I spent five days last week wandering the streets and interiors of London, day and night (never before 11am though). In my essay in the spring/summer issue of Spacing I discussed this method of wandering in and out of public and public/private grey spaces in my second favorite city to walk in (after Toronto). I did the same this time but with the addition of an iPhone leaving a Twitter-trail behind me (and likely giving the folks at Rogers at least $100 in extra roaming text charges). Robert Sharp, a friend (and Spacing contributor), lives in London and we were hoping to meet up at some point. I didn’t know it, but Robert decided to follow me around the city based on my tweets publicly, using the #stalkingshawn tag, eventually finding me at my hotel bar. What follows is a repost of his detailed account of “Stalking Shawn” that he wrote for his own fine blog (do check it out — also his Twitter feed is here). Apart from the chase, he brings up interesting points about how Twitter relates to geography and perhaps even security (and what Toronto looks like via tweet to somebody who has never visited). I joked to him that I’ll only tweet vague things to avoid further stalking but in reality when I’m moving through a city by the time the tweet goes out I’m no longer there — sometimes even the time it takes to write a sentence on foot renders it no longer “present,” but sentences have a hard time changing tense mid way through. And Twitter seems particularly well suited to behaving like a traveller’s public notebook. Now, on to Robert’s post:
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Many landlubbers love the shipping forecast on the radio. The cryptic figures for wind speed and precipitation are soothing and mantra-like, and provide a comforting and consistent start to the day for thousands of listeners who have no idea what they mean.
Online, I find the tweets of my friend Shawn Micallef fulfill a similar function. Amid the constant bombardment of political messages, there is Shawn, always Shawn, with his relentless observations of Toronto psychogeography:
3.55 AM: Streetcar east/gerrard India bazarr/who will write the epic novel of the Lahore Tikka House construction saga
7.55 AM East of Coxwell/streetcarsound/run through alleys + lots to meet/discover it is short turn/TTC most untrustworthy of allies
I know what the individual words mean, but the place he is describing is an utter unknown. I have never visited Toronto, and without that context, the place names are a mystery. I conjure up quite literal interpretations of what each street might look like, or what the acronyms might stand for. And whenever he mentions Spadina, I think of spandex.
How strange, then, to discover that Shawn is in the UK, and tweeting about London. It is also a city of ridiculous and inappropriate names (Hackney Wick, Angel, India Quays, New Cross Gate, Forest Hill, High Holborn), only now Shawn’s nibble-sized thoughts are suddenly contextualised, and I can visualise exactly where he is walking, almost trace his steps.
And that thought, â€œI can almost trace his stepsâ€, is what occurred to me on Friday evening. Alone and listless in South East London, I decided to do something weird. I decided to use twitter to re-trace Shawn’s steps. I decided toâ€¦ Stalk Shawn. His regular twitter updates would act as electronic breadcrumbs. Could they lead me, in the dark, through a city of seven-and-a-half million people and 660 square miles, to a specific, bespectacled Canadian flà¢neur? My own twitter updates are here with a map of London: scroll through to relive the chase.
This step was crucial. Since Shawn follows my own tweets, I wouldn’t be able to commentate via the #stalkingshawn tag if he was following me. So I blocked him, then refollowed him myself unilaterally.
Where to start? Since I had taken on the challenge, my quarry had not actually posted any new tweets! However, I had announced my quest via my own updates, and told @Spacing and a few other mutual friends about it. If Shawn failed to post another update all evening, I would look quite the fool. With no other choice, I decided to head to his last known location, which was in Shoreditch.
When I arrived at marble Arch station, and bounded up the steps onto Oxford Street, there were no further tweets from my target. However, he had left me a further clue. Shawn traces his routes around cities by means of a GPS enabled pedometer. And last message had included a link to his evening jog.
In the absence of further tweets I’m heading to Bayswater, where his pedometer was turned off. #stalkingshawn
I think I’m close. Having a drink in the Prince Alfred on Queensway to re-charge and us wi-fi. #stalkingshawn
I had never been to Bayswater before. Queensway a busy eating and drinking area, with plenty of kebab shops, pizza parlours, and coffee shops. The Prince Alfred pub is perched on the corner of Porchester Gardens, right where Shawn’s pedometer went dead. My phone was also running low on battery power, so I plugged it in at the pub for a bit of a recharge.
Looking at yesterdays pedometer route, I reckon Shawn is staying somewhere on Queens Mews. Let’s find outâ€¦ #stalkingshawn
The pedometer route from the day before had also been tweeted by my target, conscientious as ever. The slightly ridiculous zig-zag pattern suggested that he was based at Queen’s Mews. For the first time, I allowed myself to consider the possibility I might actually beat the challenge I had set myself.
There are four hotels on Queens Mews. Inc. a serviced apartment complex called Vancouver Studiosâ€¦ #stalkingshawn
It would have been poetic if Shawn the Canadian had actually been staying at Vancouver Studios. It would have been great to have chosen a hotel based on some kind of â€œwhat would Shawn thinkâ€ intuition, but to be honest, I don’t know him that well. In the end, I lucked out, and my trial-and-error tactic worked at the first attempt.
I’m gonna try this place first. It’s a Best Western. More Shawn’s style? http://twitpic.com/cav53
I debated whether or not to actually go up to him and say hello, or whether to just follow him around for the rest of the eveningâ€¦ eventually opting for the former.
To my surprise, he did not seem surprised to see me! He had a Mr Sharp, I’ve Been Expecting You type demeanour, and for a moment, I worried that he had been following my #stalkingshawn tweets all along. I told him what I had been doing for the last few hours, and he spent quite a while looking at me a bit strangely, which is to be expected when you choose to be a stalker, I suppose.
Eventually we went clubbing in Holborn, and Shawn bought me a beer as a prize for finding him.
So, what have we learnt?
The knee-jerk reaction to all this would be to warn against the dangers of Too Much Technology, and how it will enable invasions of space and privacy of the kind that I perpetrated on Friday evening. But to think like this would be a mistake.
The fact is, that Shawn is a highly networked individual. As an associate editor of Spacing, a writer and lecturer on urban art and city-living, it is actually part of his job to put himself â€œout thereâ€, so-to-speak. He gets an obvious return on publishing that kind of location information, because its his job to describe cities and environments in new ways. I think there are actually relatively few people like Shawn who could be tracked with the level of accuracy that means you don’t need to contact them before you’re actually standing there, shaking their hand (you could probably do it with someone like the blogger and photographer Christian Payne a.k.a. Documentally, who has a dedicated twitter feed for his van).
Nevertheless, there are obvious benefits for making this information more widely available. There is a certain safety in leaving a trail — A rescue team could follow your route if you get lost in the wilderness! Less melodramatic: You and your friends could retrace the route of a night-out, to relive good times, maybe, or to locate a missing purse dropped somewhere en route. Or, as Shawn has shown, there is a virtue in being able to lead someone on a tour around the cityâ€¦ even if it is unwitting!
What worries me is that I might have actually scared Shawn Micallef into changing his ways. He now says he will write more ambiguous messages, to avoid future stalkers. If so, then this would be a shame, and I apologise to all 1,109 of his followers for breaking the feed.
More likely, though, is that Shawn’s updates will continue when he is back in Toronto. If that’s the case, then all you Torontonians now know what to do: Stalk Shawn. Follow his tweets, and find him in the streets. If you catch him, he’ll buy you a beer, like some Twenty-first century leprechaun. I’ll be eagerly watching your progress via Twitter, back here in London, as you chase him through the mystical districts of a city I have yet to visit: Spadina, Gardiner, Coxwell, Osgoode, St Clairâ€¦