December 2, 2014

Yik Yak, still so frat

“If Yik Yak quality was the sole factor in U.S. News rankings, UChicago would easily be number one” says first-year Carson McKay, on the app that has become a phenomenon on campus. However, McKay did not just drop the comment in jest to his friends—but instead anonymously posted to the UChi Yik Yak community, gaining 101 upvotes of approval. In case you haven’t been swept up by the recent skyrocketing campus trend, Yik Yak is a mobile app functioning as an anonymous, hyper-local Twitter. This means that anyone within a 1.5-mile radius of a specific “community” can post, vote, and comment anonymously to his or her heart’s content and up to 200 characters.  Others within this area vote up for comments that they like, and down for those that miss the mark. Net five downvotes and a post is deleted, while upvotes earn the comment’s author a yakarma score.

For McKay, this means sharing clever thoughts that he feels are in line with the rest of UChicago’s community; he seems to appreciate our university’s self-deprecating and dry wit, and can add to that identity through Yik Yak. He produces yaks like, “UChicago needs a landing pad for all these helicopter parents on campus right now,” during Family Weekend, which 196 other people on campus found funny enough to upvote. But he’s nothing out of the ordinary on campus; everyone is on Yik Yak, commenting and posting, adding to an identity that was already fiercely defined by our self-deprecating house T-shirts.

Yik Yak began on the Furman University campus, where then–frat brothers Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll created it as an answer to a very particular social media need. They sought to create a balance between Twitter, which acts as a quick feed for news distribution, and anonymous campus Facebook sites like Overheard and Confessions of... On these somewhat anonymous posting forums, one person has power over an entire student body, which the brothers found unfair. Yik Yak creates an equal playing ground for each user, utilizing its voting system. Ben Popkin, lead community manager, completely supports and adheres to this company mission. In his position, he has seen some of the most positive feedback that has occurred through the app. “You see some of the most interesting things occur through Yik Yak. Where you might get caught in your friend and follower circles on Facebook and Twitter, Yik Yak allows you to reach beyond that into a pool based on location.” On a grander scale, Yik Yak serves as a social, sometimes political, forum for students. I asked Popkin about our university in particular and he chuckled, “Well I had to look up a lot of things to understand the jokes.” With yaks like, “My parents say come downtown with us, and I say I Kant,” it’s understandable that only a particular culture might take pride in this. Whether discussing sports or Core readings, students can relate on multiple levels, and are bound easily by geographic limits, making it the perfect target for such a specific service.

Yet with all social media, a certain amount of accountability is needed to mitigate Yik Yak’s reign over campus. Compared to other forms of social media, Yik Yak’s anonymity makes it hard to pinpoint aggressive users who post triggering messages. Psychologist Dr. Keith Ablow wrote on Fox News that Yik Yak is “the most dangerous form of social media” he’s seen, primarily due to its anonymity. He believes this climate leads to the lack of connection between humans, and therefore lack of empathy, that social media may present. Yik Yak is especially impactful as “untruthful, mean, character-assassinating short messages are immediately seen by all users in a specific geographic area.” Chicago, Connecticut, and California schools have all reported major problems and student drama due to Yik Yak’s presence on student phones, ranging from classic cyber bullying, name-calling and accusations about students and faculty all the way to shooting threats, which have been cited at least twice, leading to criminal investigations. Recently the app began to utilize a 24-hour moderation team for reports and algorithms to automatically delete offensive buzzwords more efficiently and frequently. They then limited app access, making it unavailable to locations that fell within the limits of elementary through high schools. College campuses seemed the perfect, if not only, demographic for a service like this. Popkin states this is due to a level of maturity needed to act in public responsibly. Loose precautions are in place to limit offenses, including rules banning individual targeting, cyber bullying, and offensive slurs through algorithmic moderation and reporting abuse. But the appropriateness, and impact, of the content is truly left up to the community itself.

For the University of Chicago, Yik Yak has been part of a larger campus discourse on racial and sexist commentary, discrimination, and engagement.  After a student’s Facebook profile was allegedly hacked to proliferate racial slurs, backlash and commentary appeared instantaneously on Yik Yak, personally attacking those involved.          

Popkin feels the best way to deal with negative commentary on Yik Yak is to downvote it. Carson, from the standpoint of a user who has faced no issue, agrees: “I don’t think Yik Yak is to blame for negative people; they have strong ideas and will express them no matter what, Yik Yak has just become the avenue for it. Because of its anonymity, I would definitely say something that I wouldn’t say in person.” However, he admits it can become a two-way street. Although he himself has never faced problems, nor seen any, arise due to Yik Yak, he believes shutting down the site is not a solution, but rather sees what good can come of it.  “It’s unfortunate that these events happen, but one thing Yik Yak can do is give light to what’s happening on campus. It might not be good to have these debates over social media, but it does bring a certain raw awareness to what’s happening, to other people’s perspectives. It’s all about the people using it; the thing itself is just a mechanism.” When asked on his own guidelines for posting, he speaks of good consciousness reminiscent of the golden rule: don’t write what you’d be ashamed to have your name attached to. But making fun of his own university, or perhaps Stanford, definitely passes as appropriate. “‘Today I saw a math equation with no numbers and cried because my childhood is over’—Stanford Yik Yak. That’s cute.” 173 upvotes later, and Carson chuckles, “This is true, it was their Top Yak. But seriously, I really haven’t seen a number all year.” It might not be indicative of the entire community, but what Carson sees on Yik Yak reminds him that if for nothing else, he chose the right school based on his own witty, smart humor.

What Carson saw in the app was stress relief, a medium for procrastination, and some of his own humor. He says he plays fun, but always lightheartedly. Whatever he’s doing works, as, “Fijis charge for every party because they have to make up the losses from giving their bank account info to a Nigerian prince” won him 111 upvotes. While it’s the perfect medium for a few jabs at frats, he realizes that it’s not the place for debate. There are far better media for discussing social issues, on a site that isn’t anonymous, or perhaps doesn’t limit your word count to 200 characters.