Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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The man behind @MayorEmanuel saga talks fake Twitter, book deal

In the final weeks of the @MayorEmanuel Twitter account – a raucous, profane pseudo-narrative of Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago mayoral bid – Dan Sinker sensed the end was near.

“I could feel it all closing in on me,” he said. “And then you just had this ridiculous level of press attention on me and the account as we got closer and closer to the election and as Rahm inserted himself into the story.”

He is, of course, referring to Emanuel’s acknowledgment of @MayorEmanuel, a digital alter ego crafted of irreverence and bombast. In a Feb. 16 appearance on the “Roe and Roeper” radio show, the real Emanuel offered a $5,000 charitable donation to whoever had been authoring the foul-mouthed tweets since late September.

Sinker, an Evanston resident who penned the 140-character updates during his morning commute, refused to budge. Now, after decidedly outing himself to The Atlantic in February and landing a book deal with Scribner, his life is a little less tense. Well, sort of.

It’s a fantastic narrative only a grittily politicized city like Chicago could boast: an entirely fake Twitter account chronicling the rollicking ups and downs of a Windy City politician and his trajectory toward City Hall’s coveted perch. At the actual center of the unorthodox storyline: a bespectacled Columbia College journalism professor and 13-year editor and publisher of now-defunct subculture magazine Punk Planet. Oh, and also his swift immersion into the national political discourse with a few four-letter exclamations to spare.

The only question remaining as Twitter users flocked to the account – it now has more than 49,000 followers – was apparent as the Feb. 22 election inched closer: How long could Sinker conceal @MayorEmanuel’s most elusive ghostwriter?

Unmasking himself took longer than he originally thought.

“I knew how it would be ending, and I knew I wanted to get to that point,” he said. “So then I felt like it was kind of a race against time.”

Yet every story has a beginning and a middle and an end, and Sinker admitted to MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell he would be evading the third component if he pushed the account into mayor-elect Emanuel’s incumbent years.

But first: The beginning.

‘Arcs begot arcs’

As rumors began swirling that Emanuel would be departing the White House in October, Sinker registered the Twitter username as an isolated joke among a few close friends. The first tweets are time-stamped in the late hours of Sept. 27, and they immediately set @MayorEmanuel’s trademark tone.

“Someone tell those (expletive)wads at @politico to shut their (expletive)ing trap, or I’ll (expletive)ing END THEM.”

“Someone tell @joshtpm to shut his (expletive)hole before I have to hop an Acela Express and do it my god(expletive) self.”

Littered with savage references to political reporters and campaign insiders, those initial dispatches caught the Twitter timelines of their subjects, who playfully engaged by following back. Once storied Washington, D.C., scribes such as ABC News’ Jake Tapper began following, Sinker realized his reach was expanding.

Early speculation of @MayorEmanuel’s actual author focused on how Sinker knew about every minor campaign stop and speaking event. He said he was able to closely monitor Emanuel’s movements through both social media and his own project, The Chicago Mayoral Election Scorecard, a website tracking candidates’ poll numbers, news appearances and social media activity.

Plus, any mayoral candidate’s whereabouts are usually public information widely available to the masses, Sinker added.

“None of that stuff is state secrets,” he said. “That’s just 101. It’s one of those questions that always baffles me. It’s like, ‘You know the Internet exists, right?'”

As his follower count skyrocketed, Sinker began experimenting with the addition of oddball subplots and surreal characters, including make-believe characters Carl the Intern, a berated assistant; Hambone, a dog; and Quaxelrod, a duck fashioned in the vein of political advisor David Axelrod.

The resulting narrative far surpassed his initial expectations of broadcasting snark-filled one-liners about the upcoming election, Sinker said.

“The arcs begot arcs begot arcs begot arcs, and things got bigger and bigger and more ambitious,” he added.

Furthermore, the nationwide captivation with @MayorEmanuel demonstrated a broader revelation: Twitter could actually be a legitimate storytelling mechanism. It’s a discovery that Sinker described as the most intriguing aspect of the wholeexperience.

“(Twitter’s) constantly being derived as, ‘Oh, it’s just short. It’s tiny little clips,'” he said. “Realizing how you can craft storylinesand arcs and flesh out characters through these tying little snippets, I think, really became very interesting.”

However, @MayorEmanuel’s trials and tribulations – including an explosive rant anchored in endless profanity after Emanuel was first ruled ineligible to run – could not last forever. Sinker, cognizant of the conventions of storytelling, knew the middle part of his Twitter saga was bound to conclude.

Plot holes

That first shock to Sinker’s mission came in the form of a probing email from Wall Street Journal intern and 2010 Medill graduate Danny Yadron. In November 2010, Yadron, a former Daily staffer, recognized that Sinker’s personal Twitter account was one of the first followers of @MayorEmanuel, according to a Feb. 28 post on Yadron’s Washington Wire blog.

Sinker adamantly clung to his stock response, which he had offered to about a dozen other curious parties before Yadron.

“The first response is like, ‘Oh, man. I wish I was @MayorEmanuel,'” Sinker recalled. “And then Danny wrote back again and was like, ‘Well, you know. It just seems difficult to imagine that you wouldn’t know who it is. You’re one of the early followers.’ I was like, ‘How do I get this guy to stop?’ I really didn’t want to lie to this guy.”

Sinker eventually shook Yadron off his trail, but press speculation became more intense in the final stages of Emanuel’s campaign, especially after the candidate himself issued his $5,000 charity offer for @MayorEmanuel’s true identity. Sinker said a whole new barrage of journalists and political observers viewed the dollar figure as a bounty on his head.

“That got me very worried and it stopped some of it from being fun, because you were constantly thinking about this other side of it that was stressful,” he added.

Sinker would later reveal that a Chicago Public Schools 5th grade teacher, Seth Lavin, had cracked the character puzzle at about the same time. In early February, Lavin discovered @MayorEmanuel had posted a link through bit.ly, a URL shortener, that traced back to Sinker’s own bit.ly account.

Lavin emailed Sinker with this revealing information only to receive Sinker’s typical defense. But when Lavin retorted with digital evidence, Sinker conceded for the first time to someone other than his wife or close friends that he was indeed the pounding fingers behind the fake account.

Lavin agreed to keep the secret to himself, mainly out of honor and amusement of the unraveling “modern folklore,” according to a March 1 interview with “Chicago Tonight.”

Nonetheless, Lavin’s breakthrough sent an ominous message to Sinker: It was only a matter of time before the less virtuous Seth Lavins of the world unveiled @MayorEmanuel to the anxious media.

The end was near in two distinct contexts. First, in the electoral realm of Emanuel’s mayoral effort, which signaled all-but-certain victory in the absence of his opponents forcing an April runoff election. The conclusion of the other – the fantastically imaginary world of a potty-mouthed mayoral hopeful – was not so definite.

“Not only did the character need an exit strategy, but I needed an exit strategy as well,” Sinker said. “That’s really what led to it.”

Exit strategy

So, na
turally, he turned to Twitter for an agent of death for the popular character he had so innocently born. Up until this point, he had usually ignored pleas on Twitter to reveal his identity, but one pesky writer had begun to defy this policy. Once Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, included his personal email address in one of countless tweets begging for @MayorEmanuel to be unmasked, Sinker decided to orchestrate an alternative type of ending – his own.

Using an anonymous email account, he contacted Madrigal and started what he called a “lengthy courtship.” Sinker said he was initially concerned about the media attention he would garner, but still planned with Madrigal to release the scoop Feb. 28, purposely on a Monday so Sinker could handle press inquiries before returning to teach his usual schedule of Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

The two-day cushion period wasn’t nearly sufficient.

“So I thought Monday, Tuesday, I’ll stay home and I’ll field some phone calls and then we’ll be done with it,” Sinker said. “The story hit at 1:15, and by three, there was newspeople on my front lawn. It’s just continued to build and build in a way I never would have predicted.”

More than a month later, Sinker is in midst of compiling and annotating all of @MayorEmanuel’s tweets for his book, “The (Expletive) Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel,” due this summer. He said the tweet anthology will also include a “story of the story” and will ultimately resemble a “DVD commentary track.”

Sinker added that the book deal allows him ample time to reflect on the entire spectrum of the now-famous pseudonym’s 140-character messages.

“This allows us to learn about the world in another – and, I think, very interesting – way,” he said. “We see the world through the eyes of something that doesn’t actually exist but exists in the world we exist in.”

And, yes, that concept sounds oddly familiar. Because while the real Emanuel is preparing for his May 16 inauguration as Chicago’s next mayor and the fake one is no longer, there’s a bespectacled journalism professor with four-letter exclamations to spare in between all the brouhaha.

For a fierce advocate of those three building blocks of storytelling, the end is really just the beginning for Dan Sinker.  

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The man behind @MayorEmanuel saga talks fake Twitter, book deal