Opinion | Buzz: Carry on, cautiously

Opinion by Joyce Chen
Nov. 18, 2021, 11:54 p.m.

As thousands of frosh and sophomores navigate physical campus for the first time, many are finding refuge in the virtual world of Buzz. With categories for shoutouts, crush posts, confessions and more, the app is a forum for PSAs and memes as well as a safe space for students to post honestly about mental health struggles, loneliness and duck syndrome without fear of exposing their frantically paddling feet. Buzz now boasts nearly 5,000 users at Stanford, constituting more than half of the undergraduate student body, and it is only continuing to grow.

Anonymity is especially liberating for voices that are typically marginalized, equalizing everyone’s ability to speak and be heard regardless of how they physically present. There is an extremely low barrier to engagement on Buzz that allows students to express their more personal or controversial thoughts and opinions without fear of social repercussions or ostracization. But how safe can an anonymous app truly be? The same reasoning facilitates the spreading of intolerant opinions without fear of true social backlash, and yet these posts can cause real harm. They also may continue to circulate even if removed from the platform. It is precisely students from minority communities who would be most at risk should Buzz fall victim to the same problems that plagued its most popular predecessor, Yik Yak. Users may therefore want to enter the app more cautiously, knowing that they may come across hurtful or triggering content, while also remaining aware that many of these posts are spread by a few trolls seeking reactions.

Buzz’s premise and user interface is almost identical to Yik Yak’s, the anonymous posting app that once pervaded college and high school campuses across the country. After peaking in growth in 2014, Yik Yak was shut down in 2017 after intense media scrutiny over cyberbullying on its platform, in particular racist abuse, sexual harassment and terrorist threats.

This is the potential price of anonymity. Buzz currently has features to block users, report posts and prevent the mention of full names and other personally identifiable information. It also makes users consent to a content policy each time they post. Buzz’s founders, Ashton Cofer ’24 and Teddy Solomon ’24, told me that what sets Buzz apart is its unique prioritization of content moderation: “If a post violates our community guidelines, within a minute, it’s going to be removed, and the user will also be muted or banned if there’s a strong violation of our community guidelines. We have a one-strike policy… because the culture of Buzz being a safe, inclusive, even empowering environment is at the forefront.” However, questions of accountability still remain.

While such promises to foster a safe community may initially seem appealing, upon further investigation there are two possible scenarios, both of which fail to do so in practice. Cofer stated that “user credentials are encrypted on our back end.” In a later email to The Daily, the co-founders wrote that users will be held accountable if required to by a court order. However, for lesser offenses it is doubtful that proper disciplinary action could be taken against transgressors on the app; the user would be banned, but there would be no way to hold them accountable offline. Serious violations of Buzz’s posting policy would likely also be in violation of Stanford’s Fundamental Standard, yet without the ability to identify the culpable students, Stanford would be unable to intervene. Fellow students would also be unable to report disturbing content via the Protected Identity Harm Protocol. And what would prevent that student from assuming someone else’s Stanford email and logging on again? 

Equally problematic is the case where, as with everything on the internet, Buzz cannot promise true anonymity nor, therefore, safety. In order to join the app, new users are required to enter their phone number and a Stanford.edu email address. Suppose Buzz can promise safety and accountability through these checks. According to Cofer, an exception to Buzz’s policy to not release user credentials is “in the case that we would receive… a court order or an intervention from law enforcement. We are willing to comply with law enforcement to ensure the safety of the community.” But if Buzz is able to cooperate with law enforcement, user data cannot be truly private — it’s retrievable.

Even if the developers don’t have explicit access to that information, users are not necessarily protected. For example, Yik Yak was hacked in 2014 by a security company that revealed a weakness allowing users to be de-anonymized, particularly by hackers on the same WiFi network. Buzz is “in the process of working with a senior security consultant” in order to address security as the app scales up, but it is yet to be seriously tested on that front. And even if users are not explicitly de-anonymized, many students are still recognizable from within the rules of the app; some may be identified by a first name and last initial, or some distinctive traits and affiliations, leading to dangerous possibilities of doxing. The takeaway is to not be reckless on Buzz in the belief that your posts and DMs can never be traced back to you, especially when poll-voting and upvoting alone can already give away so much about a user.

The Buzz founders strongly believe in decentralized moderation, attributing the dissolution of rival apps to “a lack of moderation — you can only do so much when you have a centralized moderation team 1000 miles away… also on an open platform you could have random 40-year-olds from Palo Alto interacting with Stanford students, which is obviously a huge safety concern.” But while this sets Buzz apart from apps like Yik Yak, Librex (which is popular at some Ivies) also features university email verification and relevant student moderation. Librex has had controversies over posts trolling candidates for student government and blaming Chinese people for covid; both landing in grey areas for their moderators. 

Solomon also addressed the “fine line” debate that is so pressing for anonymous apps, saying “we’re always taking feedback from users and figuring out where it’s going from civil discourse to something that is causing emotional distress for students.” Unfortunately, as all social media companies have found, the tug-of-war between freedom of expression and the protection of individuals’ and communities’ sense of safety is an impossible struggle. On one hand, as Solomon stated, “people [should be] able to present their perspectives, no matter what the beliefs are of the moderators or the students on campus.” But Buzz’s founders ultimately prioritize “the community and the people within the community feeling safe.” To the app’s credit, Buzz is also taking “a slow approach” to expansion in order to maintain the quality of their communities: “we would launch at five schools that are safe and uplifting, rather than 500 schools that are completely toxic. And we’re never going to violate that principle at any point.” 

The Stanford community on Buzz has so far shown itself to be generally wholesome, increasing inclusion to the party scene and appreciation for the talents and kind acts of our peers. Several users have said that the app helps them feel less alone in their struggles, particularly with settling in, making friends and imposter syndrome. But it is also a platform filled with (so far light-hearted) trolling, disinformation and microaggressions, and although these are mostly self-regulated by downvoting and moderation, it would only take one Chaze Vinci to turn a fun online college community into an airing ground for hateful and disturbing content.

Perhaps these shortcomings will mean that Buzz will take care of itself. All anonymous messaging apps — and there are a lot of them — seem to have a relatively short lifetime, and many stay local. Perhaps when the novelty wears off, the lack of trust inherent to anonymous and unaccountable communities will build up: walk to one too many fake parties publicized on Buzz, read yet another microaggressive comment or degrading horny-post, and a user may just log off for good. 

An examination of other social media platforms may foreshadow Buzz’s fate. Reddit is the most successful adjacent social medium, and even with permanent handles to guarantee a greater degree of accountability, the male-dominated platform has a reputation for sexism and incels that is difficult to shake. As Buzz grows older and frosh and sophomores settle into the Stanford rhythm, the need for an online support system will lessen and posting frequency will most likely thin out. The heinous number of “m4f looking for cuddles posts may be an indication as to which voices would eventually dominate the platform. 

Buzz is undeniably entertaining, and I believe that, as of now, it is a net positive for Stanford campus especially post-lockdown. But its founders will have to be very busy bees for the app to survive the obstacles that, in the past, have harmed users and killed off its predecessors at Stanford and beyond.

This article has been corrected to remove an incorrect statement that Buzz users are not identifiable to developers. The Daily regrets this error. 

The Daily is also including a note from the Buzz co-founders about claims made about email use and abusive users. “All users must verify their school email (confirm a link in their inbox) to create an account, preventing the impersonation of another student’s email,” they wrote. “Following up on the previous point, the platform can not be taken over by one abusive user since moderators are able to permanently ban users. Users that are banned can not simply create another account.”

Joyce Chen ‘25 is the chair of the Editorial Board for Vol. 263. Previously, she was the managing editor for the Opinions section for Vol. 262. Contact her at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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