Yik Yak: The Age of Destructive Anonymity

04/01/2015 12:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

The second installment of this semester's "Blog Blog Project" comes from Politics & Media student, Merissa Muller, a Communication Interest Sophomore with minors in Journalism and Political Communication. Yik Yak has captured the attention of many of my students, and here, Merissa explores the pitfalls of this anonymous platform.

By 2015, it is safe to say social networks have revolutionized the way people interact. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have grown so much that they are regularly used to strengthen national campaigns as well as international movements. But on the flip side, social media have also sabotaged effective communication among younger generations. Yik Yak, created by Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington in late 2013, is the latest platform sweeping college campuses nationwide. College students are raving about this new application, particularly because of its open and anonymous bulletin-board style posts that connect everyone with a device within a radius of 1.5 miles. Although the sense of community may seem like a good thing, that anonymity has allowed users to post violent and racist "yaks" without any foreseeable risk. In an age where cyberbullying was derided in a TED Talk by former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, there is a fine line between protecting citizens from virtual harassment and maintaining freedom of speech.

Last fall semester, professors at Eastern Michigan University reported being harassed on Yik Yak; they wanted justice, but Yik Yak protected the identity of the author. Since the app was introduced, it has also been used to issue threats of mass violence on more than a dozen college campuses. Clearly this is a dangerous situation, whether users believe that the "yakker" is joking or not. Regardless, when an extremely violent "yak" is posted, Droll and Buffington are cooperative in exposing the user to officials in order to protect the security of others. For example, Michigan State freshman Matthew Mullen was arrested and fined after threatening to bring a gun onto his campus through the app.

Although some people will defend the protection of an individual's right to privacy for fear of putting citizens at risk of discrimination, such is not the case when threats are made against students and whole communities. We need more power to to censor yaks that are offensive and discriminatory to other people. As it is, Yik Yak has filters in place so that any trigger words like "Jewish" or "bomb" will alert the user and the company that sensitive wording is being used. But is that enough prevention?

Because of the amount of personal victimization on the app, Yik Yak prevents yakkers from publishing full names. The founders have also placed geo-fences around elementary and secondary schools in order to prevent those students from accessing the app. According to Droll, high schoolers are not mature enough to use it, but how does he know all college students are? What difference does a few years really make? Because Yik Yak allows users to down-vote a yak, which could make it disappear, the founders assumed that the community will essentially correct and police itself. Yet given the shooting and bomb threats, bullying, and sexual harassment, it doesn't seem reasonable that the responsibility should be left to anonymous users.

In a recent New York Times article, Jonathan Mahler points out that, "the app's privacy policy prevents schools from identifying users without a subpoena, court order or search warrant, or an emergency request from a law-enforcement official with a compelling claim of imminent harm." The filters have been helpful but not preventative enough. Here at the University of Delaware, for example, President Harker had to email the entire student body admonishing them for the posts on Yik Yak about the rivalry between UD and Delaware State University. Many yaks were uncomfortably derogatory towards students of color. While both UD and DSU students were offended, the "yakkers" could not be tracked down; the company protected them and their identities.

So unless there's a serious threat reported to law officials or filters specific enough to catch each potentially problematic yak, millions of users will continue to get away with posting harmful, anonymous messages. If a student is victimized over the app, his or her only hope is for the yak to be voted off by at least five other people if he or she does not want to go through the rigorous legal process of finding the user. Allowing this sort of freedom and anonymity to go on is harmful not just to communities within a 1.5 mile radius, but nationwide.