Stalking Shawn

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 fulfil a similar function.  Amid the constant bombardment of political messages, there is Shawn, always Shawn, with his relentless observations of Toronto psychogeography:

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, “I can almost trace his steps”, 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 to… 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 flâneur?  My own twitter updates are below: scroll through to relive the chase.

View Stalking Shawn in a larger map

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.

I knew from Shawn’s earlier tweets that he was hamstrung in his communications.  I had assumed that he was on some borrowed phone for the duration of his stay (that turned out not to be true), so I felt confident I could tweet with impunity.

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 the Old Street, I was both relieved and dismayed to find Shawn had updated his status again… from Hyde Park!  That was on the other side of London, so I stepped out of the crowd of young revellers, and descended back into the London Underground system.
Getting to Marble Arch was easy:  Central Line via Moorgate.  I have a fantastic iPhone application called Tube Pro which helps you optimise your route.  And another ten or fifteen minutes on the subway wasn’t so bad, because I am participating in the Infinite Summer reading group and needed to catch up.  Two birds, &ct…

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.

I reasoned that I would head to his last known location, and gamble on the hope that he would tweet again.  Buses pass through Oxford Street every minute, so I hopped on the first that passed by.  It took me to the North Eastern corner of Hyde Park, where it morphs into the slightly better tended Kensington Gardens.

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.
This down time gave me an opportunity to revisit Shawn’s earlier tweets.  Had he left a clue?  Indeed he had.

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.

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 “what would Shawn think” 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.

Shawn, stalked.
Shawn, stalked.

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 evening… 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.  It transpired that I had posted my initial tweet before blocking him, so he knew I might be on his tail.  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 “out there”, 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 city… 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 Clair…

13 Replies to “Stalking Shawn”

  1. No I was seriously surprised and shocked when you said “Shawn” behind me at the hotel bar. I saw one initial “stalkingshawn” post by you before you hid yourself from me, and I thought it meant “following vicariously thru twitter”.

  2. Also was not serious about no longer tweeting specific observations. Truth is, most of my tweets are about “now” but instantly become the past as I move on. So by the time they are tweeted, I’m not there anymore.

  3. A friend wrote a note about an upcoming trip to Africa. She was describing how she’d be blogging and tweeting during the trip and then wrote “For safety reasons…” — I automatically assumed it would be some comment about hiding her exact location to deter stalkers.
    But instead, she continued with “I’ll be updating my facebook and twitter statuses with my exactly whereabouts (in case something should happen to me)”
    I think we’re coming around.

  4. You could play with several buddies all after Shawn. Reminds
    me of the board game Scotland Yard… trying to catch Mr X.
    Looking forward to playing on his return to Toronto.

  5. Really enjoyed this and after reading it thoroughly, was pleased that the whole escapade was not as bizarre as I had first envisaged.
    Pleased that it did not unsettle your comrade from Canada.
    Have to admit that in the past have often wondered where people are coming from and going to and have had a similar urge just to follow them but dismissed it as being weird!
    Have a cousin in Toronto, so watch out Shawn, it may be in the genes!

  6. brilliant article!
    the way we can find out info about others has increased exponentially over the past few years!
    I’m sure most of us can remember when you phoned a pal and his mum said he was out, that was pretty much it. they were out of reach. unless you jumped on your bike and checked out a few hot spots.
    but now, you can get so much info on the whereabouts of your friends/ family.
    wreaks havok on fledging relationships –
    I thought you said you were just staying in last night
    I was
    but your mates facebook update said “Having drinks with Sarah” and I see that John was there too.
    I only popped out for one
    and John is so in the past
    ok so why is he commenting on all your pictures?
    but twitter certainly does give the opportunity to jump peopel when they least expect it 😉

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