Revealing the Man Behind @MayorEmanuel

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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."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. 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 website 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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