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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Punk’s not dead, it’s just tweeting: Dan Sinker, @MayorEmanuel, and the punk power of basic tools

Perhaps the greatest piece of Twitter performance we’ve seen — up past Dan Baum recounting his New Yorker firing, or last year’s in-real-time reenactment of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — came to a close a week ago when @MayorEmanuel fell silent after a brief but profanity-stuffed spree as the most fun place on Twitter. Tim Carmody best explains the genius of @MayorEmanuel — a fake version of former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, sprinting bull-headed toward election as Chicago’s mayor — over at Snarkmarket, here and here. (Be sure to read that second link to experience the glorious metafiction payoff.)

At The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal has a great long piece on @MayorEmanuel and reveals for the first time the man behind the expletives: Dan Sinker, founder of the great zine Punk Planet and a professor at Columbia College Chicago.

Alexis’ piece hits at part of the punk ethos underlying @MayorEmanuel:

Sinker described the punk rock mindset 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?”

But punk is also about the tools you end up doing that “anything” with. The promise of punk is that you don’t need anything fancy to do something great. You don’t need to be Jimmy Page or Steve F’in Howe to play guitar; you just need three chords. You don’t need fancy technique to be an artist; stencils and spray paint will work. And you don’t need a desk in a newsroom to be a journalist; the Xerox machines at your copy shop will do.

And that brings me to the above video, which was shot by ex-Lab writer Ted Delaney in 2009. In it, Sinker almost gives a two-year-ahead preview of what would become @MayorEmanuel, not to mention a great piece of advice for the future of journalism: Use simple tools and platforms, then breathe life into them. Don’t accept that something basic can’t be used to create something beautiful and creative.

Even something as basic as a box that only takes 140 characters. Or, to take one of Sinker’s other projects, a simple web-based way to tell stories for cell phones.

May that slogan be pasted (hell, maybe spray-painted) on the walls of every news organization where creative ideas get lost in meetings and committees and Gantt charts. It sums up just about everything good about the DIY web, and it’s a spirit — innovation with simple tools and a little human creativity — that can lead a simple Twitter account to become something beautiful.

Here’s a transcript:

One of the things that I really try to emphasize to students is this idea that the tools that exist now are so simple. You know — I actually refer to it as we’re in this magic moment. Because the tools are so easy, but the people making hiring decisions, the people making purchasing decisions — they don’t actually know that yet.

And so we’re able to really demonstrate these incredible skills and these hugely robust websites that didn’t actually take a lot of work — right? In terms of effort to get it to screen. But it looks — I mean, we look like magicians.

This stuff is so easy, and so you can teach at a level that you couldn’t have done five years ago, you know — or even two years ago, one year ago sometimes — where you don’t have to teach them the heavy lifting. Instead you can show them, “Hey, look at this, you can do a couple of little modifications, you can copy this code out, you can paste it in, and suddenly you have amazing functionality, for no effort.”

And so instead what you can do is think about, “What can I do with this?” You know, you’re no longer having to teach “this is how it works” — you can jump to the great part, which is, “What can I do with this that would be amazing? What can I do with this that would enable me to bring meaning and content and create something lasting into the world?” And that’s great.

Photo of Sinker by Daniel X. O’Neil used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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