Let me take this opportunity to admit the truth: I’m on Yik Yak often. I check the application in between classes. I read the feeds as a distraction during study breaks. I even write the occasional “where do I find this thing on campus” post. Yik Yak, for anyone unfamiliar, is an application for smartphones which allows people to write anonymous posts that can be viewed within a two-mile radius.
The two-year-old application, a fixture at many universities, has recently become a source of controversy. For instance, Eastern Michigan University had a scandal involving a post which referred to a professor in derogatory ways. The University of Mary Washington found Yaks which threatened female students with abuse and death. American University had a slew of racist Yaks against African Americans on campus. Growing concern prompted over seventy women’s and civil right’s groups to send a letter to the U.S. Department of Education, requesting that the organization remind institutions of their duty to confront minority discrimination. According to the missive, all schools have an obligation to manage all forms of online harassment because of federal civil rights laws.
The question of whether the application itself is to blame for these attacks has become the source of much debate. Rebecca Schuman argues in “It’s Not About Yik Yak”, an Op-Ed published by Slate, that the prevalence of Yik Yak based bullying on college campuses is not due to the platform itself, but rather its users, who are “recalcitrant, confrontational college freshmen.” Her assertions are centered on the idea that the user demographic is mostly new students “lacking in some basic life and social skills, and prone to acting out,” and that the root cause of the issue is that a college education has been forced upon to many unwilling young adults.
In many ways, Schuman’s hypothesis is correct: Yik Yak does not cause bullying. People do. While I would not agree that the problem is rooted in the current state of American education, as she notes, I do believe that cyberbullying on the platform has little to do with the application itself. The anonymity does enable people to make hateful or offensive posts, but the burden is on us as users to ensure that this negativity does not overwhelm the feed. We cannot rely on outside officials to maintain order on the forum, nor can we expect that the application’s owners will designate standards for us.
Others have called for Yik Yak to be banned on college campuses. Yet, deleting the application will not delete the problem. Students will simply find, or create, a new platform to share their sentiments. Though there are many negative aspects, there are also a number of benefits.
To begin with, Yik Yak also provides a valuable forum for students to discuss real issues, engage with a wider audience, stay connected and offer support. Yik Yak Campus Representative Isobel Rounovski ’19, whose job is to “promote the brand on campus and… get more people to join the Wellesley College herd,” noted that Yik Yak creates “an intimate and relatable setting.” She stated that she feels more connected to this campus as a result. Across the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and Canada, there are hundreds of campus representatives who are selected to execute “marketing campaigns increase engagement and awareness,” according to the Yik Yak jobs site. Rounovski was selected for the position after applying online and then completing an interview.
Students have also used the application to circulate security concerns. A post from Sept. 19 informed users that an Uber driver in the area was harassing the young women that he was transporting. Comments elaborated further, supplying the license plate number, description, and an update that the car had been reported to the police. Such Yaks disseminate information through the community quickly.
Furthermore, Yik Yak enables users to share private information anonymously and find support in their Wellesley siblings, uniting our student body. A recent post included one person’s fear of not being able to graduate on time due to a recent diagnosis of cancer. Commenters poured out statements of support, and some volunteered their time and assistance. In such moments, it is remarkable and reassuring to know that the Wellesley community is so united in alleviating another’s worries.
We might even find Yik Yak useful for sparking campus wide discussion, since the anonymity “facilitates discussion,” according to Rounovski. Many students request advice regarding personal issues on the application, including those related to mental health or sexuality. Although they are uncomfortable sharing such information publicly, the application still allows them to receive help. Perhaps we should explore the possibility of starting threads to uncover the candid thoughts of our Wellesley siblings.
In general, anonymity presents a set of unusual issues. Without identities tied to posts, users have the potential to express offensive comments to a large audience. This cyberbullying is not the fault of the application’s features, but our own immaturity. We should strive to be better than the tasteless harassment that is enabled by this app’s anonymity.
As a confused first year, I have used the application to grow more accustomed to student life, to find events and places on campus and even to make the occasional witty comment. Surprisingly, Yik Yak has played a huge role in my adjustment to college, from making me feel more connected with the general student body to teaching me about the uniquely liberal atmosphere of Wellesley. Yik Yak provides us with a valuable forum for communication and a platform to discuss honest problems.