Anonymous Apps: Too much challenge, not enough support

Eric Stoller

November 3, 2015

The first time I ever wrote about Yik Yak, I wasn't a fan of the app. There had been multiple incidences of cyberbullying at high schools and a quick perusal of the app in early 2014 showed a platform/community that was anything but supportive. There was a lot of ugliness that was being posted on the app.

Thankfully, Yik Yak eventually did something quite proactive in that they erected a digital geo-fence around almost every single high school in the U.S. Eventually, Yik Yak (and similar apps) would spread across most colleges and universities in the U.S. as well as gaining traction amongst international users. For example, here in London, a lot of posts on Yik Yak have to do with studying at the library, binge-watching Netflix, and other random bits of minutiae.

As users continue to flock to the app, content has become more varied, and "yaks" are upvoted/downvoted quite quickly. Like a lot of social networks, Yik Yak can be uber-popular at one campus and "so last year" at another.

For geo-social anonymous mobile apps like Yik Yak, content can be challenging. People have posted a lot of good things on Yik Yak, but they've also posted a lot of hurtful content. Unfortunately, anonymity plus mobile proximity can lead to an environment (due to hurtful content) that (at least on the app) is hostile. This has lead to multiple conversations about banning and/or monitoring Yik Yak. While Yik Yak has been cooperative with law enforcement officials when unprotected speech gets posted, a lot of content posted on the app that falls within protected speech has upset a lot of people. And, rightfully so, ugly protected speech, while protected by the First Amendment, is still ugly speech.

While it may seem like a good idea to block/ban an app, the fact is that these apps represent thoughts, commentary, and ideas from community members on campus. In fact, as stated in an article on Slate, "the intimacy of the geolocation feature inspires a communal vibe." In other words, what's being said on Yik Yak doesn't just disappear from reality when or if the app is blocked, banned, or even monitored. Plus, as ACPA's Cindi Love so eloquently shares in a recent blog post, "free speech is for speech that you hate, not for speech that you like."

Building community by way of geo-social anonymous mobile apps will never be easy. The interplay between the First Amendment and Title IX is cause for a lot of discussion. However, by downvoting derogatory posts, posting positive thoughts/ideas/events/resources, sharing unprotected speech (unfortunately, threats of violence seem to often be posted on Yik Yak) with campus law enforcement, teaching students about their digital presence/identity, and engaging in dialogue (on and off of the app), a community can start to take back its environment. And, perhaps most importantly, administrators need to be informed of the functionality of apps like Yik Yak. There's a big difference between talking about an app versus actually using it.

A recent article in UCLA's Daily Bruin contains a wonderful point that "Yik Yak, though a facilitator of offenses, doesn't produce them - the campus community does."

My opinion on Yik Yak is that it's like a lot of our digital engagement channels, it represents "us"...good, bad, and ugly. Yik Yak can be a source for good. There's a lot of supportive posts, non-offensive humor, and if news is breaking, there's a good chance someone is posting about it on the app.

Regardless of whether or not it continues to be the go-to geo-social anonymous mobile app, the functionality of Yik Yak is here to stay. Yik Yak today, some other app tomorrow. If you post something online via a website or app, it's not 100% private (or anonymous). I asked 100 college students at a recent presentation if they had ever taken a screen grab of a Snapchat message. 90% indicated that they had captured a message that had been intended to be ephemeral. In fact, Snapchat has this advice for its users: "Don't send messages that you wouldn't want someone to save or share."

Digital literacy, familiarity, and fluency is an ongoing process. We all need to continue learning, engaging, teaching, and sharing.

Slides from my first NASPA webinar - When No One Knows Who You Are: Anonymity, Apps, and Accountability - are embedded below:

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