Technology

What You Need to Know About Yik Yak, an App Causing Trouble on Campuses

September 26, 2014

Anonymous posts on a smartphone application called Yik Yak are facilitating conversations on college campuses, but the dialogue is not always fit for the classroom. Discussions on the app sometimes dredge up racist, sexist, and other degrading content, and students at multiple colleges have been arrested for using Yik Yak to post threats to campus safety.

The app, released last November, is a kind of virtual bulletin board on which users can post short snippets of text anonymously, and other users nearby can see them. The service also has dedicated sections for more than a hundred college campuses.

Many posts are edgy observations about campus life. "I haven’t had sex in so long I think my virginity is coming back," wrote one user on the American University section. "College got me like ‘RIP My Hopes and Dreams,’" said another. But plenty of comments take a darker turn, recalling JuicyCampus, a gossip website, popular from 2007 to 2009, that earned notoriety for its offensive material.

Yik Yak’s founders, Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, graduated from Furman University, in South Carolina, in 2013. They had a seemingly benign motivation for creating the app. They envisioned it, they said, as a tool for observational campus comedy.

Mr. Buffington argues that making all comments anonymous is critical to maintaining users’ privacy, encourages less-inhibited commentary, and allows the best posts to rise to the top.

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

But that discussion sometimes veers into dangerous territory. Yik Yak has caused headaches for college administrators across the country. The trouble falls into three main categories:

Threats of Violence

Students have used Yik Yak to post anonymous threats to public safety on several campuses. In some cases, the threats have led officials to close buildings or put the campus on high alert. As the Indiana Statesman reported, a sophomore was arrested at Indiana State University on September 19 in connection with a post about a possible campus shooting. A student at the County College of Morris, in New Jersey, was arrested on Wednesday on a terrorist-threat charge stemming from a Yik Yak post, according to The Record. And a student at the University of Southern Mississippi was arrested for a threat made on Monday, reported Gulflive.com.

Threats of violence can be personal, too. After speaking last week at Duke University about her new book, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, Danielle Keats Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Law, discussed Yik Yak posts with students. One young woman showed Ms. Citron a disturbing post she had seen that referenced a lecture by a different speaker.

"It said, ‘If this woman doesn’t stop talking, I’m going to rape her,’" Ms. Citron recounted. "As these threads popped up, once these rape conversations started, it got worse. It got more graphic."

Mr. Droll said that Yik Yak uses filters to block offensive posts, but it also relies on users to report them. He acknowledged that threats of violence had been a problem.

"We take them very seriously, we cooperate with any law-enforcement authorities," he said. "In a couple cases, we’ve helped identify the poster."

Bullying

Physical threats aren’t the only danger posed by anonymous social-media posts. Cyberbullying can also be very damaging, said Tracy Mitrano, director of Internet culture, policy, and law at Cornell University, who has encountered such abuse on many social-media services.

"They prey on the same vulnerabilities," she said. "Insecurities underclassmen have about who they are, their identity in college, and their ability to succeed and compete," she added. "I have counseled people who are very hurt and disturbed by it."

In response to concerns about cyberbullying at elementary and secondary schools, Yik Yak erected "geo-fences" this spring around most such schools in the country, a step that disables the app at those locations.

"College students have the maturity to handle a system like ours," Mr. Buffington said. "High schoolers and middle schoolers … they’re not mature enough to deal with the fact that what I say on this screen can hurt someone on the receiving end."

Racism

Racist commentary on Yik Yak has offended students on campuses including the University of Texas at Austin and Boston College. Student protesters at Colgate University cited racist posts from the app as part of their rationale for staging a sit-in this week against what they call institutionalized racism at the New York college. The protesters are seeking increased diversity training, more minority faculty members, and a campus-climate survey about race.

Colgate’s president, Jeffrey Herbst, acknowledged the social-media problem in a statement on Monday, writing, "We are also aware of appalling anonymous social-media posts from members of our community that disparage persons of color, and students have reported having to endure offensive remarks."

College administrators are responding to Yik Yak in three primary ways:

Blocking Access

The president of Norwich University, Richard W. Schneider, blocked access to Yik Yak on the Vermont college’s computer network. Mr. Schneider told the Huffington Post that he realized the move was largely symbolic since students can still get to the app through their smartphones. But he said he saw the move as a rejection of Yik Yak. "I just know that it is hurting my students right now," he said. "They are feeling awkward, they are feeling hurt, they are feeling threatened."

Pre-emptive Education

Ms. Mitrano, of Cornell, argues that the best way to deal with an app like Yik Yak is to ignore it.

"The most unfortunate aspect of these sites is that the emotional commotion that they cause prompts people to go onto the site, and it is the number of hits that the founders will use as evidence to venture capitalists and advertisers to get more money for it," she said. "People who are creating these sites are profiting off people’s emotional vulnerabilities and detracting mightily from what the college experience is all about."

But ignoring the services does not mean playing down the harm they can cause, she explained.

"There should be a proactive educational campaign that these sites tend to come up almost every year to infect a new generation of underclassmen, mostly freshmen," Ms. Mitrano said. "College administrators should be way ahead with education campaigns about this."

If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Join ’Em

Not all colleges are treating Yik Yak as a threat. Mr. Buffington reported that several had contacted his company to express interest in harnessing the app to learn more about what their students really think.

"We’re already seeing some campuses step up and say, ‘Hey, this is an interesting way to use this technology,’" he 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." He said he could not yet disclose which colleges had expressed interest.

Despite all the controversy, Yik Yak isn’t backing down. The company is embarking on a campus tour of West Coast colleges this fall, hoping to expand its audience.