The Google Maps listing for Effingham County High School in Springfield, Georgia, has some relevant information, like the main office phone number and the link to the school website. But the photo gallery section is a little off-topic. Instead of showing photos of the school, which Google Maps would normally display, there are nonsensical photos, like the Nintendo character Kirby drawn with legs and feet, a Joker meme, a Sad Kermit meme, a Minecraft screenshot, and erotic fan art showing characters from the education website BrainPop.
People searching for Effingham County High School will find zero photos of the high school’s exterior. However, they’ll be able to glimpse the school’s interior life.
Effingham County High School isn’t alone. Teens have bombarded hundreds of listings for their middle and high schools in all 50 states with memes, cursed images, random photos, and edgy content that generally isn’t supposed to be included in a photo gallery for a location on Google Maps.
“I honestly don’t remember what I was thinking and why I decided to do it,” Cooper Vandenhaak, a sophomore at West Linn High School who uploaded this picture of potatoes to his high school’s Google Maps listing, told BuzzFeed News. “I was probably just bored in class with a friend.”
“You would get a face full of ALF”
Anyone with a Google account can upload a photo to Google Maps just by opening Google Maps, choosing a location, and selecting the "Add a Photo” option. Google hopes that users will upload information to help people navigate their worlds “faster and easier.” But artists and teens alike have discovered that Google Maps is an opportunity to share funny content in an unexpected context.
Students uploading photos like the “Uh Oh Stinky” monkey, SpongeBob memes, “Comrade Doggo,” or a picture of bread on a skateboard often use Google accounts associated with fake names like “Jake McQueef,” “Juul Is cuul,” “「potato man」,” and “7ate9.”
But some young people aren’t afraid to use Google accounts linked to their real names. Elijah Imai, a senior at Heritage High School in Washington, uploaded a picture of a Wild Cherry Capri Sun pouch to his high school’s Google Maps page using his real name.
“I just had a creative idea and I was drinking a Capri Sun so I put a picture of a Capri Sun on it,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Zavier Henderson used his real name to upload a picture of television puppet star ALF to the Google Maps photo gallery of Northfield Middle & High School in Vermont. Henderson was a student at Randolph Union High, but he decided to upload a photo of ALF to several schools in his area because he thought it was funny.
“I chose ALF because it’s not a popular meme, but to someone who doesn’t know who ALF is, it could be confusing, strange, and scary even,” Henderson told BuzzFeed News. “For a glorious week, about six schools had one of the various ALF photos as their main profile photo. So if you googled any of these schools you would get a face full of ALF.”
Although most of the pictures were removed, an ALF photo remains in the Google Maps gallery for Northfield Middle & High School.
“Out of all the things I would be chatting to a BuzzFeed writer about,” Henderson said.
Moderating the world’s biggest map
Not all the uploaded content is playful. Hateful and offensive content sometimes appears on listings for middle and high schools on Google Maps. One listing had a video of Power Rangers giving the Nazi salute in front of a swastika. Google removed the video after it was brought to the company’s attention.
Another listing showed an ableist screenshot from 4chan, a site that hosts hateful and extremist content. Some listings show images containing the n-word.
Google Maps is monumentally large, receiving “more than 20 million user contributions a day,” according to a spokesperson. Ensuring that these listings contain only true information at all times is a huge task.
A Google Maps support page says that all user-contributed photos have to be “relevant.” Relevant photos, according to Google, are taken at the location in question and don’t include stock photos or photos taken by someone other than the person uploading it. For example, Google wants pictures of Mount Rushmore on its listing for Mount Rushmore. Google encourages users to flag inappropriate content like this so that the company can remove it.
“Deliberately fake content, copied or stolen photos, off-topic reviews, defamatory language, personal attacks, and unnecessary or incorrect content are all in violation of our policy,” the support page says. “If you see this behavior, please report it."
Google uses machine learning to review all photos before they go public and has a team of people who conduct additional reviews. The spokesperson said that “the vast majority” of photos are “accurate and helpful.” But some photos inevitably slip through the cracks.
“We continually work to identify and remove content that violates our policies, and encourage people to flag any such content so we can review and take action,” said the Google spokesperson. “Users who repeatedly violate our policies may be prevented from making further contributions to Google Maps.”
“I don’t want this strange-looking guy"
Steven Schidrich, principal of Hilton Head Island High School in South Carolina, said that he didn’t know that his high school had a Google Maps gallery. When asked about the photos in the gallery — which included a screenshot of a local news story about a man who tried to "trade kidnapped baby for 15 Big Macs," the single art for the Yvng Swag song "Hit My Phone," and a screenshot from a Filthy Frank video called “FRANCIS OF THE FILTH” — he told BuzzFeed News that he was “a little disturbed.”
“I would definitely have them taken down,” Schidrich said, scrolling through the gallery. “I see a volleyball game, and then I see another volleyball game — but the ‘Hit My Phone,’ and that comedian, and that McDonald’s thing?”
“When I became principal, I didn’t think this was gonna be something that I was gonna be dealing with,” Schidrich said.
Schidrich, who became principal of Hilton Head Island High School in August, said he’d encourage people to put up pictures of events at the high school, like pep rallies or football games.
“I don’t want this strange-looking guy,” Schidrich said, referring to YouTuber Filthy Frank.
But while administrators may want Google Maps to project a polished version of their schools, students see the mapping platform as a chance to express themselves, ALF or Filthy Frank included.
“I love doing something that I find funny that others may just be confused by, especially if I am incognito, or the act is anonymous in some fashion,” Henderson said. “I just do what I find funny to enjoy myself, and sometimes they turn into big stories that connect me with people who [I] wouldn’t have to talk to otherwise.”