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From AJR,   March & april 2011  issue

Cracking the Twitter Case   

Other reporters tried and failed, but The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal tracked down the identity of the man behind the profane and brilliant @MayorEmanuel. Posted: Fri, March 11, 2011


By Greg Masters
Greg Masters (gmasters@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Dan Sinker has been riding a wave of media coverage, including an appearance Tuesday on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," since being revealed as the man behind @MayorEmanuel -- the fake Twitter account that satirized the foul-mouthed former White House chief of staff in the months leading up to the mayoral election in Chicago.

But before Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, broke the story on February 28, Sinker remained doggedly anonymous -- brushing off reporters even as he rapidly outpaced the real Rahm Emanuel in the number of followers on Twitter.

How did Madrigal do it?

Though @MayorEmanuel started his profanity-laced tweeting last September, Madrigal started following him closely only shortly before the election. By then, Madrigal says, "he had just gone to another level of writing." On election eve, a bizarre, strangely moving narrative unfolded in tweets: @MayorEmanuel is kidnapped by then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and taken to the roof of City Hall. There, the two stand in a garden and taste celery salt -- an essential ingredient of Chicago-style hot dogs -- in a kind of sacred ritual. "I'd really like to talk to this guy," Madrigal remembers thinking.

It was February 22, election day, when Madrigal reached out to Sinker on Twitter -- "gently walking towards @MayorEmanuel like W.W. Beauchamp sidling up to William Munny at the end of Unforgiven," as Madrigal's friend and fellow writer Tim Carmody described it in a blog posting.

"You are obviously a genius fake twitterer. Can we talk? We'd love to do a piece on/with you in @TheAtlantic," Madrigal's first message read. @MayorEmanuel didn't respond.

"That was OK -- that was kind of part of the plan," Madrigal says. "I'd seen what he had done to other reporters, which was essentially mock them mercilessly."

A month earlier, for example, a reporter for the NBC-owned television station in Chicago requested an interview. @MayorEmanuel told him to "just call the office: (312) FUC-KOFF."

When Madrigal received no response, he tried a different tack: "I think it is incumbent on you to at least tell me to fuck off," he wrote, also providing his e-mail address. "It's the only time I've ever used the F-word in my Twitter feed," Madrigal adds.

@MayorEmanuel brushed him off. But a short while later, Madrigal received an e-mail from an anonymous e-mail account. The subject line read, "OK, asshole."

"There were two points in it," Madrigal says. "One, if you tweet about this, it's over before it even started. And two, you're the journalist -- you pitch me."

The two started exchanging dozens of banter-filled e-mails. "Fairly quickly into the exchange, I felt like I thought I was going to get him. But then he almost backed out...­it was very touch and go," Madrigal says. "He held every card...so it was kind of a delicate negotiation."

The turning point, he says, was when @MayorEmanuel broke character "to confide that he was just feeling torn" about revealing his identity, aware that "it would make his life crazy for a while." Madrigal gave him a human response, explaining how he wanted to frame the story in terms of its literary context. Sinker appreciated this, Madrigal says, because "it showed I was thinking about the feed as a thing in and of itself."

In an interview with NBC Chicago, Sinker said he "kind of tested [Madrigal] for probably what was 12 bizarre hours of his life, and then decided, 'OK, he'll do.'"

But timing also played a big part. In the same interview, Sinker said Madrigal "hit me at exactly the right moment. He hit me with an '@ reply' the same as every single reporter in the world, but he did it two days before [the account] was done."

Madrigal says almost the same thing: "Sometimes you got to just chalk it up to good timing, good luck. I think I asked him right at the perfect moment, when he was thinking that he was going to be done in a couple of days." But he also believes he and Sinker shared a "similar kind of mindset," which helped his cause.

The actual Rahm Emanuel was elected as Madrigal and Sinker were exchanging e-mails, and the next day @MayorEmanuel wrote his last tweet. Sinker gave Madrigal his name on a Friday so that he could do research over the weekend. They spoke on the phone Monday, February 28, and the story appeared on The Atlantic's Web site later that day.

@MayorEmanuel's identity -- previously known only by Sinker's wife, some friends and a Chicago teacher who found out but kept silent -- was no longer a secret. The media converged on Sinker, who teaches journalism at Columbia College in Chicago, but not much has been said about Madrigal's part in the story.

At 28, Madrigal has accomplished a lot. Born in Mexico City and raised in Los Angeles and rural Washington state, he lives in Washington, D.C., where he is the lead technology reporter for TheAtlantic.com. He attended Harvard and is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, where he did research for a book on the history of clean energy in America. (The book is being released later this month.) Last year he co-founded Longshot Magazine, a high-speed experiment that involves writing, editing, designing and shipping a magazine in 48 hours. He is also a former staff writer for Wired.com.

That kind of résumé requires a serious work ethic, and Madrigal is the kind of person who "feels better when he's working all of the time than when he has a break," Carmody, a Wired.com writer, wrote in an e-mail interview. "He's a dogged reporter and editor."

Madrigal is thoughtful about technology's role in society, Carmody adds. He and his colleagues "take the long view; they think about history, culture and ideas as much as the latest consumer tech."

Among Madrigal's many areas of interest, the one that probably most informed his story on Sinker is the storytelling potential of social media. "I've been tracking literary uses of Twitter for years," Madrigal says. He lives much of his life online -- Carmody says that although the men are good friends, they have never met face-to-face -- and last year wrote a long and eloquent response to novelist Zadie Smith, who had written that Facebook should be struggled against. Madrigal disagreed strongly, writing that "the real struggle is with ourselves to use Facebook well."

Carmody thinks Madrigal was just the right person to introduce Dan Sinker to the world. "Just like it's hard to pick a better person than Dan to write @MayorEmanuel, it's hard to pick a better person than Alexis to write the story," Carmody says, adding that his online friend "was able to zero in on the things that Dan cared about -- journalism, community, new forms of storytelling and, especially, Chicago."