Anonymous UMD student's Instagram-based campus bathroom critiques offer dry-humored commentary
The perfect bathroom, according to a critical voice from the University of Minnesota Duluth, would be a hybrid that includes the lighting and tile-work used in the restroom at the Tweed Museum of Art and the full-coverage shower from the Glensheen master bedroom.
“It’s been, like, 100 or some years,” the UMD senior said in a recent phone interview, “and people still don’t have omni-directional showers.”
The dry-humored and anonymous voice behind the popular niche Instagram account UMD Bathroom Reviews celebrated the site’s one-year anniversary last week with a colorful cake served on Minecraft snack plates. A public service that started in mid-September 2019 with a few shots of a third-floor bathroom in the Labovitz School of Business — “slightly cold inside" — averages just more than a post a week in places on campus and off, but always with ties to the university and its students.
The News Tribune allows anonymous sources on a case-by-case basis. In this case, the critic’s anonymity is part of the draw of the content. She plans to reveal her identity — which some friends and friends of friends are privy to — near graduation.
“I talk too much smack on here to be real public,” she said. “I’ve said some pretty wild things about various programs at UMD and people at UMD.”
What she is willing to reveal: She is a senior and not a design major. She’s short, she said, just 5-foot-3. She wears glasses regularly and often wears Doc Martens. She’s into spreadsheets, restoring cast iron skillets and then cooking with them. She likes “Little Women,” Lorde, Paramore and Fleetwood Mac.
“Unmatched to this day,” she says of Stevie Nicks and company. “Truly alone in their field.”
Jane Pederson, marketing manager at Glensheen, suspects she is a former student worker but said that might just be a myth. The account's operator has at least twice referenced bathrooms at the Congdon mansion.
"I think it's an honor," Pederson said of the reviews. She also admires the feed as a professional who works with online content creation. "I think people are always looking for a fun and quirky outlet on social."
UMD Bathroom Reviews' operator is also the kind of person who might contact the university's Geospatial Analysis Center to find out how many bathrooms are on campus. Her findings, according to a bathroom census from September 2017: There are 87 women's bathrooms, 82 men's bathrooms and 42 undesignated.
UMD Bathroom Reviews first gained traction with its second post and the spot that inspired the investigation: the women’s bathroom in the Kirby Ballroom.
“It’s weirdly fancy,” she said. “Not fancy-fancy like the Ritz. It doesn’t really make any sense.”
Her photographs show a living room-like sitting space adjacent to a conventional public restroom: a reddish wall, a writing desk, two high-backed chairs and gold-framed art. The critique: “Looks like Queen Victoria’s coffin.”
She notices things like mismatched sinks, its cleanliness and inauthentic signage. Consider the commentary on a certain Brutalist bathroom near the campus newspaper's office: "The baby on the baby-changing table is kind of frightening since that's not what babies look like."
One of her standard measurements is the strength of its wifi signal.
"Sometimes you've got to just browse," she said, before revealing a campus secret. "There's a bathroom underneath the library. It has the worst reception of anywhere on campus. No wifi, no cell signal, nothing."
She enters bathrooms and immediately looks for eye-catching features and/or things that are broken. The sink and the lighting are important, she said, in addition to stall roominess and cleanliness. In one review, she remarks on over-sized door gap. She prefers the oddities of the old bathrooms on campus to the newer ones, which are nice but boring.
"What I love about UMD Bathroom Reviews is its perfect use of social media," said UMD journalism professor Jennifer Moore, adding that the topic is narrow and has a built-in audience. "I love that I don't know who it is."
When the campus closed last year to slow the spread of COVD-19, UMD Bathroom Reviews solicited images of the private bathrooms of its followers. One had a Jeff Goldblum's face on a shower curtain. There was another bathroom with a hole in the floor, to which its residents credited the plumber from Craigslist. In April, she saw a superlative. A carpeted bathroom in a basement with little leg room for the human sitting on the toilet.
"He was quarantining in his basement," she said. "It was truly the worst bathroom I've ever seen."
According to the student who altered her to the grim locale: "We do have a vanity light tho (sic)," the submitter said. "Wifi quality 4/4. For the love of god do not tag me."
This isn’t the first online account based on critical thinking about bathroom spaces. But she has inspired similar accounts. A high school friend started one at Harvard University , and she knows the creator of the one at Minnesota State-Mankato , she said.
"There is one in Dublin that has nothing to do with me," she said.
(Lest you wonder if there is a draw for toilet shots, the Instagram account Toilets With Threatening Auras has nearly 17,000 followers.)
As for the best on-campus bathroom, a go-to for a regular go, it's in the Labovitz School of Business and Economics, second or third floor.
"There's rarely anyone up there," she said. "Those are pretty nice bathrooms. Even though they have the problem of being identical, they're peaceful."