We count on the rituals of college life—walking to and from class, and eating in the dining hall—to see our friends around campus every day, and all too often we miss them in the sea of faces that pass by. But the online world is a completely different story, and I'm not talking about Facebook and Twitter. This year, due in large part to its recent fall out of favor among the student population, foursquare has become a stomping ground for a very special kind of Bowdoin student.
For those who don't know, foursquare is a location-based social network that allows smartphone users to "check in" to buildings, restaurants and stores all over the world. To log onto foursquare is, quite literally, to flatten the entire world onto your computer screen. The application tracks where people are and where they have been. You can see where your friends are at any given moment, along with the rest of the world. It would have blown Columbus' mind.
Like the playground game from which it takes its name, foursquare is a competitive sport. Users compete for mayorships that are awarded based on the number of times an individual checks in to the same place for consecutive days. Andrew D. is currently mayor of the Quad, Science Librarian Sue O'Dell is mayor of Smith Union, and the elusive Zacariah Taylor is mayor of Pine Street Cemetery, which, according to foursquare, is a nightclub.
Most of the campus is on foursquare, but the College's "fan page" (run by the Office of Communications), only lists a selection of its buildings. When the communications office first logged onto the platform in August, it only posted tips about three buildings—Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, Thorne Dining Hall, and the art museum. Since last week, however, a retinue of 20 campus buildings have been added to Bowdoin's foursquare page, 17 of which are part of the College's Haunted Tour. With the new additions, checking into Hubbard Hall now prompts a notification informing you that at least three people have died inside its walls, and likewise a check-in at Appleton Hall will educate you about the renovation process of 1897 that allegedly unearthed torture instruments and human remains. It might be that the College's push to establish itself online is a delayed reaction to the 'Golden Age' of the application, as foursquare afficionado Toph Tucker called it, that was the previous academic year. About a dozen students—most from the Class of 2011—regularly used the application to check into buildings and restaurants around the College. The mayorship of Joshua's was the most sought-after title, and walk-by check-ins—when users check in to venues en passant—were the worst kind of faux pas.
But since then, and in spite of the College's efforts to appropriate the digital topography, the student body's presence on foursquare has all but completely disappeared. As this issue went to print, only four people were checked into campus buildings, including yours truly (strictly research). Said Tucker, "It's like the Chinese ghost city of Ordos: institutions keep building, but nobody comes."
The handful of foursquare users who populate this artificial Internet burg, however, are some of the most prolific commentators on campus to date. One in particular, a Bowdoin student who goes by the pseudonym of Zachariah Taylor, is infamous for checking in around town at lightning speed, leaving brash tips in his wake in the "lolspeak" vernacular.
Taylor has 11 tips published so far, the most recent of which was posted as he checked into the Orient House to interview for this article. He has been active on foursquare since last September (when he checked in to Hannaford on September 12, 2010, he wrote, "they check ids leik hardcore... Great produce tho!"), but has never revealed his identity to fellow foursquare users.
Sue O'Dell, an active foursquare user who currently holds over 20 mayorships, said that she has noticed Taylor's activity on foursquare, but hasn't overlapped with him much. O'Dell said that Taylor's comments around campus are "snarky or hilarious...but I haven't seen any posts in a while." Indeed, the identity and location of Mr. Zachariah Taylor has been the central intrigue of Bowdoin's foursquare community for quite some time.
Over the past few days, Taylor, who is enrolled at the College, has checked into Coles Tower and Hawthorne-Longfellow Library repeatedly. His tip on the library from September 25, 2010, reads, "Library has books. Pick them up. Read." On November 18 of that year, he checked into McLellan and wrote, "They hide it here bc it's ugly." At Sills Hall on October 7, 2010, Taylor expressed his concern for public safety: "ALL THE DOORS ARE UNLOCKED!!! THERE ARE COMPUTERS JUST SITTING EVERYWHERE!!! sheesh, protect ur valublles guys!"
I asked Zachariah Taylor, who shares his name with the 12th U.S. president, about his foursquare activity, and he showed up to the Orient House strictly on the condition that his identity be kept secret. I asked Taylor why he insists on leaving tips in the lolcatz style, which I'm concerned might limit the lasting power of his humor. He insisted on typing his reply into my computer, and wrote, "i dont no bout lolcatz of witch u speek. jus the way i tak. internetz be good teecher. spell internetz with a z."
That's pretty much how the interview went.
I then asked Taylor his opinion about the no man's land that the College appears to be through foursquare. He replied, "wher'd all mai frendz go?! gettin [mayor]ships b 2 e-z now!" In addition to Pine Street Cemetery, Taylor is also mayor of Brunswick Apartments, Smith Auditorium, Cool As A Moose, the Shannon Room, and Warmings Market on Maine St. He says he's aiming for the mayorship of Coles Tower, currently held by the Orient's own Information Architect Toph Tucker.
Though he insists on maintaining his anonymity and can not be found, even pseudonymously, on Facebook ("I liek mai privasy, thenks"), you can reach Taylor on twitter @zach_are_i_yah. Late last night he published his first tweet, warning followers to keep their distance: "not 2 close, cuz i need space. #lolz #wassup #personalboundaries." And watch out for him at Thorne this afternoon as he picks up his edition of the paper.