I was in San Francisco last weekend when a friend remarked, “There’s a sense of anonymity, living in a city, that’s so nice.”
And it is nice. Asking the employee wearing yogic attire and a smug smile how to pot a succulent in a flower shop that resembles the stage of a Portlandia sketch. Chowing down on a Chipotle burrito bowl in a D.C. subway car before learning via sideways glares that eating is not permitted underground. Belting out Beyoncé while driving only to stop at a red light that becomes an unwanted stage. These are the moments of urban life made bearable by their being, besides somewhat shameful, anonymous.
There’s something comfortable about anonymity. It’s not complex: the responsibility of a named identity is fraught with pressure that craves, against the seeming coherence of personality, to be released. This is why we love to be on both sides of the YouTube comment, the Tumblr post, the Whisper App whisper, the Yik Yak…yak? Sharing our confessionals is cathartic; exposing the desires and beliefs hidden beneath profile pictures and blank faces is illuminating.
But anonymity is not always productive, especially when it happens online. The Yik Yak craze at Stanford and other campuses is contributing to a deep fear of our own voices when being vocal is so increasingly important.
In an interview with the Columbia Daily Spectator, Columbia undergrad and artist Emma Sulkowicz described her fears in bringing to fruition a performance piece called “Mattress” or “Carry That Weight,” a protest of the University’s response to her reported rape. Specifically, Sulkowicz divulged that losing her anonymity was a daunting concept to face at the onset of her project.
What did Sulkowicz really think she would lose? Was it the press attention and publicity that unsettled her? Likely. Was it the potential backlash that people might spew at a woman attempting to expel her rapist when consent has become a contested subject? Likely that too.
She was also likely anxious about attaching an idea to her name that she would have to defend as if she herself was on trial. This is the process of shedding anonymity: defending our views or, more often, experiences as if they are synonymous with ourselves.
But Stanford students aren’t actually in danger of becoming anonymous. In fact, every aspect of our social lives compels us to exaggerate and lay bare who we are to others in various ways, on various sites. Documentation and exhibition are the new normal in service of convincing ourselves most of all that we are who we think we are. Even the most personal activities, like service and philanthropy, no longer belong in the anonymous realm. Consider the Ice Bucket Challenge: anonymity was the enemy of the success of this popular trend.
So why should we care about a little harmless fun like Yik Yak? For one thing, it demonstrates that we have not yet learned, in an era of new communication styles, how to do so in a meaningful way. In other words, perhaps Yik Yak and platforms like it are a response to a ubiquitous sharing culture. We are tempted by the occasional escape into an anonymous bliss. Around the lunch table, as peers peer into the Yik Yak world, a dorm mate exclaimed, “Yik Yak is the truth!” Have we become so threatened by the incessant and artificial sharing of our identities online that anonymous spaces serve as the only place where we feel free to share the truth?
Certainly, many anonymous comments are frivolous, and many of the sentiments expressed on social media sites are authentic. Nonetheless, let’s admit that while Yik Yak allows us to take part in what feel like campus-wide inside jokes, its purpose is to remove the censure of social interaction. Unsurprisingly, it has caused a stir resulting in its ban at many schools where unsavory yiks have been yakked. Since the app’s policy doesn’t allow its users to directly mention their own or others’ names, people are largely immune to any repercussions of their 200-characters-or-less statements. The purpose of Facebook and Instagram, on the other hand, is to compile our opinions and activities into digestible, consumable silhouettes of which we take ownership.
While Yik Yak as used by Stanford students – to promote social events, comment on goings-on around campus, or vent – is for the most part, harmless and fun, it may jeopardize a culture in which our ideas are channeled toward change.
The fear Emma Sulkowicz articulated might have kept her from engaging in consequential social action. What if the honest moments expressed on one scroll through Yik Yak could instead be shared between us as identifiable individuals? Further, what if they could be harnessed for better ends? Maybe Yik Yak just wasn’t meant to be anything but a series of complaints and quips. Maybe it is doing us good to take part in something communal.
But maybe too we’re sacrificing the opportunity to create stories, ones that beg for authors and that could comment on issues like sex and alcohol more substantially – through art, writing, or politics. Maybe all this time and attention on anonymous snippets rather than real narratives is distracting us from belonging to, rather than simply commenting on, our own culture, one in which it shouldn’t feel good to be muted.
Contact Caitie Karasik at ckarasik ‘at’ stanford.edu.