The uncanny Madison of the flotsam internet

Absurd listicles and luxury-life appraisals keep coming, even during a pandemic.

Absurd listicles and luxury-life appraisals keep coming, even during a pandemic.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

When you’ve gotten to know a place very well over the years, it can be fascinating to see how it looks to outsiders, or at least how various kinds of media portray and market it to outsiders. There’s a whole online cottage industry built around those portrayals, in the endless churn of “best cities” rankings that sites like Livability and WalletHub publish, and the place-specific but oddly detached content strewn across various outlets that focus on financial and lifestyle niches. Their main purposes seem to be selling online advertising and to feed the economy of marketing noise in which organizations like local chambers of commerce and tourism boards operate. It’s even more bizarre to watch people keep publishing this stuff during a pandemic. 

Most of the time, these publications aren’t actually sending a writer here to delve into our city’s flavor and nuances—such are the economics of the content hamster wheel—and even if they do tap a local writer to help out, things can still get hopelessly garbled in the editing process. 

As we’ve written before on Tone Madison, an article ranking Madison as one of the best places to live or a great biking city or a great tech city or a great music-industry city will usually pander to our civic pride enough that plenty of actual Madison residents will share it around on Facebook, and sometimes local elected officials and/or UW-Madison’s PR folks will make statements touting it. But the copy in such pieces will usually read like a very screwy AI’s attempt to capture Madison’s appeal. 

Last week I received a WalletHub press release declaring that “Wisconsin Ranks in the Top 20 Happiest States in America.” Like a lot of these city- or state-ranking surveys, it laid out a detailed but decidedly unscientific methodology for measuring happiness, citing factors from sleep and work data to suicide rates. (As a survivor of suicide loss, I must say: The suicide rate, low or high, is an indication not of “happiness” but of illness and access to treatment, you absolute fucking rubes.) 

Most bizarrely, the release from WalletHub cited Wisconsin’s #8 ranking in WalletHub’s recent States with the Fewest Coronavirus Restrictions, which has nothing to do with happiness but does reflect the grievous, avoidable human toll of a pandemic and the absolute breakdown of democracy in Wisconsin. Most of us would be happier, not to mention alive, if our extremist state legislature and state Supreme Court would stop standing in the way of a comprehensive, scientifically driven response to COVID-19. But who needs context when you’ve got wackadoodle data sausage?

Back in August, the bizarro alien-brain appraisals of Madison became more darkly funny and oblivious than ever before. A real-estate website called Mansion Global—fulfilling the public’s endless appetite for mansion-related content gruel in these dark times of economic free-fall, I guess—published a piece about the wealthy enclave of Maple Bluff with the headline “Madison, Wisconsin’s Maple Bluff Has a ‘Storybook Feel.'” Right off the bat, this was bound to go poorly. The headline signals a lack of care for the facts: Maple Bluff isn’t “Madison’s,” but a separate municipality that borders Madison. If you’re a Madison resident and you feel the need to claim this place as yours, you’re dead to me. I’m not gonna fault people who accidentally ended up not technically living in the city of Madison for a time, but let’s at least be honest about what places are where. Admittedly, Maple Bluff may indeed have a storybook feel, if you like storybooks where white people bask in conspicuous wealth and hoard land for obscene things like golf courses and private lakefronts. The article also uses a photo of the wrong lake. 

I actually live pretty close to Maple Bluff now, and as uncomfortable as it makes me, at least I can keep an eye on those people’s comings and goings. Even so, I have to ask an eternally useful/churlish media-person question—who’s your audience?—when I read a quote from a local realtor who declares “the luxury market over $1 million is seeing some drag.” Most Madisonians aren’t fussing about the travails of high-end real estate in Maple Bluff. This weird little unit of local government’s most important social feature, as far as most Madisonians are concerned, is that by some legal fluke it enables Vic Pierce Liquors on North Sherman Avenue to sell beer after 9 p.m. Mansion Global doesn’t mention this outstanding convenience, and in doing so it sells Maple Bluff short, something I never thought possible. The two nonsensical geographic chunks that comprise Maple Bluff also form a sort of buffer zone around wonderful little Burrows Park, which is in the City of Madison.

You can always count on something being very distinctively off in pieces like this. Right now, they offer a cheap and strangely funny form of escapism. With so many things going wrong in the real Madison, it’s nice to visit a Madison that can only exist in a dystopian content abattoir.

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