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Mockingbird
Getting a handle on the “city” Twitter account that isn’t what it seems.


Illustration by Evan Hughes

Oh, @CityofMilwaukee Twitter handle. What a sticky wicket you’ve become for the town that bears your name.

First of all, @CityofMilwaukee does not belong to the city of Milwaukee. It’s run primarily by the Newaukee young professional organization, though the chain of custody leading to its door is varied: It was created by Casey Payne, a tai chi instructor who now lives in Iowa, in late 2008, and for a long time administered by Elisabeth Sampon, a graphic designer and marketer who subsequently moved to California to work as an artist for Blizzard Entertainment, the video game developer behind World of Warcraft and the Starcraft series. Sampon passed the account to Ian Abston, president of Newaukee, after she left for the West Coast in 2013. Secondly, its administrators – Payne then Sampon then Newaukee – have not always hewed closely to City Hall’s political interests, and they’ve certainly not adopted the air of austerity one expects of a government: black suits, gelled hair, that sort of thing.

Payne’s inaugural tweet, posted on Dec. 30, 2008, hinted at a rough style: “Getting ready to keep my pimp hand strong in the ’09!” Yet the tone mellowed, and nowadays, you can hear the pitter-patter of self promotion in @CityofMilwaukee’s feed: “@Newaukee is bringing the Eastside Music Tour back for another rocking year!” (Jan. 29, 2014)

Other moments are more jocular – and not always becoming of a city government, which is often mistaken as the account’s owner. Only its bio, “A team of locals dedicated to making Milwaukee a more socially connected and collaborative city,” indicates that it’s run by volunteers and not the staff of Mayor Tom Barrett (who maintains @MayorOfMKE). Past retweets have highlighted complaints about parking tickets, and in a January exchange, @CityofMilwaukee compared avoiding potholes to “real life frogger.” You know, the video game.

Confusion reigns, and, from time to time, other accounts question the true identity of @CityofMilwaukee. “A digital ronin warrior acting on behalf of a city that (like most) moves too slow to embrace new technologies,” said one response. (“Ronin” refers to living as a samurai with no master.)

Several years ago, Payne attempted to hand the account over to the city, no strings attached, but officials declined. “They didn’t have their ducks in a row to take it,” he says, and though Barrett signed a “Social Media Policy” for city employees in 2011, the city has yet to make a public move to snatch up @CityofMilwaukee or participate in its production. Sampon says she transferred the account over to Abston a few months ago at his request, and since then, “I haven’t been watching [the handle] to see if he’s done anything with it,” she says.

Is it still ronin? No, but it might be one step closer to realizing Payne’s objective – to foist a fully functioning, catch-all Twitter account on the city, something it’s lacked.

This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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