right there with you when the Bears (or the Democrats) lost or when snow blew in or when Rahm visited Google. He created fiction both out of what was happening and out of what you, yourself, were living. And he did it for five months. It was serialization in a sense, but alive.

Whatever we end up calling @MayorEmanuel, the feed shares some characteristics with the picaresque novel. In the picaresque, adventures tend to happen in episodes. There's usually some sort of (anti-)hero bopping around, and you don't necessarily expect one adventure to logically lead to the next. With reference to the traditional Spanish genre which emerged in the 17th century, scholars even like to talk about the fragmentation of the picaresque as indicative of a "refusal (or inability) to conceal the labour or process of writing." Writing happens in fits and starts, so the finished product should look that way, too. And that's the thing: With a Twitter narrative, your lines come stamped with a time and the kind of software used to send the message. You can't conceal the process of writing, so you have to learn to love that transparency.

People loved @MayorEmanuel first and foremost because it was funny. Sure, there were the giggles and guffaws that come with inappropriate swearing. But I think the humor of the feed as a whole had deeper roots. Deep enough that we might need to bring in some Russian cultural criticism. The theorist Mikhail Bakhtin was obsessed with the Renaissance carnival's wild sex and booze binges, and their contrast with the strict power structures of the time. He built an entire theory of the carnivalesque on the basis of carnival practices, beginning with the writing of Francois Rabelais. In the carnival, normal hierarchies are suspended. "People who in life are separated by impenetrable hierarchical barriers enter into free and familiar contact on the carnival square," Bakhtin wrote.

Twitter already fits that description. Fake and real Twitter accounts talk. Politicians are 140-characters away from constitutents. Movie stars retweet NASA robots traveling to Mars that are voiced by a public-relations officer in Pasadena. But any good carnival needs a Lord of Misrule, who is the king's double and presides over the festivities. @MayorEmanuel was that lord of misrule, which he signaled with his language, turning Rahm Emanuel's private language of power (profanity) into a public joke.

With great cultural works, we like to recall how they began, their first lines. Call me Ishmael (Melville). A screaming comes across the sky (Pynchon). He's in love with rock'n'roll, whoa (The Clash). On September 27, @MayorEmanuel was born with the following tweet: "fuck you right in your fucking face-hole." The carnival had begun.

After that first tweet, @MayorEmanuel blasted Politico, Josh Marshall from Talking Points Memo, ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper, two local Chicago political websites, and @FakeDavidMamet. When that last account responded, "I Shuffle, You Cut," @MayorEmanuel replied, "It's only words, unless they're motherfucking true."

That moment was when we caught the first glimmer of intelligence smoldering in the mayor. Not just anyone quotes Mamet's American Buffalo back at FakeDavidMamet. And maybe that quote could be seen as the key to @MayorEmanuel's twisted narrative. It's only tweets, unless they're motherfucking true.

Of course, nothing he said ever actually happened. But crazily enough, a fake account sputtering out 140-character jabs in the voice of a lampooned major political figure somehow tunneled to wherever it is that the realest reality is kept and pulled it out, soaked with beer, covered in celery salt, and laced with profanity. His tweets were true like a joke or a dream or a three-chord song about sniffing glue.

His followers became passionate. Check out a selection of the thousands of reactions to his final act, when as he said his final goodbye, the sky over Chicago opened up and let out a tremendous thunderclap as snow started to fall. And that part's true.

  • @Henjealy: Anyone else get chills from the fact thunderstorm pops out of nowhere in mid-winter JUST as @MayorEmanuel gets sucked into a vortex?
  • @heldincontempt: Me too, man. Me, too. I am wiping tears away. RT @ourmaninchicago: I genuinely feel sorry for anyone who didn't watch @MayorEmanuel unfold.
  • @emmalabizarre: goddamn it, I am not supposed to be crying over a fake Twitter account. @MayorEmanuel , you magnificent bastard. *salut*
  • @mominreallife: Dammit, Chicago has lost Fields, Sears, The Olympics, and Daley, but I think losing @MayorEmanuel will be hardest of all
  • @rachel_j: I can't believe he's gone. There's a hole in my soul for @mayoremanuel
  • @rxdude94 I'm gonna call it right now, best thing about the 2011 Mayoral Race was the twitter feed of @MayorEmanuel
  • @juggernautco: it was a story about love all along, wadnit? Glorious motherfucking cross-species time-bending Chicago-style love.


Images: 1. Alex Hoyt; 2. Daniel X. O'Neil.

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.


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