Not too long ago in Chicago, this kind of behavior would have been met with the swiftest of retribution and it would have been shut down before giving a chance to bow out gracefully – perhaps even without mortal harm. Long live social change through social media, right?
Question is: why does the satire need to end BEFORE his run as mayor?
The other (expletive) shoe has dropped, and the anonymous Twitterer known as @MayorEmanuel is anonymous no more: He’s Dan Sinker, a 36-year-old Columbia College journalism assistant professor and founder/editor of the long-running, now-defunct Chicago-based magazine Punk Planet.
Among the classes Sinker teaches is Online Journalism, and although his 140-character parodies of Chicago’s new mayor-elect, Rahm Emanuel, don’t strictly count as journalism, their rise to cultural phenomenon status will fuel some lessons regarding the wild, unpredictable social-media landscape.
“You can’t actually make a lesson plan out of this, but what you can say — and what I will say when I teach this week — is sometimes amazing things happen,” Sinker said Monday evening after the last of several local TV stations had left his Evanston home.
Following months of speculation, including a recent offer from the actual Emanuel to donate $2,500 or $5,000 to a charity of the Twitterer’s choice if he revealed his identity post-election, Sinker decided to release his name in a story posted on the Atlantic’s website Monday afternoon. Like many journalists, writer Alexis Madrigal had contacted @MayorEmanuel via his Twitter feed, but unlike the rest of them, he eventually received a positive response.
Madrigal said Monday that he and @MayorEmanuel exchanged about 60 e-mails before the still-cloaked Twitterer not only agreed that he would finally speak to the reporter on Monday morning but also sent this e-mail on Friday: “You didn’t ask my name. I appreciate that. But you should probably have the weekend to do research: Dan Sinker.”
Sinker, who said he liked the way Madrigal responded to his missives, subsequently fessed up on his own personal Web site Monday, writing: “It’s true: I was @MayorEmanuel. … Staying hidden is really exhausting. So, hi!”
Launched in September, the @MayorEmanuel account took off online as the mayoral campaign heated up and the anonymous Twitterer provided an alternative narrative that was far more colorful, foul-mouthed and humorous — as well as fanciful, lyrical and punctuated by sustained storytelling arcs — than the strictly functional tweets offered by the actual Emanuel campaign. The entertainment value could be seen in the numbers: By the time @MayorEmanuel bid farewell Wednesday night, the night after the election, by disappearing into a time vortex (while dropping one final F-bomb), it had accumulated more than 37,000 Twitter followers (now close to 40,000) while the official @RahmEmanuel was around 11,000 (now 12,000).
At a Navy Pier event Monday night, the mayor-elect expressed pleasure that the mystery was over. “It’s great, and I’ll have more to say about it in days to come,” Emanuel said. “But I’m glad — and I suppose I can use this phrase — that he’s out.”
Emanuel’s transition spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement Monday that Emanuel “will keep his commitment to donate $5,000 to the charity of professor Sinker’s choice.”
Sinker said he hasn’t chosen a charity yet but said he has been invited to appear Wednesday on WLS-AM 890’s “The Roe Conn Show With Richard Roeper,” the show on which Emanuel initially made his offer.
Reaction among Columbia College students and fellow faculty members was mostly positive.
When Howard Schlossberg, an associate professor of journalism, heard that Sinker was behind the @MayorEmanuel account, he said he immediately composed an e-mail to the journalism faculty and clicked send. “Excellent Dan, proud of you,” he wrote. “Great stuff.”
Schlossberg, who also writes for the Daily Herald, described his colleague as low-key and kind, and he said the revelation caught him by surprise. “When we have a departmental meeting, no, he doesn’t sit there and zing out one-liners,” Schlossberg said. “I never suspected Dan had something like that in him.”
Alton Miller, associate dean of Columbia’s School of Media Arts, said one key to @MayorEmanuel’s success was that it very clearly was a parody, a la The Onion, rather than something that might be mistaken for the truth.
“If this had been represented as journalism and or if it had been somehow represented as authentic Emanuel, then you run into all kinds of problems,” Miller said. “It was clear to all that this was not a Rahm Emanuel website.”
But Miller, who was former Mayor Harold Washington‘s press secretary, said that as a politician’s spokesman, he likely would not have welcomed the Twitter feed. “As press secretary, my whole career field was about controlling the message,” he said. “When somebody like Dan Sinker is just running rings around you, you want to swat it, you just want to get rid of it.”
Spencer Roush, editor-in-chief of the Columbia Chronicle, the college’s student newspaper, said the Twitter account was a popular read in the newsroom. “I didn’t really see this account as an act of journalism,” Roush said. “It’s just in good fun. It’s not a verified account, and everyone knows it was fake.”
But Alisa Perocevic, a broadcast journalism junior who said she dropped Sinker’s Mobile Journalism class in January 2010 after one day, said she thought it was wrong for journalists to make opinionated political statements in public, as she felt he was doing with @MayorEmanuel.
“That’s a conflict,” she said. “That’s your opinion. It’s different from journalism.”
Sinker said he launched the Twitter feed as a lark, and he stayed on top of it in part through a political website he created: Chicago Mayoral Scorecard, which compiled information on the mayoral candidates including money raised, poll numbers, news updates and, yes, Twitter feeds. He said he always intended to shut down @MayorEmanuel after the election — and if there were a runoff, he’d still be going — because “the election was the end of the story. Stories should end.”
But he said he wasn’t sure about revealing his identity until Emanuel’s offer ramped up the public pressure, and he feared being discovered. “At that point I knew I needed to step forward because I didn’t want to live hiding because it feels like you’re being duplicitous with people you love and respect,” he said. “So that had to come to an end.”
There’s been much speculation over how the @MayorEmanuel author might leverage his newfound fame. A book deal perhaps?
“What’s next is seeing where this goes,” he said. “You can’t have predicted anything that happened so far, and I’ve gotten myself out of the prediction game. It’s too crazy. What’s literally next is there’s more of this (media attention) tomorrow, and then I have to teach some classes. It’s a great story, and it’s a story I would like to see show up somewhere, and I’d like to see where that leads. You’ve got to just see what happens.”
Tribune reporters Hailey Branson, Cynthia Dizikes and Kristen Mack contributed to this story.