Our generation has seen this story before, an anonymous messaging app that seems harmless is slowly twisted into a platform used for cyberbullying and spreading hateful messages.
First, it was Ask.fm, then Yik Yak, and now Yik Yak once again. We also know how the story ends, with the platform being removed due to the increasing number of violent messages being spread. Just three weeks ago, a freshman at the University of Hartford was arrested and banned from campus for posts he made on the app. Incidents like this are not uncommon either. Before the app shut down in 2017, arrests had been made at colleges across the country because of posts made on the app. The question arises, then, why bring this app back from the graveyard?
When Yik Yak was announced to be coming back, it seemed as if the new owners were taking the right steps toward preventing the app from repeating its history. In an announcement posted on Aug. 16, 2021, titled “The Yak is Back,” the company released a statement justifying why they were bringing the app back.
“Sometimes we want to experience life without the permanent and constant lens of labels. Today’s world offers digital analogs for nearly all types of human interactions, except for those that are oftentimes most important for personal development. We need risk-free, lens-free spaces to be vulnerable, to be curious, and to learn more about the people around us.”
This statement fits with the brand message of Yik Yak, to “Find your herd.” On paper, the app seems great, and its intentions are only to foster an online community without the fear of labels. The company also made it abundantly clear that there was a zero-tolerance policy regarding cyberbullying and hate speech. The new “community guardrails” instantly ban anyone who writes something against the terms of service, and any post that receives five down votes is removed from the feed.
However, anyone who has been on the app knows that these “guardrails” are far from perfect and seemingly nonexistent. Additionally, the self-policing feature on Yik Yak is often used to simply delete posts that people do not want to see, not for posts that violate the guidelines.
I opened the app when writing this piece and the first post I saw was, “Just want Hobart students to know you all are so entitled and pretentious. In reality, you are nothing.” Posts like this are extremely common on the app, whether it be a post attacking a group or an individual. Despite the positives the app brings, the posts targeted to exclude and bring hate towards certain groups or individuals overshadow everything else.
On our campus, it has reached the point where the administration had to take notice. An email was sent from the Office of Campus Life on Feb. 20 titled “Yik Yak and Community Responsibility.” In this note, the school threatened disciplinary and potential legal action against students who use the app to defame or harass others online.
“In the past, the Colleges have been able to work with local police and Yik Yak to identify those who hide behind anonymity to violate our community standards, and when possible we have upheld and enforced those standards. We will continue to do so.”
While this seems extreme for a simple app, there is good reason to moderate Yik Yak. In the past, multiple suicides and suicide attempts have been traced back to Yik Yak, and social media’s effect on a person’s mental health is extreme. Multiple studies have proven that social media usage is linked to depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. Combined with that is the ability to be anonymous, which studies have shown cause people to act rudely and aggressively, it is no surprise that Yik Yak has become such a polarizing platform. Despite the colleges’ statement, there are almost no real repercussions for people who use the app to spread hateful messages. The typical moral, ethical, and legal responsibilities that prompt people to act civilly in person are gone on an app where your only identifying feature is an emoji.
When our campus and country are so divided, there is no need for a platform that only adds fuel to the fire. Some things are better left in the past, and Yik Yak is a stellar example of this.