Photo-lllustration, based on this photo of William Lyon Mackenzie, by Kyra Kendall/Torontoist.
Eleven and a half months before this year’s municipal election ended, William Lyon Mackenzie signed up for Twitter. Mackenzie, the City of Toronto’s first mayor—dead since 1861—was @rebelmayor, and when we interviewed him a month after that, he told us in no uncertain terms that the “biggest challenge is putting the Grrr back in Toronto….David Miller had his Broom. It worked for a while. Now it’s time for the Musket.”
He lost to Rob Ford by 383,501 votes.
In the months between, trying to figure out who @rebelmayor really was became a favourite sport for City Hall–watchers. (It helped that the lead-up to this year’s election was very long and mostly unexciting.) Fingers pointed in every direction: There was Globe and Mail‘s City Hall Bureau Chief Kelly Grant and Global News’ Jackson Proskow, both of whom @rebelmayor made a habit of repeating things they tweeted, making it look like they’d meant to tweet something from their own accounts. There was Ward 27 candidate Chris Tindal, who made a @rebelmayor-style joke about one of Mackenzie’s favourite haunts, the Rebel House, one day before the fake candidate spent the day canvassing throughout the same ward the real candidate was running in. And there was HiMY SYeD, the mayoral candidate who repeated a @rebelmayor tweet from his own account, then hastily deleted it. (When BlogTO reported in an article about a mayoral debate that SYeD was @rebelmayor, @rebelmayor threatend to sue.)
@rebelmayor has spent the days since his decisive loss soul-searching, first vowing a comeback before dismissing his campaign team, preparing his resume, and then, ultimately, taking lonely TTC rides as he prepared to leave town. Now, he’s taking the ultimate step in finding himself: he’s revealing who he really was all along. And—surprise, surprise—the man behind the rebel is one who a lot of us already know: Spacing senior editor, Eye columnist, Stroll author, and Yonge Street managing editor, Shawn Micallef.
Micallef spent the last months of the election campaign regularly denying to Torontoist that he was @rebelmayor. But the similarities between the two were always unmistakable: like Micallef, the tweeting Mackenzie was a sly, habitual Toronto wanderer with a habit of turning 140-character bursts into something close to poetry (even when those bursts were vague policy planks or were making fun of Torontoist). @rebelmayor knew the city—he understood not only the urban landscape, but also the media covering it and the politics shaping it—inside and out.
We finally cornered Micallef while @rebelmayor was tweeting his final goodbyes to Toronto.
Torontoist: Why’d you start it? And are the reasons you kept doing it for so long the same as why you started?
Shawn Micallef: At some point during the early pre-election election back in November of 2009, when everyone was wondering endlessly who was going to run, I said William Lyon Mackenzie should run, a real rebel (there was already talk of voter anger and how tough and angry Smitherman was). That was the light bulb. I deleted the tweet, hoped nobody saw it, then quietly started @rebelmayor and started tweeting. I kept doing it because it was too much fun. The great thing about Twitter is that if I was busy or quiet, it was okay. You don’t need to tweet every hour.
Are you surprised not just by how popular @rebelmayor got, but also by how many people were trying to figure out was behind it?
I tried to do be consistent with the @rebelmayor character and not just use him to tell jokes, but create an actual, somewhat well-rounded, persona. He knew a lot of fairly insider City Hall stuff (most of which, really, isn’t so insider if you follow a lot of Toronto politics tweeters and read the papers and blogs). Sometimes @rebelmayor would tweet from events that I wasn’t at, but enough people were tweeting from there that I knew what was going on, so he could appear to be there. Thinking this anonymous person was in their midst certainly drove up curiousity.
I was inspired a bit by the book Primary Colors, about the 1992 Clinton campaign written by an anonymous insider. In the mid-90s when it came out, it was a bit of a Washington sensation; everybody trying to figure out who wrote it. Fun.
And I was surprised and pleased at how popular he was, but I think it’s clear that the ridiculously long election season requires a court jester, and now I see why the jester character is so important in history. Things get overly serious, and Toronto needed a little release valve.
Was @rebelmayor a release valve for you, then, especially?
Yes absolutely. Having an outlet like @rebelmayor, a satire of politics, Toronto, history, and social media…it was a wonderful thing to dip into, or escape into. @rebelmayor also had a bit more liberty to make jokes I might not make myself—his sense of humour was a little different than mine. Also, there were some really bad jokes, puns, and sexual innuendo that even he wouldn’t make, so we got to still say them, and blame that on the “team.”
“The ridiculously long election season requires a court jester….Things get overly serious, and Toronto needed a little release valve.”
It’s funny that the plank was anger—that was certainly out there in November 2009, but it wasn’t until Rob Ford entered the race that it really found its embodiment. It started to feel a bit like @rebelmayor—the angry, blustering, ready-for-a-fight mayor who maintained he was a man of the people—became a parody of Ford, in spite of itself. Did you see that happening?
No, not at all. I think once Ford entered the race, and there was a “real” person very, very angry, @rebelmayor wasn’t so angry anymore. He swayed all over the emotional map. He was often tipsy too, so he swayed in general.
What do you think it was that stuck about @rebelmayor? With maybe one exception—Steve Murray’s fake mayoral bid at the end there—it seems like no-one else pulled off a fake mayoral campaign that hit the mark as often as yours did.
Murray’s campaign was great. The wonderful thing about Twitter is @rebelmayor could respond to things as they unfolded. If Rocco said something funny, the character could react to it then as it happened, as if running a real campaign. It was fast, maybe a little like stand-up comedy. I also really like the 140 character form of Twitter. You can say a lot if you’re efficient. Perfect for one-liners.
With @rebelmayor I tried to mix contemporary and historical political bits to keep the wonks’ attention (mine included) with geographic references all around Toronto, so he would seem to really be inhabiting the city. He lived in the penthouse of 18 Yorkville that you could see if you were in midtown. He drank at Rebel House on Yonge (and was banned from there, for a time). I also mixed in a fair amount of sex, drugs, and soap-opera stuff to make it interesting and fun on a bunch of different levels.
Above all I never wanted to be cruel or mean (and hope I didn’t step over that line—it’s tricky) but rather poke and tease people along the way. If you’re cruel, it might be funny for a moment, but I don’t think @rebelmayor would have been as successful.
This last point is probably most important: there were a number of people who decided to play along with @rebelmayor and tease back. He had ongoing rivalries with @bradttc and @heritagetoronto. Political folks like @cllrainslie, @shelleycarroll, @JoshMatlow, and @mayormiller played along superbly, as did media folks like @kellygrant1 and @JProskowGlobal and others. If they didn’t play along, taking the jokes and throwing their own back, @rebelmayor wouldn’t have been half as interesting. The Twitter format let that happen. Thanks goes to them too.
I’m guessing those repeated Chris Tindal and Kelly Grant tweets and Twitpics weren’t unintentional, too.
Yep—I’d sometimes glance at Twitter and see one of their tweets come up (Jackson at Global too) and quickly cut and paste it into @rebelmayor’s feed, as if it was one of them, then quietly delete it five or ten minutes later (a sure way to make something look suspicious) and hope somebody saw it. When they did, and that person was accused of being @rebelmayor (sorry about that, poor victims) it was too much fun.
What did you make of @QueensQuayKaren, the real-but-actually-fake account that Rob Ford’s team cooked up? It wasn’t as funny, for one.
What I found with @rebelmayor is you can create a convincing character in social media and gain people’s trust. Nobody knew who he was (really, nobody: I didn’t tell a soul until the other day), yet they interacted with him, and some public figures even shared thoughts over private message (nothing salacious, but it was clear @rebelmayor was a trustworthy figure, even if he might make you the butt of a joke). Of course, everybody knew he was fake, but that trust was there. The same happened with @QueensQuayKaren, where one of Ford’s flaks created a very believable character. The morality of the latter is certainly different. I always felt a responsibility to kind of uphold that trust people put into the Rebel—@QueensQuayKaren had different motives.
Why spill it now?
I wasn’t sure what I would do with @rebelmayor after the election—just didn’t think about it—and once it was over, I was, frankly, stumped. During the campaign he had a mission everyday: go out and stump. Once it was over, I found it was hard to tweet. So perhaps his time has come. Also, we watch enough reality TV that suggests the “reveal” is a satisfactory payoff. And I admit I’m kind of proud of @rebelmayor, but also feel a little heartbroken to sell him out like this.
Perhaps he’ll return. I’ve got a little idea that it might be fun to let other people have anonymous, six-month stints at inhabiting the character, just as different actors play the same role. There’s lots of angles to mine with William Lyon Mackenzie in present day Toronto.
Will you miss it? William Lyon Mackenzie’s gotten pretty sad lately.
Yeah. Feel a lot of separation anxiety. He became such a constant personality I could dip into, and I am quite fond of him. Perhaps for my own sanity, it might be good to say goodbye though. But as I said, perhaps there’s a future for him. Toronto still needs a court jester.