“Roth in the gym avoiding eye contact with all individuals…well played.”
“That awkward moment between birth and death.”
“Q: is staying with your high school sweetheart in college worth it?”
“I hope other people are going to class as blazed as I am.”
“It’s like a combination of the [Wes]ACB, Twitter, and Reddit,” said Matt Conley ’15 as he scrolled down a wall of text framed in teal and white on his phone, a tiny image of a yak’s head spinning as new messages popped to the top of the screen.
Yik Yak was created by two students at Furman University in South Carolina and launched in November of 2013. It has become a collegiate phenomenon in recent months, sweeping through campuses across the country.
The app is a mélange of different features drawn from across the social media sphere. At its core, it is a Twitter-style message board accessible to anyone with a smartphone. However, there are no user names or handles; each post, called a “Yak,” is made individually and anonymously, though one can create a one-off handle for each post. Like tweets, Yaks come with a character limit (200) and can be “re-yaked” to share with new audiences.
It draws several of its most prominent features from other social media sites. Most prominently, each Yak is “geo-tagged” to appear only to users within a 10-mile radius of where it was posted. These radii are often set to coincide with university campuses, so viewers on Wesleyan’s campus will by default see only Yaks posted on or near campus. Users outside a given college’s radius can check that school’s Yaks at will but cannot post any themselves.
Yaks can also be upvoted, downvoted, and responded to, a feature reminiscent of the popular link-sharing site Reddit. Yaks that attain numerous upvotes in a short time can be viewed in a special “hot” section, and those that receive more than five net downvotes are removed from the site. Users accrue “Yakarma” based on the popularity of their posts.
“I have about 1,300 Yakarma right now,” said Gabe Walt ’15 while flipping through the app on his device.
The site bears the other familiar hallmarks of any social media site; posts frequently employ memes and tropes that have become increasingly common and recognizable on its posts. At Wesleyan in particular, many Yaks employ the recent #thisiswhy hashtag that was coined in 2013 to drive Wesleyan’s fundraising efforts, usually lending it an ironic twist:
“Went to weshop for bread, left with wasabi pretzels, blue cream soda, bergamot flavored chocolate and a pumpkin. #thisiswhyimbroke.”
“Rip The Nest, Psi U Thursday’s, and, ya know, Wesleyan having a nightlife #thisisdry.”
“The sink’s water pressure is higher than the shower’s. #whyisthis.”
“Wesleyan students discovering their sexuality #thisisbi.”
“instructions on how to acknowledge someone you’ve hooked up with #thisishi.”
During the opening weeks of the fall semester, references to the Wesleyan squirrel population were ubiquitous on the forum. Further posts have begun to satirize this preponderance of squirrel Yaks, creating a sort of self-referential Yak-cycle.
“Saw a black squirrel get pulled over today.”
“For those of you who were wondering: the black squirrels are caused by a codominant mutation in the melanin production of gray squirrels. 2 mutations = black, 1= dark brown.”
“If you came to Wesleyan for the parties and nightlife, then you’re at the wrong school. People who go to Wesleyan do so to study the behavior of squirrels.”
“Judging by most of these Yaks, the squirrels on campus get laid more than the students.”
Users also frequently give anonymous honors to individuals, a practice known as “shouting out” (sometimes stylized as S/O) to others, and calling them “the real MVP.”
“Shout out to the RA that wrote up a 26 year old veteran for drinking a beer.”
“Kid walking into physics lab 15 minutes late with a Usdan sandwich: you da real MVP.”
Students on any given campus also frequently pick out a particular rival school to serve as the butt of their Yaks. At Wes, Trinity is a frequent target. Some recent Yaks included:
“Made a sangria for a party: got hired to teach Spanish at Trinity.”
“Watched an episode of Spongebob when I was seven, got a degree in Wumbology from Trinity.”
“Made a black friend today, got an afam degree from trinity… Jk they don’t have that major.”
Another read: “why the fuck is everyone so obsessed with Trinity?”
Many students noted this tendency for Yaks to cluster around a specific topic.
“All the Trinity ones, it follows a trend, it follows a popular idea, and it’s something where everyone across campus can go, ‘Oh, haha, that’s clever,’” Walt said. “It’s more like memes than it’s like anonymous postings about personal frustrations.”
Wesleyan students who have used the app outside of campus noted the distinct personalities that different campuses and cities project with their Yaks.
“The one in Boston was real depressing,” said Bryan Bennis ’15. “Everyone was talking about how there was nothing going on, and they were all just staying in. And about how some girl lit her bed on fire. It was at some engineering institute that wasn’t MIT.”
Charlie Smith ’15 noted while working in New York that the app was popular among young interns at Wall Street finance firms.
“I’ve seen Yik Yak in New York, and once you’ve seen that, you’ve seen them all,” he said. “All the Wall Street interns use it. [There’s] a lot of coke ones. Maybe they’re just playing into their own stereotypes.”
The “coke ones” are among the more explicit Yaks to grace the message boards regularly. They contain little context but allude to the quality of the Yaker’s cocaine by use of metaphor. Some cocaine-related posts on Wesleyan’s Yik Yak read:
“Coke so white it voted for Mitt Romney.”
“Coke so white it claps to the beat during a performance.”
“Coke so white it posts buzzfeed lists on its best friends walls.”
Ellie Black ’17, a member of the Wesleyan Debate Team, judged two debate rounds concerning Yik Yak during a recent tournament at Boston University.
“At this point I had no idea what the fuck Yik Yak was,” Black said. “Little did I know how much I was about to learn.”
Black had not used the app herself before hearing two teams present arguments about it on two separate occasions.
“The first round I judged had [one team] saying that Yik Yak was normatively bad for society,” she said. “The next round was the same case, but… arguing that Yik Yak was a net good for society.”
Black recounted how many of the arguments centered on the anonymous message board’s potential as a medium for hate speech and violation of privacy.
“They talked a lot about how common objectification of women was on the Providence College Yik Yak,” she said. “I’m not sure if that’s true for Wes, since I’ve truthfully never used the app, but it does raise a question. Sure, Yik Yak may not be the first anonymous forum for college students to be dicks, but can any venue for this type of thing really be called harmless? Anything that compounds the amount of bigoted shit in the world probably isn’t a net neutral for society at large. Still, I think it depends on the ratio of truly harmful stuff to content that’s entertaining or inane without being hateful.”
Ultimately, Black awarded wins to teams arguing both for and against the benefits of Yik Yak.
“From what I can tell, it’s basically Twitter without any social repercussions, which has the capacity to be either immensely entertaining or deeply problematic depending on how the community uses it,” she said. “Yik Yak seems like a pretty small drop in the social media bucket, at least from the perspective of someone who doesn’t use it.“
At Wesleyan in particular, the app seems to have tapped into a long-running tradition of anonymous message boards pushing the boundaries of decency. Almost every student who spoke about Yik Yak made some comparison to the WesACB, or Anonymous Confession Board, which was launched at Wesleyan in 2009 by Peter Frank ’12, who ran the site until it was sold in 2011. While the original ACB was moderated to ensure that posts did not explicitly name students, the new ACB as it has existed since 2011 has seen more than its fair share of controversy.
Walt noted a difference of purpose between the two message boards.
“It’s not set up like the WesACB, where it exists for students to shit on anything they want to,” Walt said. “It’s set up to give students sound bites that they think other students can identify with.”
Black made reference to the voting system of Yik Yak as a controlling factor for abuses of the message board.
“Yik Yak allows for a bit more control than, say, the ACB would, allowing enough people to stop it from being ridden with racist, sexist garbage if they so choose,” she said.
Other students made more favorable reference to the ACB, noting despite the controversies that it had also served as a forum for secure discussion of controversial issues on campus.
“That’s the thing about the ACB: It exposes the most base emotions and attitudes that human society has, and it holds that mirror up to you while you’re reading it,” Conley said.
“I actually kind of felt the same way about the ACB. I thought it was better and more of an intellectual outlet than Yik Yak, [which] is just drivel,” Bennis said.
The app has already been banned from many high schools, including Middletown High School, after teenagers began using the app for cyber-bullying.
“It’s banned within a certain radius of all high schools,” Bennis said. “Sometimes people in junior village can’t Yik Yak because they’re too close to the high school.”
Controversy aside, Yik Yak seems here to stay, so start building up your Yakarma!