It never hurts to remind yourself to think before you speak. And in the case of the 21st century, it’s equally important to think before you post on social media. Yik Yak, in particular, adds a whole new layer to social media responsibility, where self-monitoring becomes even more crucial. Through the anonymity provided by Yik Yak, posters to the app have more freedom to say what they want.
Launched in 2013, Yik Yak is an app for iPhones and Androids primarily aimed at and used by college students. Users can see, comment and like or dislike any posts on the app (known as “Yaks”) that are within a 10 mile radius of the user’s location. The intent is for students to see Yaks in relation to their respective college. While this app can provide a space for comedy and solidarity with other students who took the same test or who also sat in their room alone on Valentine’s Day, there’s a darker side to these anonymous posts.
During the 21st century, society faces a unique problem, where social networking and media apps can inflict significant harm, even if they mean well. Before I go further, I want to stress that my point is not to judge Yakkers. This is not intended to be a rant about the horrors of social media. In fact, many times Yaks have made me laugh when I’ve had a bad day, or there has been a Yak that resonated with me. After the earthquake in Nepal this year, Yik Yak spread the word about how to help aid recovery, so apps like these even promote good causes. As revered an app as it is, we cannot ignore the flaws and continue to use it as a place where we don’t have to monitor our thoughts, because our words really do make an impact on those around us.
On the one hand, there are funny comments on Yik Yak that many people can identify with: “When the elevator’s empty and there’s no one to judge me for using it to go up one floor.” When something happens on campus, many people take to Yik Yak to joke about it. During the night of the four consecutive fire alarms in East Quad, the stream of Yaks was endless. One said, “If someone is trying to discretely smoke weed in their room at East Quad, please stop trying because it’s obviously not working.” Others said things like “EQ: 4 RESIDENTS: 0.” And in large part, Yak streams are funny in these ways.
That being said, given the complete anonymity that the app allows, there’s a less than positive side to this social media phenomenon. Scrolling through posts, I have seen sexist, racist and hurtful comments. Comments, such as “girls are way hotter at the gym,” — a Yak posted at the University of Michigan — objectify women, placing the focus, yet again, on the value of women in their outward appearances. Students take to Yik Yak to rail on their roommates, annoying people in the UgLi or someone they overhear saying something they think is stupid, perpetuating a culture of passive-aggressiveness and putdowns. Not to mention, many of these students who end up on Yik Yak likely use the app and would be hurt by these comments.
Yik Yak has also been used to bully people. In March 2014, a 17-year-old girl organized a campaign and a petition at her high school after Yaks about her depression appeared on the site. Taking to Yik Yak to speak about someone’s mental illness in this way is bullying and completely unacceptable.
Then, in October 2014, through Yik Yak, students at Rowan University spread the word about an illegal sex tape that had been filmed without the subject’s consent. Misogynistic and homophobic comments have also spread throughout Yik Yak in colleges, such as Colgate College and University of Texas, among many others. A professor at Eastern Michigan University was ready to take legal action, after students in her class posted sexually explicit things about her on Yik Yak. Recently, there was a Yak that proposed a gang rape at Kenyon College’s women’s center. At the University, one Yakker posted, “Why wouldn’t I be pro gay marriage? They leave more women for me to fuck. Supply and demand baby.” These are just a few examples of the problematic posts that are becoming increasingly evident.
Given the problems Yik Yak brings up, changes must be made to ensure that this app holds users more accountable. Although the creators of Yik Yak have taken commendable measures to ensure that the content on Yik Yak is appropriate, there are significant gaps, and measures could be taken a step further. Unless there is a “specific, actionable threat,” Yik Yak holds fast to user anonymity. Thus, holding users accountable for non-actionable threats that may otherwise slip under the radar is important. For example, reworking the report tool so that when someone reports a post, the Yak disappears until it is reviewed would help. Currently, there is a warning when certain words such as “Jewish” and “bomb” are inserted into a Yak, and that warning should be extended to other words and phrases. Automatically banning users who post multiple Yaks that break the rules could also help mitigate the problem. If someone’s Yak is taken down because it broke the rules, that Yakker should be notified. Providing posters with an understanding of why their post was taken down allows them to think about what they post and may inform them next time. Finally, and most importantly, users need to act. If we cannot create a better environment around Yik Yak, these systematic changes won’t do much difference. We have to ask ourselves: would I be comfortable posting this if it weren’t anonymous, or would it offend or hurt someone? Yik Yak shouldn’t become a place to put down racist, sexist, bullying or otherwise hurtful comments.
Think before you post.