Sightings of an elusive white-horned creature with empty black eyes have occurred all across the nation. The animated critter is the logo of Yik Yak, one of the most popular apps on college campuses today. Founded by two fraternity brothers from Georgia-based Furman University, Yik Yak was started as “local, anonymous twitter” to give even the quietest of community members a platform to make their voices heard.
In a generation that has grown up with its digital footprints monitored, it can be liberating to say something uncharacteristic of what others might expect of you. But this anonymity also allows users to shirk accountability for the consequences of mean-spirited, threatening, or dangerous posts. What’s more, it creates a false sense of community.
High school student Elizabeth Long of Atlanta, Ga., was bullied on the app. Her Change.org petition recounted experiences of being repeatedly told to kill herself on her local feed, and described the app as “a haven for bullying, threats, and hate speech.”
Yik Yak has regularly made news headlines for these reasons. Recent events included shooting threats at Towson University, racist comments on Colgate University’s feed such as “I don’t want blacks at this school,” and bomb threats in high schools from New York to California.
The up/down vote feature does allow users to ignore or erase messages they don’t want to hear—a feature people often use in the wake of bullying and other threatening messages. But when Yik Yak becomes a platform for hotly-contested debates, including #blacklivesmatter, drug culture, and sexual assaults, we cannot listen to the other side when we have the power to down vote and censor opinions we disagree with. We lack the ability to have an informed conversation.
At Wesleyan, our feed is normally full of quips, quirky ideas, and one-liners. It contains relatable ideas, like “why am I so awkward?” or pop culture references with a Wesleyan twist, like “raise your hand if your stomach has ever been personally victimized by Usdan.”
While college can be an isolating place, Yik Yak helps foster a sense of togetherness, community, and a reminder that we’re not alone in our feelings and experiences. That thirteen people voted on the Wesleyan Yak, “I shouldn’t care so much. It’s just a hookup, right? (-.-)” exhibits how students can find comfort and support for feelings they would otherwise (i.e., when someone can personally identify them) not want to share. In a society where we’re expected to be invincible, we steel ourselves to emotions and put up a façade of being fine. But all the emotions we bottle up eventually escape, and Yik Yak is that outlet.
However, while admitting “I feel helpless” on Yik Yak may be a first step to healing for some, the sense of togetherness and community we feel is ultimately an illusion. Being honest about our shortcomings, and having the strength to be vulnerable, is ineffective if it’s in a venue where no one knows us or can reach out.
This becomes particularly problematic when Yaks contain cries for help. Posts like, “I can’t do this anymore, just want to give up,” allow Yik Yak to work as a tool for users to vent their feelings, but Yik Yak is still not a space where meaningful action can be taken to help people work through those feelings.
Yik Yak should not be blamed for being the cause of the problems people post, whether the messages are sad or angry. It is merely a tool that we use to further the urges and thoughts we are already struggling with. To cope with our feelings, we have to be honest with ourselves and those we care about, and posting on an anonymous site is not the appropriate mechanism. People do not give up the responsibility to be decent because they are anonymous. And it is only through finding the strength to be actually vulnerable to those who love us that we can grow.
Bessalel is a member of the class of 2018.