Take a stroll through YouTube these days and you’ll find a bevy of gorgeously filmed, breathlessly narrated videos celebrating the city we call home. Big budget tourism videos share space with amateur love letters, while out-of-town vloggers gush alongside city residents. But back in November 2008, these sorts of videos were harder to come by. Perhaps that’s why a mysterious clip titled “This Is My Milwaukee” caused such a stir back in the day. That and the fact that the video clearly had little or nothing to do with Milwaukee.
“From the glitz of the canning district to the slow jazz down by the piers, there’s always something cooking in Milwaukee.” So begins the video’s host, “Terry Nanny,” a man who, in a nice coincidence, looks vaguely like OnMilwaukee‘s Jeff Sherman. What follows is a dead-on parody of every empty and generic tourism video known to humankind:
“Milwaukee has been getting a lot of press recently. Not all of it good—surely you know what I’m referring to. But the story that’s not being reported is that of a vibrant city getting better every day. Families, good jobs, culture, high technology.”
And from there…things get weirder. There are shots of subways and skyscrapers. There’s mention of Milwaukee’s chief export, flax seed. There are references to the “Milwaukee Seasonal Pops Orchestra,” the “Broadway Big Shots” theater troupe, the ominous “Blackstar” corporation, and, um, staying out of “Sector 21” and never leaving home without a “rebreather and a flare gun.” It’s all clearly a send-up of cheesy tourism videos, shot through with a Tim and Eric sensibility—and some strangely apocalyptic undertones.
“We had to destroy Milwaukee to save it,” Nanny says, “and the survivors buried the remnants of Go.D.S.E.E.D. in the sarcophagus deep beneath the canning district.” Cue the anime-esque credits.
Back in 2008, local media outlets were flummoxed. “We’re getting deluged with e-mails asking us about a peculiar new Web site that just popped up called thisismymilwaukee.com, and we’re just as stumped as you,” said OnMilwaukee. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel even got in on the action, quoting a peeved YouTube commenter: “What the hell is this? I live in Milwaukee and this is the goofiest video I’ve ever seen. Are we trying to scare tourists away?”
So, what the hell was this? Long story short: it was an alternate reality game. You know, one of those maddeningly cryptic online games that bleeds into real life. Here’s a summation of the game’s plot, via Wikipedia:
The game involved the sinister Blackstar company creating a bioengineered creature known as Go.D.S.E.E.D., which was forced underground into dormancy and led to the city of Milwaukee being quarantined. A clock in the upper right of the website counted down to 17:00:00 UTC January 16, 2009. The numbers on the clock were replaced with the word “BO NU S?” after it reached 00:00:00.
Gameplay involved dead drops in New York Public Library and a cafe in San Francisco.
The game was the work of Synydyne, an art collective helmed by New York artists Thomas Bender and Jacob Bakkila. A few years later, Synydyne would become better known as the group behind the “beloved Twitter spam account” @Horse_ebooks.
And, well, that was it. Just a kind of cool, kind of random internet thing that had absolutely nothing to do with Milwaukee. Even Milwaukee tourism group VISIT Milwaukee figured it out eventually, telling the Journal Sentinel:
“The video is an intricate and clever attempt to distribute clues and messages related to an online alternate reality game created by Synydyne. While humorous in spots, the video is pure fiction.”
Also humorous: VISIT Milwaukee’s “You Gotta Be Here” video from 2014. The clip has (mercifully) been deleted, but this GIF remains. Long live Milwaukee’s canning district!