Yikkety Yak, Don’t Talk Back

Are you a fat guy looking for someone to love? Does the girl in your class have a “bitch face” that you just want to punch? Is the only way you would agree to anal is if your boyfriend is on the receiving end? If this is all something you crave, and you have an inexorable desire to share it anonymously with the Youngstown community, well then reader, Yik Yak is for you.

We know what you’re thinking, hypothetical student that we construct in every editorial for the sake of a manufactured counterpoint: “Here comes the fuddy-duddy Jambar to ruin all of our internet fun,” or, alternatively, “Is it really okay to pull some mostly harmless refuse you found on Yik Yak to make a fancy hook in your college editorial?”

The answer to both of these questions is: shut up, we do what we want — First Amendment losers. In all seriousness, though, Yik Yak is a social media beast, the likes of which we have never seen. It provides absolute anonymity, like the popular Internet site 4chan, while simultaneously attaching itself to a close-knit real world community; this, and other apps like it, such as Streetchat, do not seem to be a benign new trend, but do they pose a real threat? Well, the answer is a mixed bag, and Yik Yak comes out looking cleaner than expected.

Yik Yak is the latest smartphone craze, mainly intended for college campuses, allowing users to post anonymously to other users within a 10-mile radius. So, if a user at YSU yaks from Fedor Hall, users across campus will see it. There are no usernames, and there is no accountability for posters, unless authorities become involved of course.

Most of Yik Yak is a direct line into the hundreds to thousands of users’ streams of consciousness. Predictably, most Yakers — as they are apparently called — just talk about sex and gossip; other users can like, dislike and comment. If a post is disliked, it will disappear from the thread — employing a type of democratic censorship.

Some of the more orthodox among us may wag their fingers at all this bawdy talk, but this is in no way the real problem.

The problem is when the users decide to lace their yaks with barbed wire. One of the repercussions of the Yik Yak format is that although users get anonymity, the people they talk about sometimes do not. Under this model, users are theoretically able to throw all sorts of baneful rumors and hate speech about their fellow classmates and professors, usually without fear of retribution.

During a demonstration in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at Colgate University in New York, several students were actually identified by name and threatened with physical violence. Furthermore, Colgate had a persistent problem with racist rhetoric on Yik Yak.

High school students have also downloaded Yik Yak and added and participated in the same threads as college students. Predictably, their participation has often been in the form of cyber bullying. To be fair, the app creators made geofences that prevent access to the app in certain geological spaces — high schools — but students can still access the app outside of their schools.

Our intent is not to throw more kindling into the fire that various Internet commentators have been stoking over since Yik Yak’s release. We do not condemn Yik Yak wholesale. It is, all things considered, a method of free speech, and banning or removing it entirely would be a non-starter for most. In fact, we disagree with the witch-hunt-esque paranoia and demands to shut down the app that seem to be more frequent than instances of flagrant abuse.

USA Today reviewed posts near Drake University and Iowa State University, where many complained about instances of racism or people being mentioned by name. They, however, found limited to no instances of either.

This means one of two things: the claims were grossly overstated or Yik Yak’s method of community regulation and their flagging system — which they claim removes these types of yaks quickly — is working. So, the anecdotes listed above do not seem to point to a trend occurring with Yik Yak, but they do point to a potential threat that should be kept under observation.

So should anything be done about Yik Yak? The go-to advice of “don’t be jackasses” is likely to fall on deaf ears, as the most dangerous users are mostly impervious, either due to immaturity or actually just being evil, to such appeals.

Squashing these social media trends is nigh impossible and we do not hope that it is squashed, as they do offer positives as well as negatives.

The creators of Yik Yak have done a laudable job maintaining their app and responding to parents’ concerns, as well as helping police in the instances of threats — which happen quite frequently on any forms of social media. Maybe, as it has happened before, this social media trend will either disappear or assimilate; certainly the media nationwide has been laser focusing in on controversies and blowing them out of proportion.

If there is any lesson to be learned over the controversies swirling around Yik Yak it is this: media sensationalism, as well as the moral paragons of universities’ and parents’ concerns, have been misdirected. This new model of anonymity in close proximity, dangerous though it may be, is here to stay with little doubt.

Yik Yak may actually be the standard critics should hold these new apps to. This trend does have potential to become truly dangerous if new app creators have wanton disregard for regulation. Controlling this trend is far more important than destroying it, and that requires conscious app creators and reasonable dialogue between both sides. So truly, we are probably screwed.