Alexandra Villarreal
March 16, 2015 6:06 am

Yik Yak, the college chat app, started as a way for students to anonymously swap information about campus life, but in recent weeks, it’s become central to the conversation about rampant sexism and racism in schools around the country.

Most recently, the Washington Post observed how University of Oklahoma students were using the app to discuss the deeply disturbing racist incident at a now disbanded frat on campus. Chats ranged from debating the actions of campus administrators to an account of a Black student bombarded by reporters. But the conversations were also peppered with moments of hostility and varying degrees of racial tension.

“Not all of the discussion is particularly sensitive or intelligent,” writes the Post’s Masuma Ahuja. “Given that, it’s surprising to see how real Yik Yak can get.”

With its millions of monthly users across an estimated 1,600 college campuses, the app provides a forum for campus announcements and inside jokes about student life. But Yik Yak has a back room, a den stocked with heartbreak and depression, but also racism, violent threats and sexual harassment. Its edgier side can foster both constructive dialogue and deeply damaging commentary. That’s the issue with anonymity — it can allow for connections that wouldn’t ordinarily be provided a venue, but it also can give bigotry, rage and ignorance a stage where consequences are slim to none.

The app’s founders, Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, told the New York Times that they wanted to create an environment “for the disenfranchised,” where participants are “not judged on your race or sexuality or gender.” Their concept is nothing new; JuicyCampus operated under a similar model from 2007-2009. In fact, since the worldwide web was invented as a forum for discourse, technology gurus have considered how to get users to share their opinions in the public sphere without fearing retribution.

While Yik Yak does have filters to identify offensive postings, those filters haven’t done enough to stop the racist commentary that appeared during Princeton’s protest of Eric Garner’s death, or the bigoted remarks made. at Penn State, Clemson University and other Yik Yak-enabled schools.

Because of its prevalence, the app is now a focal point for the press, which hasn’t taken to it kindly. In October, the Washington Post printed an article on why Yik Yak is “problematic,” and last Sunday the New York Times added to the conversation by highlighting some of the scandals surrounding the app.

Indeed, Yik Yak has been ground for foul play and now the question of what to do about it remains. Some have proposed bans on the app, which has inevitably sparked more degrading yakking. When Emory University’s sophomore representative, Maxwell Zoberman, proposed to shut down the app on campus after a spate of offensive posts, angry yakkers cyber-bullied Zoberman through hurtful, condescending comments.

“Almost immediately once the resolution banning Yik Yak from the university’s wi-fi was announced, there were a bevy of posts on Yik Yak attacking Max. The vast majority crossed a line; some called him a fascist,” Hobert Hunter, an Emory student and friend of Zoberman’s, told the New York Times.

“Hate speech has no place on a campus like Emory,” he continued. “That said, I have serious reservations about a campus censoring websites or applications. Although Yik Yak’s anonymous nature facilitates intolerant statements, I think the problem relies on users, not the technology itself. A better response would have been to ramp up programming on inclusion and tolerance in an attempt to get to the small minority of Yik Yak users who abuse the app.”

Hello Giggles contributor and Kenyon student, Kate Lindsay, has another idea. In her student newspaper, the Thrill, she called on students themselves to delete the app on their accord—after a yakker reportedly called for a “gang rape” on a women’s student center at her college.

“It’s your choice to use Yik Yak, and it’s your choice to delete it,” she writes. “Yaks are only fun to write if people read them. The app will only succeed if there’s an audience. Take that away, and it’s just three bigots talking to each other. I hope you won’t be one of them.”

Meanwhile, other students who’ve been subjected to bullying on Yik Yak are combatting the abuse by speaking out—without anonymity. Jordan Seaman, a Middlebury College student, who was subjected to a body-shaming and sexually-harassing comment on the app, wrote a powerful essay in her student paper calling out her abuser.

“To whoever “yakked” about me last spring, if you are reading this, I hope you know that contrary to that childhood rhyme, words CAN hurt me,” she writes. “And yours did. But I hope that coming forward — non-anonymously, for that matter — will inspire other social media users out there to rethink what they post.” 

While Yik Yak has proven volatile at colleges, its effect on younger teenagers has been even more concerning. At some high schools, yakking has been linked to violent threats against schools.

“We’re working on trying to find technical solutions to prevent app abuse by high schoolers, the blocks that we currently have in place aren’t working as well as we’d like them to,” Brooks Buffington, one of the app’s founders told TechCrunch. But he’s remains hopeful that with time, college communities will be mature enough to curb the hate-yaks.

“One thing that we have seen on the college front is that the longer a community is around the more mature and constructive it becomes,” he says. “So we think that lends to some promise for the anonymous or semi-anonymous app realm.”

When Yik Yak is used for its intended purposes, it’s actually pretty neat. One Pepperdine University student told the school paper, “I really like Yik Yak because it can bring the whole campus together when someone comes up with anything clever . . . or a general truth about the school.”.

It’s also being utilized for on-campus public safety, with some authorities monitoring posts to seek out potential hazards to students.

Obviously, Yik Yak has opened Pandora’s box. But it’s not the app’s fault that humanity has turned something good into something bad. Yik Yak could be employed to improve college dynamics. It does not contribute to prejudice; it gives prejudice a platform. The prejudice is already engrained in our culture, and that’s what needs to be addressed.

At universities, where we study doctrines that preach the importance of freedom of speech as well as self-realization and self-awareness, it seems like we should be able to both covet and responsibly utilize an app that is supposed to further our civil liberties thanks to technological development. Yes, we’re human, and there are always bad apples in humanity. Sometimes, those bad apples are surprisingly pervasive on anonymous forums because of systemic prejudices that influence our perceptions of others. But maybe if we all step back and think before we post, we can take care of the Yik Yak anonymity issue altogether. We’ve been given a tool; will we use it to attack others or support one another? Will we encourage bigotry and oppression or collectively eradicate it by speaking out to promote education and awareness? It’s our decision. We’re the problem and, hopefully, we can be the solution.

Images via , here, and here.

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