I first became aware of the app Yik Yak at the end of my senior year of high school. Within a few days, students from all grades were using it to make mean-spirited comments about teachers, people from neighboring towns or each other. My brother, who at the time was a senior at the University of Richmond, showed me snapshots of his Yik Yak feed at UR. It included some of the same hateful things and was also dotted with harmless funny posts about a student’s daily life. Quickly realizing that the posts around my high school were immature and pointless, I deleted the app from my phone just a few days after downloading it.
Though I only became familiar with it again—this time at Vasar—in the last few months, Yik Yak was created in 2013 by two fraternity brothers at Furman University. Unlike other anonymous online forums, such as the website Formspring which was popular in middle school, the founders of Yik Yak had a novel goal in mind. Because the popular Twitter accounts at their university were mostly those of student athletes and other well-liked students, they wanted to even out the playing field. Instead of letting social media be in the hands of few, they wanted every student’s words to get equal attention online. (The New York Times, “Who Spewed That Abuse? Anonymous Yik Yak App Isn’t Telling,” 3.8.15).
While this is an innocent objective, the app evolved into something the founders did not expect. Once the app spread to colleges and universities across the country, it morphed into what we now know as a forum where students can say whatever they want without fear of penalization.
A few days into Orientation week at Vassar, I downloaded Yik Yak once again because I heard so many of my fellow new students talking about it. Now that I was on a college campus and not at my high school, the anonymous posts were for the most part innocuous and amusing. Frequent topics included Vassar’s womp-womps and whatever the Deece was serving that day. I have not looked at Vassar’s Yik Yak feed in a few months, but during the time that I looked at it often, posts rarely included cruel things about students or faculty. On many other college campuses though, Yik Yak has become a growing issue among administrators because of the significant cyberbullying it elicits.
Given the ability to say whatever they want with a veiled identity, many people use Yik Yak to comment on their peers. This gets especially hurtful when remarks turn to things involving appearance, sexuality and sexual history, race and intelligence. A student at Kenyon College went so far as to propse a rape at the college’s women’s center through the anonymous app (“Who Spewed That Abuse?”)
While many posts are malicious yet harmless in theory, some posts such as the one at Kenyon College can pose a serious peril. Yik Yak has indirectly facilitated bomb and gun threats, which are very difficult to trace because of the app’s anonymous structures, forcing police to work tirelessly to keep students safe following a post of this nature. Most of the threats are empty, but they still result in a waste of police resources and deny the offender their appropriate punishment by authorities.
Middle schools, high schools, and universities have attempted to eliminate Yik Yak from their campuses because of the way their students and faculty were being affected by it. On many campuses, students involve staff and faculty, such as professors or cafeteria workers in the cruelty, sometimes commenting on their appearance or talking about them in a sexual way. If students are connected to a school’s Wi-Fi network, Yik Yak can be blocked by administrators. If this were to happen though, the students could just access the app using data from their cellular service instead. As much as an administration may implore their students to discontinue their use of Yik Yak, it is up to the students to follow through. This often proves extremely difficult because if a student on a campus where Yik Yak is popular lobbies for the end of its usage, they could provoke a backlash from their peers. The backlash often appears on—what else—Yik Yak itself. Another issue that could arise is if banning Yik Yak would then be a violation of one’s right to free speech or hinder discourse on a campus.
Yik Yak’s original motive of making social media popularity more accessible to the average college student was a valid one, but it is only really rational at schools where sports are a bigger deal and athletes achieve a level of fame. In reality, social media websites and apps have become so integrated into our society, especially at colleges, that any student can have a presence in just a few clicks if they want to.
Therefore, Yik Yak’s purpose has really become about saying nasty things because of someone wanted to publicly say something genuinely funny or meaningful, they could just do so on Twitter or Facebook. Because of the slew of issues that arise in attempting to eliminate Yik Yak, it is ultimately the student’s job to get rid of Yik Yak and end the damage that it entails.
—Sarah Sandler ’18 is a student at Vassar College.