In the past few years, the app Yik Yak has taken over as an anonymous platform to post tweet-like messages about things going on around campus, and become hugely popular here at Wellesley. More recently, a new app emerged that restricts access to confirmed students of the college: Sidechat. Sidechat recently acquired Yik Yak, and has been shutting down the Yik Yak app for some users to force them to move to Sidechat. At Wellesley, for iPhone users who wanted to continue posting anonymously, the switch was automatic.
The primary suspicion surrounding Sidechat is due to concerns of privacy. On Yik Yak, students could realistically post whatever they wanted, regardless of the content, with little concern about consequences. For some, this was an outlet to rant or post something funny. For others, it was a way to cyberbully and post explicit and illegal material. Regardless of what students posted, there was never the risk of being identified by college administrators, dealing with social consequences from friends or breaking Wellesley’s Honor Code because there was no way for them to be traced through the app. Yik Yak’s policy was to “store a User ID, which is a randomized string of digits, based on their device’s ID, and used to identify their posts. It does not store, or share, your email address or phone number.”
Sidechat’s sign-up policy brought this anonymity and perceived security to an end. Although Sidechat claims only to use student emails to insure that the user is indeed a student, many expressed concern about the possibility of administration being able to use their email to find their posts. Sidechat additionally refuses to respond to most media’s requests for comment, and appears to avoid answering many questions about the app’s goals, background and direction. Many sibs on campus who previously used Yik Yak have opted not to use Sidechat as a result of these security concerns.
The reason these anonymous posting apps gain so much traction here is likely because some Wellesley students feel like they aren’t part of a space where they can truly say what they want, regardless of whether or not it is virtual. If this is the case, this theory reveals the presence of a social hole at Wellesley. According to MIT Professor Sherry Turkle in her book, “Alone Together,” the presence of devices provides us with “space for the emergence of a new state of the self, split between the screen and the physical real.” For Wellesley students, the “physical real” counterpart to Sidechat doesn’t exist when analyzing the content that is produced. Sidechat’s anonymity allows students to say things they feel would otherwise cause them backlash or an Honor Code violation. As a result of the vague wording of the Honor Code, students are unsure what things they can freely say without incurring a violation.
Perhaps more significant than the threat of college administration and the Honor Code is the fact that students on campus often harshly judge each other’s opinions. The blatant honesty that Sidechat allows can’t happen around campus when the threat of social ostracism looms over us and our ability to speak freely. Wellesley students, as many of you may know, have very strong opinions. When someone disagrees or has differing points of view, there is always the chance that this person will be subject to doxxing, exclusion or mistreatment. Many times, hot gossip around campus without anonymity places a sibling or group of sibs as the subject of social ridicule, either online or by word of mouth. Wellesley students that subscribe to anonymity-seeking apps seem to be their most authentic selves when there is no threat to them or their social position, making Sidechat one of the only options for genuine conversation. For Wellesley’s students on Sidechat, it seems that the right to anonymity matters more than the content being produced because of it.
In a way, the social hole that Wellesley’s campus contains could be solved by bolstering student-run co-ops and other student-run activities, just as the strengthening of these clubs has made up for the social hole that resulted from COVID-19. As much as Sidechat provides some sort of relief, the issue of privacy negotiations, user agreements and cyberbullying complicates the issue. Anonymous messaging isn’t the answer to the lack of communication that exists within our community. Our campus needs to work to build a healthier community that benefits from the contributions of all members, and doesn’t shame those who bring their opinions to light.