Anonymity of Yik Yak causes nationwide concern at universities

By Faraz Mirza

One of the fastest growing startups is being shut down on college campuses across the nation.

Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app that allows users to post public comments, or “yaks,” has become popular among college campuses since its launch in 2013.

Generally meant to be a fun outlet to share thoughts, jokes and observations, the application has also been known to promote gossip and breaking news.

 

The Trouble with Yik Yak

Because the app is completely anonymous, there is no filter to what is posted; this has allowed a platform for cheating, serious pranks or false reports of crime and cyber-bullying through racism and hate speech.

One such incident occurred at Michigan State University, where freshman Matthew Mullen who on Nov. 24, 2014 wrote on Yik Yak, “I’m gonna (gun symbol) the school at 12:15 p.m. today.”

With the help of Yik Yak, MSU police tracked Matthew Mullen to his dorm room in less than two hours, after which he was arrested. 

Patrick Wade, communications specialist for the University of Illinois Police Department, said there haven’t been any similar incidents at the University.

“As far as the specific threats like bomb threats or anything like that, to my knowledge, we haven’t had any of those issues, but obviously we monitor social media all the time, and we’re always looking for those kinds of things” Wade said.  

Wade said if these issues become relevant on campus, banning the app wouldn’t be an efficient solution.

“We’re not into the practice of censoring people,” Wade said. “The thing with social media is, if you take away one, it goes right to another.”

Basic rules of the app advise against targeting other individuals; failure to follow the rules results in repeated warnings until the account is eventually suspended.

Despite the possibility for these bad incidents to occur, each “yakker” has the ability to upvote or downvote on a yak, showing whether they agree. While upvotes have no limit, five downvotes result in a yak’s deletion.

Many college campuses across the country have been working to resolve the negative effects of Yik Yak in different ways.

 

A Quick Solution

Many universities have decided banning the app may be the quickest way to solve its issues.

Campuses, including Utica College in New York and Norwich University in Vermont, have already banned the app by blocking it from their respective wireless networks. 

The University of Michigan-Dearborn student government downvoted the app in a recent resolution. Other campuses, such as Chapel Hill in North Carolina and Clemson University in South Carolina have considered banning the app.

John Gouch, assistant director of media relations at Clemson, said there is no real plan to try to ban the app, though it was briefly considered in January.

Ross Wantland, director of Diversity Education and Social Justice at UIUC, said in an email there are currently no plans for Yik Yak to be banned at the University. 

“We know that many of the individuals who post racist, sexist and other bigoted statements on social media are out to make a ‘joke,’ but we also know that these comments also impact other students ability to feel like this is a community where they are welcome and belong.”

 

Yik Yak Talks Back

In response to incidents, lead community developer of Yik Yak Cam Mullen said the company recognizes that with any form of social media, there is always the possibility of misuse. Mullen declined to comment on whether Yik Yak has faced lawsuits.

“Yik Yak is a tool, and just like a hammer can build houses, it can also hurt people,” Cam Mullen said. 

In regard to threats, Mullen said it is something taken very seriously, and the company works closely with local authorities to track down individuals in such situations.

Although Yik Yak users are anonymous, the Yik Yak team has access to all locations of users’ posts, as well as a history of yaks made with accounts. This allows them to track and identify a person.

“Sometimes Yik Yak might get a call saying ‘we have a threat posted.’ In other cases, we’ve actually noticed it first and reached out to the local authorities, telling them about it,” Mullen said. 

Mullen believes despite campuses trying to block the app from their WiFi networks, it isn’t particularly effective, as a lot of students are connected to their data plans on 3G or 4G networks.

Mullen explained anonymity is one of the key features that has made Yik Yak so popular and would probably never be taken away.

Ongoing efforts to improve user experience includes the restriction of the app in middle and high school areas. It has succeeded in restricting 85 percent of those locations. When in a restricted area, users are sent a message saying that they are blocked from “yakking.” 

Yik Yak has also developed a new feature that allows certain key words such as “bomb” to trigger a warning, which asks whether users are sure they want to post. 

Mullen said this tool is very valuable, as users who describe their lunch as “the bomb” can do so without being afraid of intervention from the local authorities, while users trying to post a serious threat as a joke are given a second chance to reconsider the consequences.

 

An Optimistic Approach

Despite negative effects of the app, some campuses have found powerful ways to spread positivity.

Events, such as the grand jury decisions of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, prompted racist comments on Yik Yak at Colgate University, located in Hamilton Village, New York. In result, students organized a three-day silent sit-in on Sept. 22, 2014 to protest the university’s lack of diversity. 

Geoff Holm, assistant professor of biology at Colgate, said in an email he decided to arrange a professor-led positive movement on Yik Yak after seeing the racist yaks.

The movement consisted of approximately 50 professors posting inspiring and positive yaks to spread love among Colgate’s Yik Yak community.

Holm said the movement served to send a message to students that comments are not solely viewed by students, and others are likely to form opinions of Colgate’s community based on what is posted.

“I think Yik Yak is like a truck stop bathroom wall: you can’t really control exactly what goes on there, and for the most part you can ignore it, but if things that are truly offensive end up there, it can color peoples’ perception of that community,” Holm said. 

Faraz can be reached at famirza2@dailyillini.com.