Given that I speak on social media and college students, it’s inevitable that the topic of YikYak on campus comes up. YikYak is an anonymous geosocial app that allows individuals to post and view posts within defined geographic areas. This geo-functionality is one of the reasons it has become so popular on college campuses and at schools. Given that residential campuses often have defined populations in defined geographic areas, it is incredibly easy to post to others in the community and see what others are saying around you.
YikYak also has another functionality that has made it far more controversial: it’s anonymous. This has led to numerous problems on campus including bullying and threats of violence that have even caused campuses to shut down and cancel classes. YikYak has also lead to intensely problematic and threatening messages around racial and other lines. As this Chronicle of Higher Education article proclaims, Amid Racial Tensions, the Role of Yik Yak Is Complicated.
So where does this leave us? Campus administrators and college student educators frequently walk the line between encouraging expression and dialogue while also attempting to keep dialogue civil and our campuses safe. YikYak, more than any other social network, takes aim squarely at this grey area and pushes the boundaries.
My own thinking on this topic has evolved over time. Like many social media and education researchers, I recognize that anonymity online can be a good thing. It allows students to explore and surface ideas in different ways. It also allows for identity exploration. For example, an LGBT student who may not yet be out can connect with others and explore their identity in ways they cannot or might not feel comfortable doing in the physical world. Additionally, campus bulletin boards such as YikYak facilitate conversations and are important reads on campus cultures.
At a certain point, however, I think we need to point the finger back on the makers of the app itself and make some choices as a society as to what is acceptable. App makers make choices. They decide how to structure their apps and decide what affordances, or opportunities for action, they bake into them. In many ways, app makers have a strong influence over our everyday behaviors. Why should they be making these decisions?
In the case of YikYak, the app makers decided to allow posters to be anonymous. Why? What reason is there to make a geo-social app anonymous as opposed to having it tied to some sort of profile? This decision has a profound impact on how the app is used and what it can be used for. If we, as a society, deem certain features or functionalities as dangerous, can we not push back and draw a line? To YikYak’s credit, they have built-in functionality for “down voting” posts away. Additionally, they have taken steps to put geofences around high schools and block the app entirely from these locations. But is that enough? Is there something wrong with the functionality of the app itself?
To give you an analogy, I think of the classic Saturday Night Live sketch, Consumer Probe. In it, swarmy entrepreneur Irwin Midway defends his company’s decision to market dangerous toys to kids. The iconic product in the sketch is the “Bag O’ Glass.” Candace Bergen admonishes Irwin that it is “simply a bag of jagged, dangerous, glass bits… I mean, children could seriously cut themselves on any one of these pieces!” Irwin responds, “Yeah, well, look – you know, the average kid, he picks up, you know, broken glass anywhere, you know? The beach, the street, garbage cans, parking lots, all over the place in any big city. We’re just packaging what the kids want!” The same case could be made with YikYak. “Students will say these things anyway or find other outlets to express themselves. We’re just surfacing it within this app.” Irwin continues to make the case that any toy can be dangerous and that his products are no different. And yet, they ARE different. We wouldn’t let a company put a bag of glass on the market, but somehow it seems different when it comes to apps. Should it be different?
Increasingly, my own answer is “no.” Apps are not different. One cannot simply raise their hands in the air and say, “Well… people are going to use it the way they use it. We can’t control that.” There are reasonable actions and steps we can take to reduce the possibility that products will be used in harmful ways. Additionally, I think it’s also problematic to proclaim, “Well there are positive productive uses, too. We should educate people on how to use it in this way.” While yes, I do think YikYak does have some value, it could also be changed to retain that value while minimizing harm. It can be a “both/and.”
While I recognize this may be a slippery slope to head down, I think there is a common middle ground that can be found. I just hope we find it before more people get harmed or even killed.