clock menu more-arrow no yes
Getty Images

I played Rahm Emanuel on Twitter. Here's what I learned about politics and the internet.

Beer me, Axelrod: It's time to reflect on Twitter, politics, Chicago, and my own legacy.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Five years ago last week, @MayorEmanuel, the foul-mouthed Twitter character I created to parody Chicago's first real mayoral election in 22 years, was sucked back into the parallel dimension he came from, his voice silenced mid-sentence.

Maybe I should back up.

I started the @MayorEmanuel account the night that rumors surfaced that Rahm Emanuel, then President Obama's chief of staff, was going to move back to Chicago to run for mayor. It was a lark, one of what felt like a million different Weird Twitter accounts in 2010. But it grew into something much more. It shadowed the real Rahm Emanuel's path to becoming the mayor of Chicago while also unfolding a surreal storyline of parallel Earths, and explored the bonds of friendship among a tight group of main characters (Emanuel, political strategist David Axelrod, an intern named Carl, a dog named Hambone, and a mustachioed duck, Quaxelrod). The account grew a huge following (for 2010 Twitter standards at least, about 50,000), and soon became a news story of its own. And then, all at once, it ended.

It was the day after the actual 2011 election here in Chicago. Rahm Emanuel had won in a walk, beating his closest opponent by more than 30 points, and my elseworld Emanuel, surrounded by his friends and pets, dissolved into time itself during our harsh winter's second bout of thundersnow.

With that final clap of thunder, the legacy of the account began. Wired called the @MayorEmanuel story "the first, truly great piece of literature to be produced using this micromedium that's rapidly transforming communication in the digital age." The Atlantic said it was "deep enough that we might need to bring in some Russian cultural criticism" to describe it. And in the months that followed I collected the feed into a book that captured the real-time aspects and added context that would otherwise have been lost with the distance of time.

I wrote the account for six months entirely anonymously, often composed on the train to and from work in downtown Chicago. Once the account was over, I decided to reveal my identity to The Atlantic. I was actually quite ambivalent about revealing myself — I was pretty happy to remain in the background — but I convinced myself it wouldn't be a big deal. I was wrong. Having news crews on my lawn, being stopped on the street and cornered at airports, having mail sent to my work — it was more than I wanted. While there were incredible moments in the months that followed, the blast furnace of attention was too much for me. I downplayed the legacy, content with creating some distance between myself and the profanity-laced account I'd set loose on the world.

But five years is a long time, and there are legacies to be wrestled with. So it's time —  beer me, Axelrod.


I am followed by more throwaway political parody accounts than you can even imagine. Very few of them are funny, and most of them have mercifully short runs. @MayorEmanuel wasn't the first of these types of accounts (it wasn't even the first account dedicated to Rahm Emanuel), but it was the first to get the type of exposure that begat a never-ending legion of copycats. Five years later, and "Hillary Clinton's Vag" just followed me on Twitter. You get a single guess how awful that one is.

Despite the mountain of profanity that most of these accounts offer  —  admittedly a pretty big part of @MayorEmanuel's playbook as well —  none of them capture what really worked with the account: the fact that the story existed in the same time and space that the reader was in. If it snowed in Chicago, @MayorEmanuel was complaining about it; if it was early and you were dying for coffee, chances were @MayorEmanuel was too. For an account that had multiple hallucination sequences, had its characters live in an igloo for an extended period, and featured a duck with a mustache (Quaxelrod forever), the account was actually fully rooted in reality. The Chicago that you or I lived in was the same that the characters did (well, minus the domed celery garden on the roof of City Hall).

Time was important as well, and not just because of the parallel universes at play: Stories would play out over hours (sometimes days), and the time between the tweets mattered just as much as the tweets themselves in helping the story unfold. The negative space, the absence of tweets, added depth to the whole thing. This wasn't just profane one-liners, nor was it a story being doled out one sentence at a time like so much Twitter fiction is. This was a story that existed on Twitter in the same way your life did.

But the Twitter of @MayorEmanuel is pretty much gone now, the Twitter that was still rife with experimentation. The edges of the platform felt so undefined back then, and there were so many people interested in pushing against them to see what happened. You had parody accounts and Markov bots and strange little scripts people would build, all mashing up against each other. You had people testing the edges in serious ways too, from Andy Carvin's real-time curation of the Arab Spring to Teju Cole's experiments in storytelling. Twitter didn't feel finished, which was what was so exciting about it.

That's not how Twitter feels today. Sure, there are still fun accounts, and absolutely there are vitally important things still being done with the platform, but the boundaries of Twitter have been found. The platform's experimental edges have been filed down in the hopes of capturing the ever-larger audience that its 2013 IPO demands. Celebrity is the currency of Twitter today, with blue checks and VIP apps replacing things that truly make the platform unique. That that scale has remained elusive — new user signups have essentially ground to a halt — probably has something to do with Twitter losing sight of the many things that set it apart from far larger networks.


The Chicago of @MayorEmanuel is largely gone too. It's hard to remember after the five hard years since, but there was a great deal of hope following the end of 22 years of the Daley administration. Richard Daley had been the mayor of the city from 1989 until 2011. His father had been mayor from 1955 to 1976. Combined, they ran the city for nearly 50 years. When people talk about "Chicago-style politics" they really mean "Daley-style politics" — they were one in the same.

The election of 2011 was an opportunity to rebuild a city that had been broken by decades of neglect and insider deals. The city and the schools were in debt by hundreds of millions of dollars. Public pensions had been underfunded for decades and threatened to make the financial situation even worse. The city had stopped growing in the previous decade: Census numbers published almost concurrently with the election showed that Chicago had shrunk by 200,000 people, nearly half of whom were African Americans. And on and on and on. People wanted to believe that a new administration  —  the first in two decades —  would bring about change and fix the many real problems the city faced.

I wish I could say that that Chicago is gone because the problems got sorted. They haven't. The real Rahm Emanuel, it turns out, hasn't done a great job of turning things around. The debt is more crushing than before; the schools haven't pulled back from the precipice they were on five years ago. The pension debt has become such a huge problem that the entire state of Illinois hasn't had a budget in nearly eight months, in part because nobody seems to know how to fix it. The shrinking population contributed to school closures that were hugely unpopular and mired in scandal.

Then there is the violence: €”Shootings in the city are double what they were this time last year — a staggering 292 victims and 51 murders in January alone —  and there's a growing exposure of police murders and cover-ups.

This isn't just a damaged Chicago; this is, by pretty much every measure, a destroyed Chicago. People want to lay all that destruction at Rahm Emanuel's feet, and while his permanent head-fake demeanor certainly hasn't helped and there are plenty of bad decisions that are of his making, the reality is far more complex and unforgiving. This is a series of slow-motion disasters that have been decades in the making, and will probably take just as long to turn around.

People ask why I didn't continue @MayorEmanuel. Hell, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial when the account was shutting down begging for it to keep going. But what's happening in Chicago right now isn't funny. The idea of ridiculing the day-to-day work of trying to fix the city never appealed to me, and the way that reality has played out in the past five years has only borne that instinct out.


For a short time, I entertained a return from the void. It was going to be the story (literally) of a man out of time: @MayorEmanuel coming back through the time vortex but knowing full well that this Chicago was not his. His friends would be unable to relate as easily as before, seeing him now as alien. He would struggle to know what to make of any of it, or even if he cared. There are two scenes from that unwritten @MayorEmanuel story I still think about. Two scenes that have remained as clear in my head as the first time I thought of them:

In one scene @MayorEmanuel stands in the dark outside the actual Rahm's Ravenswood home. He's watching Rahm and his family through the window. He hears a voice from behind him, and it's David Axelrod (a regular in the @MayorEmanuel story) telling him to walk away, that this family isn't his and he'll only do damage to it. @MayorEmanuel refuses to leave, insists that he can be the better Rahm. The scene ends with Axelrod braining his former friend with a baseball bat.

In the other scene, @MayorEmanuel is helplessly watching from LaSalle as a fire-breathing dragon attacks the Chicago skyline. The dragon is something that @MayorEmanuel himself unwittingly unleashed on the city, a byproduct of jumping across parallel Earths, and now it's destroying everything. Just as it appears the time dragon will consume the city, Quaxelrod flies into its gaping mouth and straight down into its gut. The dragon explodes, and Chicago is saved. But it was a self-sacrifice: Quaxelrod is gone. @MayorEmanuel just cries out, "No..."


A new @MayorEmanuel story couldn't be just fuck jokes. Like the actual job of leading Chicago, it wasn't funny. What had played first as farce would have played second as tragedy. That's the wrong order. Ultimately (and much to my publisher's disappointment) I felt like the legacy of the account was good enough left alone. That final sentence left hanging, now for five years, the joy of the account not tempered by the reality that came afterward.

But of course, we don't always get what we wished for. The reality of Chicago today tempers the original @MayorEmanuel story. The trick of real-time storytelling is that context is everything. But context changes, of course, and with it so does meaning. For every few tweets thanking me for writing @MayorEmanuel (still, all these years later, I get them on the regular:  thanks) there's one accusing me of getting the guy elected in the first place. And while actual math says that's not true (Rahm Emanuel polled up double digits for the entire election), it's the part of the @MayorEmanuel legacy that physically hurts sometimes.

I still love Chicago, and I know there are incredible people working to fix its problems. More often than not, they're the ones out in the streets, calling for reforms and for Rahm's resignation. (Fun Illinois fact: There is no recall election protocol.) They're the ones waking up and teaching in the hardest schools; they're the ones working to keep neighborhoods safe; they're the ones trying to patch a broken city in a million different ways. It is going to take so much work.

There's one last beat to that final, unwritten @MayorEmanuel story. Quaxelrod doesn't die. Having been eaten by a time dragon, he keeps strobing in and out of existence. He returns only in flashes, as a haunting specter of a bird engulfed in flame. Finally, days later (with the help of Carl the Intern, now a physics major at the University of Chicago), Quaxelrod is able to stabilize in this reality. But he's no longer a duck.

He's a phoenix, risen from the ashes.




Dan Sinker makes things on the internet. The @MayorEmanuel book is available through Amazon and other fine retailers. He still loves Chicago so, so much.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

Politics & Policy

Democrats’ winnowing health care ambitions

Politics

Democrats are setting up social policies for painful cliffs

Voting Rights

The Freedom to Vote Act is almost certainly doomed

View all stories in Politics & Policy

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.