Yik Yak, a smartphone app started two years ago, has recently taken college campuses by storm and left in its wake both laugh-out-loud jokes and a swell of social controversy. The app, a social media forum where users can post anonymously to local threads, was started two years ago by Furman University graduates who were looking to create an outlet for witty college humor.
What the two may not have predicted, however, were cases like that of Colgate University. There, students staged a sit-in earlier this year, sparked by racist “Yaks” (the name for posts on Yik Yak), to demand the university take action.
One Yak read, “White people won life, Africa lost, sorry we were so much better than you that we were literally able to enslave you to our will.” The sit-ins at Colgate ended with the President, Jeffrey Herbst, admonishing the “appalling anonymous social media posts.”
Other problems with Yik Yak include school shooting threats, bullying and demeaning sexist comments that provoked the President of Norwich University to ban the app from the college’s network. Arrests have been made at colleges and high schools alike due to violent threats from students.
In response, Yik Yak has started creating “geofences” around high schools to prevent students from using the social media app as a channel for bullying and harassment while their phone is located on school grounds.
The Stanford Yik Yak experience
Yik Yak at Stanford, however, has yet to draw the attention of the administration.
“I think [the administration] don’t know it exists because it hasn’t been a problem,” said Tyler Thompson ’16, the Yik Yak representative on campus.
Thompson acknowledged the problems at other universities but noted that Stanford’s Yik Yak is a different story.
“I haven’t really seen anything close to offensive,” Thompson said. “If anything I’ve seen the opposite, where people go to Yik Yak to get support.”
Some Stanford Yakkers agree.
“When you peek at other schools’ Yaks, you really get to understand how amazing Stanford students are comparatively,” one Yak read recently.
The Stanford Yik Yak is not immune to the troubles that an anonymous forum can create, however. Yaks on the farm often express student’s aggravation over “Asian tourists” and some Yaks have hinted at depression and suicidal thoughts – issues that need to be dealt with by University personnel and not by the other anonymous users of Yik Yak.
One Yak pointed out the importance of user choice in accessing the app.
“If you’re tired of offensive Yaks, delete the app, leave your dorm room, and go have real face-to-face conversations,” read one Stanford Yik-Yak post.
Twenty-five percent of 131 Stanford freshmen surveyed described the app as both “funny” and “offensive” simultaneously.
Comments about the app from surveyed freshmen varied from one unhappy user complaining, “Yik Yak adds nothing to my Stanford experience, and I feel like it is a detriment to this campus. I’m tired of the insensitivity that comes with anonymity – if you have something you want to say to the Stanford community, own up to it. Stop hiding behind your iPhone screen,” to another responding, “I think the anonymity allows people to comfortably reach out for help about being lonely or needing help, and the comments are usually very supportive, which I feel is very important.”
“Yik Yak fosters the powerful human connections of sympathy, empathy and humor from behind a five-inch glass touch screen,” Alex Ortega ’18 said.
Dealing with offensive content
One backlash against Yik Yak started at Kenyon College, where students have created the project #RespectfulDifference to reject anonymity and instead use social media as a tool to open up respectful campus discussions on hot topic issues.
“The problem lies in a culture that accepts – indeed embraces – the act of broadcasting, behind a protective mask of anonymity, statements that most would find offensive,” Kenyon’s President Sean Decatur, wrote in a recent essay on the topic.
Yik Yak’s policies include taking down any flagrantly offensive material but rely on the users to use “community regulation” of insensitive or inappropriate Yaks. When five people disapprove of a comment, the comment disappears. That being said, in instances like Colgate’s racist Yaks or even at Stanford when certain individuals are called out by name for things like embarrassing bike wrecks, the community does not “down vote” the posts.
“I feel like it’s going to happen no matter what,” Meena Chetty ’18 said. “As soon as Yik Yak fades out, another anonymous forum will open up.”
Yik Yak’s philosophy is similar to that of earlier anonymous sites that allowed college students to share rumors and gossip anonymously, like the website “Juicy Campus,” which drew widespread criticism and tanked in 2009.
Yik Yak has just recently become popular on Stanford’s campus, but it is hardly used by upperclassmen.
“Yik Yak is a forum primarily for freshmen,” Shubha Raghvendra ’16 said.
The company has announced a college tour on the West Coast this fall to encourage a greater user base.
Contact Elizabeth Wallace at wallacee ‘at’ stanford.edu.