I’m surprised no one’s beaten me up the tree on this topic: the nature of the sciurine sensation. At Bowdoin, the Yik Yak feed is replete with references to the campus squirrels. Posts or entries on the localized forum allow students to comment on their Bowdoin experience; the campus squirrels are a recurring and important aspect of that experience. Something about the small mammals makes them a fine occasion for campus commentary. They are endlessly fascinating to Bowdoin students and an excellent source of critical comic material. The mythology of squirrels on this campus depends heavily on Yik Yak.

Bowdoin squirrels as they appear on Yik Yak of course are based on a “real life,” material, squirrel phenomenon. Squirrels are an important and unique element in the campus landscape. They are a consistent presence and a campus staple for students. Their role in the landscape is entirely different from that of stationary campus elements, such as buildings and trees. Besides people, dogs and other occasional animals, squirrels are the only constant, mobile and lively element of the campus landscape.

Trees may be their opposite; static and predictable, the arboreal installations seldom draw the active attention of students (except for when they’re lit with fall color for that one or two month window). Community members interact passively with the trees, and if they do actively observe trees, it is never witty, sarcastic, ironic or self-reflexive, which are all characteristic of observations on Yik Yak and especially of squirrel-centric posts.

Squirrels draw active observation because they are dynamic and proximate. The campus squirrels are comfortable in the close company of students—they seem to have an intrepid indifference to students and their activity. Active observation is important to understanding the squirrels, since they represent a Yik Yak dependent symbol and since Yik Yak depends on active observation. (Yik Yak relevant observation is always active.) Squirrels’ close proximity draws in what is often otherwise a tranced audience. 

Students’ ability to observe depends on squirrels’ close proximity, but the activity behind the observation depends on their dynamicity. Squirrels exist in a landscape of mostly static, contained, polite and predictable elements—such as trees. They make themselves quite conspicuous as an exception in the landscape and, indeed, the lives of their observers. In this case, the passive is made active by an unsettling, or defying of expectations, or probably both. The squirrels’ close proximity and apparent comfort in that proximity can be unsettling, even scary in a benign sort of way to students, who generally do not expect “wild,” undomesticated animals to ever breach a certain physical sphere. This excitement begets some reflection or judgment from the observer that lends itself well to Yik Yak humor.

Even when they are not dictated or characterized by fear, squirrel-student interactions provide opportunities for comedic observation. There is something inherently funny to Bowdoin students about squirrel behavior; they look frantic, wired, determined and, in all this, cute (like your typical Bowdoin student?). Observers readily perceive that squirrels have their own world of interests, concerns and conflicts that is strikingly different from that of Bowdoin students. That two radically different worlds of experience can occur in a single physical space makes the squirrel-human dynamic especially noteworthy or funny. This is fundamentally why and how campus squirrels have made it into the realm of Yik Yak. It wasn’t until the campus squirrels came into contact with this established campus forum that they acquired the meaning and significance that we ascribe to them today.

Yik Yak is a well attended and hallowed non-physical space, with its own unique symbolic power. A number of campus symbols depend on Yik-yak. It has that effect as a discursive forum that rewards original commentary; it is a well-attended, fractured narrative where campus life is actively constructed and deconstructed. Students articulate and discuss campus elements in relation to other campus elements, as well as in relation to themselves. The physical elements behind the symbols, like the “real life” squirrels, are just a part of the signs’ histories—not the signs themselves. Campus squirrels would not mean what they do without this discursive tool and the squirrel discourse it has facilitated.

Yik Yak is a self-reflexive, highly self-referential system with a huge following. There is a sort of positive feedback loop for signs within Yik Yak. The Yik Yak discourse has the power to sever the symbol from its physical point of reference—to form self-sufficient signs. This is not so in the case for the campus squirrels sign, which depends on a give and take between the physical squirrels and the forum’s squirrel narrative. The squirrels themselves still (seem) to directly inspire many of the Yaks that reference them, while the Yik Yak squirrel discourse directly changes the way students observe the physical squirrels. The squirrels and the squirrel discourse according to Yik Yak work in tandem to shape a single sign. A change or variance in one necessarily changes the other, and the unified meaning abides by this give-and-take. A cultish student following drives the evolution of the symbol.

Eastern gray squirrels are sedentary in the zoological sense—that is, they stay put and do not migrate. The campus squirrels are always present on campus and relate to the same changes in outdoor physical environment (especially the weather) that students do. There’s a barometric quality to them. Sometimes this allows for squirrels, as the subject of yaks, to function as a means for students to comment—often ironically, with the wide trajectory of clever humor—on their own experiences of the Bowdoin campus. One of the most common “strategies” is to superimpose the Bowdoin students’ world onto the squirrels. For example: “I’m not for slut shaming but some of these squirrels must be having outrageous amounts of sex,” or “that squirrel is on so-pro” and countless more.

Though the squirrels appear as the object of the observations deployed on the anonymous forum, in many cases, they are but the means to students’ end of self-reflection (which may be the end of Yik Yak itself). The striking difference between the non-physical worlds of Bowdoin squirrels and Bowdoin students casts in relief many aspects of student life: their interests, concerns and self-proclaimed struggles. Incorporating squirrels into Yik Yak is a comedic way of exposing the world of Bowdoin students. You might say this world is eccentric or flighty—is there a word for that?