Yik Yak, college campuses and the problem of anonymity

SUNY Canton cancelled classes on Oct. 23 over anonymous threats on the popular social media application Yik Yak. At Pennsylvania State University, anonymous students made similar threats, including detailed descriptions of weaponry. Yik Yak is a completely anonymous app that is gaining popularity on college campuses. Its anonymous nature allows its users to be completely candid and unapologetic about what they are thinking. But anonymous threats, like those at SUNY Canton and Penn State, pose serious threats to student safety raises serious questions about anonymity and how we should view such an app.

For better or worse, the Yik Yak community is self-moderating. When a “yak” receives “upvotes”—often up to several hundred—it goes to the top of the “Hot” section. If it gets five “downvotes,” it is automatically removed. On the one hand, Yik Yak is a wonderful way to build community and share information quickly, especially on college campuses. Students bond over what is happening on Yik Yak, and there is a budding culture surrounding it.

In early October, news of a potential hate crime against a transgender student at Geneseo surfaced and news spread quickly via Yik Yak. Some “yaks” were hateful and others were supportive but regardless, it got people talking. “Trans? Fine by me,” held by Pride Alliance and Women’s Action Coalition, helped dispel many of the misconceptions expressed on Yik Yak.

People are also able to talk about their problems. Anonymous users can express discontent, bad grades or serious mental health problems and receive support in the form of upvotes or replies. People also share jokes—sometimes funny, sometimes mediocre or stolen from other forms of social media. There is far less potential for building meaningful relationships because there is no formalized user recognition, but perhaps this is what adds to the fun of it.

On the other hand, anonymity can be dangerous. Now, when you make a social blunder or fall in public, you need to make sure you yak about it before someone else does. Occasionally, users name other students and make comments about them, or there are passive-aggressive yaks about annoying roommates, noisy chewers or overly participant classmates. Whether positive or negative, being the subject of a rude, anonymous post is an uncomfortable experience, especially considering that not everyone is on Yik Yak. If you are yakked about, you might never know.

This has the potential for serious abuses, such as those seen on other anonymous websites which have waxed and waned throughout the years. It might be only a matter of time before something serious—like a suicide or a realized threat—comes to fruition and the conversation arises again.

As any anonymous website does, Yik Yak has major pros and cons. It might be only a matter of time before it gets shut down, or before more comprehensive standards are put in place in schools for dealing with such anonymous crimes like that at Penn State or SUNY Canton. Yik Yak is certainly sparking conversation, regardless.