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Responding to Offensive Posts on Yik Yak, Professors Stage Social-Media Takeover

Yak Back 1At the end of a semester plagued by offensive social-media posts, professors at Colgate University on Friday started a campaign to bring some positivity to digital communications on the campus.

Using the smartphone application Yik Yak, which allows people to submit anonymous comments visible to other nearby users, professors posted positive messages to students, wishing them luck on their exams, praising their work, and infusing an uplifting tone into the digital discourse. Unlike most users, the professors signed their names to their posts.

“Yik Yak has been a source of aggravation for people in the campus community,” said Geoff Holm, an associate professor of biology who developed the idea to “occupy” the app. “If this is going to be something that is driving campus culture, it’s important for faculty to have a presence.”

In September, Colgate students organized a 100-hour sit-in to protest what they believed to be institutionalized racism at the university. They cited racist posts on Yik Yak as one cause of their concern. Colgate’s president, Jeffrey Herbst, acknowledged the posts, calling them “appalling.”

After discussing his “take back the Yak” idea with several colleagues, Mr. Holm announced the effort, dubbed “Yak Back,” by email and Facebook. He estimates that more than 20 professors have participated.

One of Mr. Holm’s aims was to subvert Yik Yak’s reliance on anonymity.

“If we have opinions, it’s important to own them,” he said.

Valerie Morkevicius, an assistant professor of political science, said she hopes that seeing professors use Yik Yak will encourage students to think before posting potentially offensive comments.

“Maybe they would not be so free in saying some of the things they say if they know people whose opinions they care about are reading,” she said. “For me, what’s really great about this idea is it’s a way we can reach out to our students where they are. Our students live in this digital world, and we can help them navigate it more responsibly. We’re using their own media to try to reach them on some different levels.”

Ryan Solomon, an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric, expressed skepticism, however, about the positive messages his colleagues had posted.

“We were making it seem like Yik Yak is a fuzzy place where we all go to give each other group hugs,” he said. “If we were really gonna go onto Yik Yak and do what Yik Yak does, we would have to go on there and be brutally honest. What we were doing in some ways was not a fair reflection about the dynamics of Yik Yak, so we may have been making it seem more benign than it really is.”

However, Mr. Solomon added, he values the aspirations of the campaign, especially its effort to draw professors into the campus conversation.

Some students responded on Yik Yak by “upvoting” their professors’ posts and submitting appreciative comments.

The Yak Back is one of several ways people on the campus are responding to what Barbara Brooks, director of public relations and marketing, called a “turbulent semester.” The event took place two days after the university held a Candlelight Service of Reconciliation in the campus chapel to encourage reflection. According to Ms. Morkevicius, professors are drafting a petition to ask the university to deal with concerns about issues that include the use of anonymous social-media services to threaten individual students.

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