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The Problem With Yik Yak

Kali Rundle and Katie Stout, Penn State sophomores, lounge in their living room on a Sunday afternoon. Rundle is staring at her phone and Stout at her laptop. “Yo, Katie,” Rundle says, “Listen to this: ‘A level desk in Forum is worth its weight in gold.’”

“So true,” Stout responds. “Was that on Yik Yak?”

“Where else would it be?” Rundle replies.

The mint green application is relatively straightforward: It features a page filled with 200 character maximum, anonymous posts. What appears on the feed is not filtered by user or administrator, but rather is determined by a Yik Yak user’s geography. Anyone “yakking” within a 1.5-mile radius will appear on a feed without the presence of a profile. Developed by Furman University graduates Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, the anonymous app works as a “local bulletin board.” The duo noted the only popular Twitter accounts on their campus were run by student athletes. They wanted to create a more democratic version of Twitter.

The popularity of a Yik Yak post is determined not through favorites and retweets, but upvotes and downvotes. Much like Reddit, a Yak can collect “yakarma” when other users upvote it. Most of the Yaks displayed on the feed are student complaints, topical one-liners, or posts with graphic and sexually explicit language. A successful Yak, accompanied with 26 upvotes, reads, “Do you think when a branch campus professor transfers to teach at main that all the other professors at main say ‘ew that guy came from a branch campus.’” A less successful Yak, with only 2 upvotes, says “this air blowing in the dorms is making it freezing.”

Yik Yak has become the anonymous social messaging application of choice for State College residents. Students are active on Greekrank, an anonymous messaging board that ranks the school’s sororities and fraternities, and Whisper, an anonymous phone application that features messages superimposed over an image. The university once had a page dedicated to it on Collegiate ACB, a now defunct anonymous messaging board targeted to individual campuses. However, Yik Yak’s universal popularity far surpasses any of its predecessors.

In an anonymous survey of 100 Penn State students, 73 percent of undergraduates reported use of the application. Some reported checking it as often as eight times a day. In the same survey, Yik Yak users cited their reason for using the application. One student wanted to “stay up to date with current events going on around campus.” Another used the application “because sometimes it has funny stuff on it.”  One sophomore even cited that he used the application to “hook up with girls sometimes.”

“When I’m drunk I post to Yik Yak about all the funny stuff that happens while drunk, and when sober I make fun of all the people who are drunk,” writes one sophomore, in his anonymous survey. An anonymous junior posts “to get something off [her] chest.”

***

In between the dozens of expressions of sexual angst and harmless jokes, however, there are posts written by students who abuse the opportunity for perceived anonymity. Just a few scrolls in and a Penn State Yik Yak post reads “If my daughter ever comes home smashed im giving her the belt and groping her tits,” or the occasionally racist “I don’t see how Asians can spend all of class on their laptops, then still get an A in every class.” Users are encouraged to police the application, and downvote offensive posts. If a Yak receives enough downvotes, the post disappears.

University and high school officials from across the nation have communicated their frustration with the application and students’ willingness to cyberbully or use hate speech on the platform.

In October of last year, a Penn State student posted to Yik Yak: “I am going to kill everyone in penn state main on monday. i got 5 beta mags of ar 15 and shoot everyone in the hub at 12:00. this is a warning.” Yik Yak users reported the threat to the police the following morning, and by the end of the day, State College Police had a 20-year-old student in custody.

Centre County District Attorney, Stacy Parks Miller, spoke with the Centre Daily Times after the student was charged. “Threats to do violence are not a joke,” Parks Miller said. “Authorities take such threats seriously until carefully analyzed and discounted. This behavior wastes resources and cause unjustified fear”

“I am mystified as to how this has become nonchalant behavior or is mistaken for a joke,” Parks Miller continued. “People need to think before they act.”

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers also spoke to the publication. “I can speak in general terms and say that crimes of this nature are taken very seriously and the well-being and safety of the entire campus will be considered in any decision that is made,” she stated.

Penn State is one of a dozen universities that has experienced threats to “bomb” or “shoot” through Yik Yak. Akin to their response to universities in similar situations, Yik Yak officials complied with the State College authorities and provided the appropriate information to locate the student who wrote the Yak.

Droll and Buffington recognize how susceptible younger demographics are to anonymous social media, and in the early stages of the application’s development the duo took various precautions. They initially added a 17-plus rating on the App Store, so parents could block it on their kids’ phones. This wasn’t enough to thwart teens though.

The application eventually turned to geo-fencing. The GPS-enabled technology establishes virtual fences around middle schools and high schools. When a student enters school grounds, the application is inoperable. Yik Yak is intended for people college-aged and above, “but we quickly realized it was getting into the hands of high schoolers, and high schoolers were not mature enough to use it,” Droll said to the New York Times.

It has been proven time and time again that high schoolers are not “mature enough,” to utilize anonymous media; anonymous question-and-answer-based social media websites like Formspring or Ask.fm have led to countless teen suicides. Consequences are not as drastic when the opportunity for anonymity falls in the laps of college students — but things don’t look good.

In early December of last year, student misuse of social media was so apparent that Vice President and Provost Nick Jones, and Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims sent an e-mail to the Penn State community voicing their “dismay and frustration at the language used in postings to social media.” While they never directly named Yik Yak, it is fair to assume it was considered.

***

Earlier that month, a group of primarily black students staged a series of “die-ins” hosted at the HUB, the steps of Old Main, and the Paterno Library, to protest various acts of police-brutality across the United States toward black citizens. Initially, the demonstrations protested the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, a black high school graduate in Ferguson, Mo. Later that same week, the movement continued to protest the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who killed a black citizen, Eric Garner, for selling loose cigarettes in New York City.

The “language used in postings to social media” refers to student’s response to the protests as seen on Yik Yak, Twitter, and Facebook. Many community members conveyed their opposition to the students’ decisions to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Accompanied with seven upvotes, a user posts to Yik Yak, “Black people butthurt over the stereotype they cause… Again. I’m gonna step on every one of your fat lipped faces if you don’t get the fuck out of the way, and off the ground.”

Another Yik Yak user receives four upvotes for the post, “Someone should have pooped on all of the ‘protesters.’” A different user responds to the original poster; with eight upvotes it reads: “God already did.”

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Someone else titles a Yak, “Your Own Fault.” With five upvotes, the post follows up with, “This is why black people are uneducated. They protest instead of going to class.”

The conversation was equally hostile on Twitter. Onward State posted a photo of the HUB protest to our Twitter account with the caption “A large group of students with ‘Black Lives Matter’ taped to their mouths are occupying the 1st floor HUB.”

Penn State student and twitter user @thehaus_, responds: “Die. All of U.”

Carlos Wiley, director of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, emphasized how the racist remarks on Yik Yak negatively effects students of color on campus. “As a student of color on a predominately white campus, I just participated in a die-in,” Wiley described. “’Who was writing what on Yik Yak? And could it be the person I’m sitting next to? And that questioning creates an unsafe feeling for students of color, even if they weren’t a participant of the die-ins,” says Wiley.

“Considering the demographic of Centre County, I’m honestly not surprised,” said Jada Hill, president of Penn State’s Black Caucus. “But it’s surprising how bold people can be when you give them the opportunity to be bold. But those are comments they keep to themselves because they are not going to say it when I’m next to them. Will you say it to my face? Probably not.”

So what causes people to be so vile on Yik Yak? The anonymous nature of the application leaves users feeling that there are no consequences to their words. “It allows you to talk about certain topics you can’t talk about on Facebook,” Buffington said to The Chronicle of Higher Education. “This is a more open discussion.”

Yik Yak is only one of hundreds of applications that are attempting to create an anonymous, “open discussion,” but most applications do not host such aggressive or hateful comments at the same rate as Yik Yak. Various social media websites have created anonymous, virtual environments that are conducive for intelligent and constructive conversations. Websites like Reddit and Quora host discussion boards on various topics from biology to pop culture. But before a user can engage in the discussion, they have to create an account.

Most Quora users even link their account to their Facebook, holding them accountable for all of their comments, even though remaining anonymous is an option. On Reddit, users remain anonymous, but they have user-names and a public history of comments and posts, creating some degree of a virtual identity. While this does not prevent users from participating in hate speech, it does serve as a social tool to limit it, at least in some capacity.

In order to write on Yik Yak, all a person needs is a smartphone and a wireless connection. The throwaway nature of the posting is part of the appeal. The posts are not some extension to a user’s identity, or even a virtual identity at that. Anyone can unleash their inner racist, misogynist, or homophobe, and upvote, downvote, and comment accordingly. Posting to Yik Yak is like throwing a grenade at someone from a mile away: By the time it explodes, the perpetrator is long gone and blind to the damage. When it gets to the point of violent threat, the user can be found through their carrier information. However, policing of hate speech is basically done purely on a community level.

“Anonymous forum, whether ones that are localized like this, or even comment sections, provides a forum for people who are essentially mean psychopaths to activate that part of themselves. It legitimizes it,” said Penn State media studies professor Matthew Jordan.

“When people theorize and talk about local community, they often talk about belongingness,” Jordan continued. “You feel invested in the space and community, so you want there not to be dog crap in the lawn or you want it to be nice because you’re invested in it.”

Perhaps the localized aspect of Yik Yak might serve as incentive for a user to censor their hate speech. Things are not that simple when you venture into a virtual world. “[Yik Yak] isn’t tied to space,” said Jordan.

Regardless of what motivates students to practice hate speech on Yik Yak, there is little stopping them from doing so. The only action taken by Penn State administration is the letter from Nick Jones and Damon Sims, which did not identify Yik Yak, or any social media platform, as the application being abused.

***

There are no clauses in the Penn State Code of Conduct or Student Handbook that mention online hate speech. Even when it comes to face-to-face hate speech, “It’s very rare that we ever catch an individual or can identify an individual,” Wiley said. “People of color don’t always report all the micro-aggressions they experience on campus.”

Unfortunately, the disturbing posts written on Yik Yak are not limited to hate speech. Last weekend, one student took to the application and wrote in a lengthy post “I was raped,” and asked for emotional support from Yik Yak users. Dozens responded to the post to offer consolation. A few users even offered their phone numbers, “You can call me,” one user writes.

The original poster continuously updated the Yik Yak thread, providing a location of the alleged attack and description of the alleged rapist.

“I’m calling BS on this whole yak,” a less supportive comment reads. A few Yakkers even turn into amateur detectives. One user writes out a timeline of all of the original posters comments, implying the alleged rape victim’s comments were posted in a too small of time frame to have actually happened. “Seems pretty quick, don’t you think?” they post.

Some Yik Yak users continue to support the alleged victim despite the efforts to prove the Yak a hoax. One user writes, “This could be fake this could not be fake honestly wtf does it matter if you could be helping someone in dire need – maybe I look like a sucker but idgaf.”

 

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State College Police visited the site of the alleged rape within an hour of the Yik Yak post and saw no signs of activity. Authorities made no effort to identify the original poster, under the assumption the poster was a victim of rape or a Yik Yak prankster.

Numerous universities have responded to the presence of the application on their campus. Emory University’s student government passed a resolution denouncing the app as “a platform for hate speech or harassment,” and Norwich University and Utica College blocked the application from their computer networks.

While Penn State Administration remains indifferent to Yik Yak, some students on campus have vowed to use the app for good. In early April, a group of anonymous feminists gathered in Willard to host YAK OUT, where they filled the Yak feed with feminist perspectives.

“We really thought we needed to change the conversation of Yik Yak and make our presence known, like ‘this is not okay,’” the anonymous organizer said.

 

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For two hours, the group posted hundreds of Yaks that read “Stand in solidarity with victims of sexual assault and rape #PSUfem,” or “1 in every 4 women will experience sexual assault on a college campus.”

During the course of the event, a Yik Yak user not affiliated with YAK OUT posted this:

 

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With the group’s support, a YAK OUT participant read the Yak over the phone to a Police Officer and expressed her concern. The Police Department said nothing could be done to resolve the conflict because the application is anonymous. Though they did call back within the hour to make sure the individual who called was okay.

After the call, a few group members did some internet research and found a Penn State News article released a few weeks earlier about the application. In the article, Tyrone Parham, University Police Chief, advised Yik Yak users to take screenshots of alarming Yaks and to call the police.

A participant read the article, and compared Parham’s message to her interaction with the police 10 minutes earlier. “Nothing permits them to do anything about this,” she said.

With the appropriate information from Yik Yak, the local police departments do have the power to identify posters. Local authorities arrested the student who threatened to shoot students at the HUB last October in under 48 hours.

Parks Miller, the Centre County District Attorney, did say “authorities take such threats seriously until carefully analyzed and discounted.” University spokeswoman Lisa Powers stated that “the well-being and safety of the entire campus will be considered in any decision that is made.”

Authorities, understandably, do not have the resources to track down the poster of every potentially dangerous post, but they have set the bar pretty high. Students are using the application to incriminate themselves after committing violent acts, or for support in the wake of an assault. What responsibility do authorities have to follow up? Even if the alleged rape victim and the self-incriminated assailant were pranking other Yik Yak users, what can law enforcement realistically do?

***

For the last 20 minutes of YAK OUT, participants flooded the Yak feed with the same post over and over again. Titled, “Got consent?” the yak reads “End rape culture.” Anyone trying to use the application during this 20 minutes had to scroll multiple times before reading anything else. This effort is not the first of its kind. Students and faculty at Colgate University have also attempted to fill Yik Yak with positive posts.

“It’s true that media teaches us the way in which to use it,” Jordan said. “When you see other people being mean, the feedback loop conditions them to think it’s acceptable behavior on this type of forum.” In other words, when users read hateful Yaks, it encourages them to do the same. By that logic, those who incorporate more positive posts into the feed might prompt others to do so as well.

The anonymity of Yik Yak makes it impossible to know if YAK OUT influenced others to adopt feminist ideologies, or censored user’s hate speech on the application.

One YAK OUT anonymous participant felt it did not. “This was depressing, it’s not encouraging at all,” she said. An hour after flooding Yik Yak, most of the feminist Yaks were deleted from the feed after receiving too many downvotes. Some Yaks on the feed made fun of the group’s effort, calling the feminist posters “feminazis,” or worse.

“I like social media,” the participant said. “But I also think we need to do stuff on campus that’s physical.”

Social media has been used as a device to aid the progression of social movements. Dr. Jordan cited how the Arab Spring in 2013 was made possible by Facebook. But social media is not the only way to spread awareness about racism, or misogyny, or hate speech in general.

“What really matters is people coming together in space. That’s how these movements really work,” Jordan said. “People coming and gathering together. And anonymous media seems like a tool to combat that, combat the solidarity and community building that goes on with social movements where people actually march, and do things like the die-ins.”

The YAK OUT members put away their phones and left the Willard building. “This was important, tonight,” one participant stated. “But it can’t be the end.” Yik Yak’s popularity does not seem likely to wane any time soon, but perhaps there is a chance for change in its usage pattern.

At the present, a mixed bag of somewhat obvious humor and vile behavior makes the app less than palatable at best, and dangerous at worst. Penn State is better than its local Yik Yak feed would have you believe. Perhaps it’s time to start acting like it.

About the Author

Claire Marchon

Contributor for Onward State, from the San Fransisco, Bay Area. I am probably the biggest Simon & Garfunkel fan you've ever met; I might also be the only Simon & Garfunkel fan under 50 you've ever met. Either way I think it is very important you know I love Simon & Garfunkel.

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