Law in the Internet Society

The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel

-- By ZachMW - 28 Dec 2011

Unexcused Absence

Last year, on February 24th, I did not make it to my criminal law class, which began mercilessly at 8 in the morning. Was my absence excused? Unlikely. I had been up late the night before attending a performance, held in my apartment, the likes of which the world had never seen. It was the publication of the last words of @MayorEmanuel, a fictitious and profane Twitter account that an anonymous author had used to turn the newly elected mayor of Chicago into a picaresque anti-hero in the unholy tradition of Lazarillo de Tormes. Over the preceding five months, nearly 2,000 tweets chronicled the adventures and political machinations of the inevitably-elected Rahm Emanuel, unleashing a foul-mouthed character in his likeness upon the Windy City. Then late on the night of February 23rd, in front of a “live audience” of 40,000 followers, the curtain came down. @MayorEmanuel was sucked into a time vortex and disappeared.

Much Ado About Something

In its eulogy for @MayorEmanuel, the Atlantic described the account as having “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.” If this was literature, however, then it was an altogether new species, deserving of study like a mutating lab sample with the potential to offer insight into the audience experience, anonymity, and monetization in the Internet age.

While it might be platitudinous to note that the Internet challenges our definitions of traditional media, truly, that is what happened here. I cannot decide whether it is more apt to liken @MayorEmanuel to the serialized novels of Charles Dickens or, say, a spectator sport. A spurt of rapid-fire tweets might resemble the next installment of Oliver Twist, with a rapt audience eagerly awaiting further developments in the plot. Unlike in Dickens’ day, however, the means of artistic production (a smartphone) is also the means of artistic consumption, putting audience and author on equal footing and enhancing the immediacy of their connection. Not only does this enable two-way communication and the exchange of ideas, but it also allows for the incorporation of real events in real time. An customer describes the phenomenon of “associating the tweets with what I was thinking at the same time – like imagining @MayorEmanuel … snowplow surfing on Lake Michigan after I walked home from work in the blizzard.” With the worlds of fiction and fantasy instantly and accurately intertwined, it becomes that much easier for readers to make the suspension of disbelief that all fiction requires. What a paradox, then, that it took a post-book medium for author, character, and audience to finally get on the same page.

The analogy to spectator sports is also intriguing. Being signed in to Twitter during the last active minutes of the @MayorEmanuel account felt like watching the waning moments of a closely contested Superbowl. The last line of the narrative, like a final touchdown pass, was a compelling event that had to be seen live in order to derive the maximum emotional impact. Literature, for the first time in my reading life, had become both a real time drama and a communal experience, as thousands of @MayorEmanuel followers, like avid fans, witnessed the last line within seconds of its being written. In our contemporary culture, the ramifications are significant – could the written word, exciting and instantaneous, come to rival sports as a means of mass entertainment?


Anonymous works on political persons offer an added dimension of drama: whodunit? This was evident with the anonymous author of Primary Colors, and it was also true, to a lesser extent, with the author of @MayorEmanuel. In fact, the real Rahm Emanuel offered to give $5,000 to charity if the author would announce his or her identity after the election.

It is all too easy, however, to imagine another time or another country where such satiric political speech would end with arrest rather than a check for charity. In this instance, author Dan Sinker (who later revealed himself in the Atlantic) was first discovered by one savvy follower who realized that Sinker had used his personal account to shorten a link that @MayorEmanuel later tweeted. Similarly, The New York Times tracked the anonymous author of the popular @BronxZoosCobra account to Bklyn Gold, a 500-unit complex on Tillary Street, by using location data captured from the Twitpic uploading service.

These technological trip-ups demonstrate how modern web tools can undermine anonymity even in the absence of government spying regimes. The author of @MayorEmanuel had a sophisticated knowledge of all things Internet, yet he failed to foresee one of the rudimentary ways in which he left a digital fingerprint. Likewise, the author of the cobra account inadvertently announced her address by posting a picture. Were these mistakes made in Tehran, one suspects the result would be an angry knock at the door from the secret police.

Thinking Outside the (Text) Box

In the United States, what knocked for Dan Sinker was opportunity in the form of a book deal with Simon & Schuster. Except the publisher faced a novel problem: how do you sell content that the author has already given away online for free? Their answer was to add a foreword by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, an epilogue, and an index, in addition to author annotations providing context for the various tweets. The final product was a bizarre union of Twitter (new media/free) with paperback book (old media/$9.60) with Kindle Edition (new media/$9.99).

Although an admirer of the tweets, I lamented the atavistic endeavor to confine them to a book. It was disappointing to see an Internet avant-gardist turn back to a medium that he had surpassed, even including an index, which must be the most irrelevant of all conceivable features in the era of Ctrl-F. Moreover, judging from the Amazon rankings, The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel has not been a huge commercial success, coming in at #16,110 in books and #93,093 for Kindle. Perhaps, then, the copyright holders won’t get too up in arms over the inevitable next step – a sliced and scanned version of the paperback, which would return @MayorEmanuel to his roots: new media freedom.

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" character on the next two lines:

Note: TWiki has strict formatting rules for preference declarations. Make sure you preserve the three spaces, asterisk, and extra space at the beginning of these lines. If you wish to give access to any other users simply add them to the comma separated ALLOWTOPICVIEW list.


Webs Webs

r3 - 04 Sep 2012 - 22:02:29 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM