Be Careful What You Yik Yak

What would you say if you could tweet, pin or post anonymously without leaving a digital fingerprint?

The ability to post anonymously through a smartphone app called Yik Yak has caused controversy at several universities in recent months. The location-based conversations sometimes elicit racist, sexist and otherwise demeaning language from the app’s users. This has led to several student arrests for threats made against campus safety officials at various college campuses.

The app, a virtual bulletin board where students can post anonymous comments to be viewed by those in a designated area surrounding their school, is a combination of Twitter and other anonymous posting apps. Another infamous app was Juicy Campus, a popular site that earned notoriety for its offensive content. However, Yik Yak differs from its predecessors in that it is designed in a way that makes it especially suited for gossip on college campuses. The posts can only be read within a 1.5-mile radius of the poster, making the posts highly localized. According to the The Chronicle of Higher Education, the service has over one hundred sections dedicated to college campuses.

At Seattle University, the posts tend to involve lowbrow humor and comments on students’ personal or social lives.

“Dear automatic flushing toilet, I greatly admire the enthusiasm you have for your job, but I wasn’t finished,” said one user.

“I need morning sex,” wrote another user.

Yik Yak’s founders, Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, are both graduates of Furman University in South Carolina and founded the app with a relatively benign view for its future in mind. According to Business Insider, the pair created the app with the hopes of fostering observational campus comedy.

“It allows you to talk about certain topics you can’t talk about on Facebook,” Buffington said. “Your mom or teacher is on Twitter or Facebook. This is a more open discussion.”

Certainly posts like “Single ply is the last thing I need today,” are not things generally shared to teachers, parents or other authority figures.

Still, as with most outlets that involve an element of anonymity, posts have taken a darker turn on some college campuses. Students have used Yik Yak to post threats to public safety officers on several occasions, though never at Seattle U.

The Indiana Statesman reported the arrest of a sophomore at Indiana State University on Sept. 19 in connection with a post about a possible campus shooting. Another student was arrested at the County College of Morris in New Jersey on a terrorist threat charge connected with a Yik Yak post, according to The Record.

The posts have also occasionally had racist undertones. At Seattle U, rumors regarding several racist posts have been flying around campus, and at Colgate University students are staging a sit-in against what they call institutionalized racism at the New York university. The protesters have cited racist posts from the app as part of their rationale for their demonstration.

In Vermont, Norwich University President Richard Schneider has blocked access to the app on school servers after it was used to instigate cyber attacks against some of its students.

“I just know that it is hurting my students right now,” Schneider said in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “They are feeling awkward, they are feeling hurt, they are feeling threatened.”

Norwich University has launched an inquiry, but so far no criminal behavior has been found, according to a statement released by the school.

Yik Yak does have a filter that works to block “inappropriate” posts and posts with a person’s name, but the system mainly relies on users to flag such posts. This has led to some offensive content making its way onto the site.

“Yik Yak seems like it could potentially be a cool forum to communicate and connect with people who are living in the same area. But at the same time whenever there’s a forum that hides its users’ identities, it’s often taken advantage of and used as a means to pretty much cyberbully people,” said sophomore Maya Normandi. “It’s entertaining to see posts from users that you totally relate to and are funny, but it sucks when you stumble across one that’s putting someone down. I’d like to think that college students are mature enough to avoid that sort of scene, but because problems are inevitable with that level of anonymity, I’m not the biggest fan of Yik Yak and I think it could improve.”

Despite the controversy, Yik Yak has continued to expand. Buffington reported in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education that several colleges had contacted him and expressed interest in using the app to harness the voice of the student body.
“We’re already seeing some campuses step up and say, ‘Hey, this is an interesting way to use this technology,’” Buffington said. “They use Yik Yak to get a look at what their student body is talking about, and what they don’t like about campus.”