Will Your College Be Covered in Virtual Graffiti?

The latest social-media craze tags campus landmarks with labels and risqué comments, via cellphone

March 14, 2010

Dennis M. Kratz is a big booster of the University of Texas at Dallas's Emerging Media and Communication program here.

The arts-and-humanities dean might be surprised to find out that he is also one of the first targets of a tech craze running rampant among its students.

The fad is a free social-networking and mapping game for smartphones called Foursquare. One savvy prankster recently used it to leave some virtual graffiti on the spot of Mr. Kratz's office: Watch out for lame jokes!

Silly? Sure. But the gag is a crude sign of what's to come as colleges move into the Mobile Era. Sophisticated new phones can sense their locations, so people are starting to use them to create a new layer of content mapped to specific places on and around campus. These digital sticky notes can share everything from official tours to student mischief like the warning slapped on Mr. Kratz.

Universities are still figuring out how to deal with Facebook and Twitter and other interactive programs which, like much of what's called Web 2.0, are largely out of their control. Now they'll have to wrestle with the power and pitfalls of an even more in-your-face social-media tool.

"That basic idea of data being in a location is a core concept in the mobile Web," says Dean Terry, director of the emerging-media program. "That's the thing I think is going to knock academia sideways. They're not prepared for it at all. "

Since Foursquare's debut last year, students have diligently labeled, praised, and, in some cases, profaned college campuses. Take this note, easily Googled, that somebody calling himself Mock Redneck Jr. left at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte: "The library has Free Wi-Fi, Barely Legal girls and a warm place to drop a deuce."

Now imagine this nightmare scenario: A prospective student's mother goes on a college tour. She pulls out a phone. Her expression screams oh-my-gosh as she reads Mr. Redneck's note. Maybe she goes on to a dorm, and perhaps its residents have left other goodies online. The teacher they loathed. The room they smoked pot in. The couch they had sex on.

Here's how it works. Foursquare players see a list of nearby places. They can "check in" to any of them, and, if they want, have their arrival broadcast to "friends" on Foursquare and other networks like Facebook and Twitter. They can create new places and leave public "tips" about existing ones, like the "free Wi-Fi" at the Charlotte library. They earn "badges"—for example, "gym rat"—for checking in at various spots. If they check in at one spot often enough, the game crowns them "mayor."

As in, Wesley Chen is mayor of the Original California Taqueria.

"It's kind of like a passive-aggressive way of telling your friends where you are," says Mr. Chen, 21, a junior at New York University who has checked in some 460 times and holds the hizzoner title at eight different locations.

A Growing Trend

Foursquare is still a microtrend of the digerati, one that doesn't come close to the even-your-grandmother-is-on-it ubiquity of Facebook. But whether or not this particular company becomes the Next Big Thing, signs suggest that the basic technology behind the game—that ability to contextualize information to your location—will go mainstream.

Another smartphone application, Gowalla, has similar features. Twitter now lets users attach locations to their messages. So does Buzz, Google's foray into social networking. And Facebook will reveal a feature in April that may use your friends' locations as a new form of place-based status update, according to The New York Times.

As location tagging spreads among students, some universities are rushing to stake out "official" Foursquare and Gowalla presences, just as they did on other social networks. Trailblazers include Harvard University, birthplace of Facebook, which announced in January that it would become the first university to use Foursquare to help students explore its campus. Since then, hundreds of people have earned a special "Harvard Yard" badge by checking in at landmarks like the Harvard Lampoon's office and Widener Library.

At North Carolina State University, meanwhile, a new library service shows smartphone users historical pictures of campus buildings based on where users are standing, including a snapshot of the first freshman class, from 1890, when the agricultural college's hot mobile technology was horses. And at Webster University, Patrick J. Powers spent a couple of days plotting his suburban St. Louis campus on Foursquare and Gowalla, to ensure that sites were named correctly on those platforms.

"It's a lot easier to get ahead of the curve and to guide people into some of these technologies, as opposed to after the fact going back and trying to correct" their behavior, says the interactive-media manager.

The University of Texas at Dallas is taking a different approach. Lately the 16,000-student state university has become a laboratory for what happens when students and professors go wild with unofficial tagging.

The nerve center of the experiment is a low-slung, sand-colored building set on a suburban campus whose architectural style has been described as Brutalist.

Officially, this is the Arts and Technology Building. Most pedestrians don't see the dozens of names and messages that have been virtually plastered to the building since Mr. Terry assigned his mobile-technology class to use Foursquare, in an effort to get them thinking about place-specific information. The result, for anyone who bothers to look it up on their phones, is a digital record of the transient hallway chatter you find at all colleges, in all its seriousness and stupidity.

An adviser in the emerging-media program named her space "My Softly Lit Off-White Office." A student named David Parry's "After/Print" course, about the transition from print to digital, "The Death of the Book Class." Another named the Subway store in the student union "Tito's Pants." (Don't ask.)

Educational Relevance

Perhaps nobody has gotten more playful with this stuff than the program director himself. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Terry drove his gray BMW past an off-campus strip mall with an Office Depot and an out-of-business Kentucky Fried Chicken. He named this area "An Uncertain Place" on Foursquare, and checks in often enough to reign as mayor. He is also mayor of "An Unhappy Place," across the street. Which is next to "A Happy Place."

If you're scratching your head wondering what this has to do with education, here's Mr. Terry's answer: The technology will, he says, transform disciplines.

Professors in fields like history and archaeology could create place-based knowledge, he says. Better tools to do this are coming. This month at South by Southwest, a major annual event in Austin that showcases emerging technology, music, and film, Mr. Terry's students will present a smartphone application they have built, called Placethings, which lets you tie pictures, video, and audio to locations and map that multimedia trail into a narrative. So, for example, you might create a place-based tour about Dallas sites tied to the assassination of President Kennedy.

Others point out that the technology could have a dark side. Some see it as a boon for stalkers. The satirical Web site Please Rob Me points to another problem. By alerting the world that you just got to a party, you might also be alerting a burglar that you aren't home.

So is Harvard encouraging a dangerous pastime?

Perry Hewitt, digital-communications director at Harvard, says privacy is a serious issue. She also points out that similar sky-is-falling predictions were raised when the answering machine was introduced.

"It would be naïve to say that there are no risks associated with these behaviors," she says. "But it would be similarly naïve to say that until we can eradicate risk, we cannot participate."

Ultimately, another risk might be that colleges are simply wasting their time chasing students onto the latest social network. For instance, institutions spent time and money building virtual campuses in the computerized world of Second Life, yet critics say they are rarely visited. And to Mr. Chen, who runs in NYU's student-techie circles, Harvard's Foursquare move seems like "a publicity stunt."

"You're probably aiming for the wrong target audience," he says. "People are going to those buildings anyway. Why feed them information they don't care about?"

Gartner, a technology-research company, forecasts that by 2013 mobile phones will pass personal computers as the most common way people worldwide get access to the Internet. But the practice of cellphone users' tying content to place is so new that you can really believe only one prediction with much confidence. Which is this: As location tagging goes more mainstream in the next few years, today's efforts will look trivial.

BELOW: Students and professors have placed online tags throughout the U. of Texas at Dallas campus. The labels appear on users' cellphones when they get close to the location.