The New York Times discovered the social media app that has taken college campuses by storm: Yik Yak, which allows users to post anonymous messages (“yaks”) that only appear to users within a 1.5-mile radius. “Think of it as a virtual community bulletin board—or maybe a virtual bathroom wall at the student union,” the Times reported on Sunday, foregrounding charges from students and faculty that the app is a vehicle for harassment. “In this sense, the problem with Yik Yak is a familiar one. Anyone who has browsed the comments of an Internet post is familiar with the sorts of intolerant, impulsive language that the cover of anonymity tends to invite. But Yik Yak’s particular design can produce especially harmful consequences.”
Some of the incidents involving Yik Yak—bomb threats, racist or misogynistic attacks—are indeed cause for concern, but they are not cause for banning it. Several colleges are considering exactly that, and more than one has (thus far unsuccessfully) pressured its makers to identify people who made comments other students found objectionable. In one case, professors appealed to the faculty union and demanded punishment for students who made lewd comments about a professor.
The pace of technological invention can overwhelm school administrators, prompting them respond with draconian measures that treat students as would-be victims who need elaborate regulatory regimes for protection. Instead, we should see students as they show themselves on Yik Yak: anxious, uncertain, feeling their way forward into the world, yet fully capable of speaking up for themselves and one another.
I downloaded Yik Yak about eight months ago, and frequently listen in on the conversation on my own campus and others in the vicinity. (Basically everywhere in Boston is a college campus.) Yik Yak also allows users to “peek” (but not post) near select universities across the country, which I also did for geographical diversity. The first thing to note is that the Yik Yak conversations reflects the assumptions and general cultural atmosphere of the students posting on it, so aspects of it can vary widely. Despite that regional diversity, there is remarkable homogeneity: a majority of “yaks”—I’d say around 70 percent—are some variation on “I’m alone in my dorm and wish I had someone to talk to and possibly touch.” Yakkers express their anxieties about being away from home, finding a social group, navigating romantic and sexual relationships, and whether they should quit their athletic teams to focus on grades. Commenters respond by giving advice, encouragement, or—most frequently—volunteering to remedy the original poster’s loneliness or lust.
To be sure, Yik Yak isn’t all G-rated uplift. Yakkers post smack-talk about rival schools, complain about horrible exes and roommates, make tasteless jokes, and engage in graphic, have-you-ever discussions of sex acts. There are occasional outbursts of political extremism. It’s not uncommon to see someone wonder aloud why white people are the only ones who get called racist. But posts that cross the line are rarely left unchallenged: They’re usually met with hostile pushback from other Yakkers, and an upvoting-downvoting war ensues.
As for classroom disruptions, I’ve very occasionally seen students “mass-Yak” during a particular class, giving a running commentary on the professor’s lecture, jokes, mannerisms, etc. While perhaps disruptive to their focus on the lecture’s contents, the comments were closer to affectionate ribbing than harassment.
If none of this convinces you that students are generally not abusing one another or their professors on Yik Yak, there’s the brute reality that, absent intervention by the state, the app is here to stay. So far, all efforts colleges have made to block or ban it have been futile, since smartphones with cellular service escape the controls of campus networks. At least for the moment, administrators and professors have little choice but to come up with creative solutions and fight offensive speech with more speech.
But that reality shouldn’t be met with chagrin, since there is no reason to see Yik Yak as any more menacing than other technological inventions that have already complicated social and pedagogical interactions. There is no indication that the way it is currently used on college campuses uniquely facilitates harassment. Administrators have managed to address bullying without censoring Internet access or banning the other social media platforms where threats and bullying thrive just as effectively. As the editors of Syracuse University’s student newspaper wisely put it, “Cyberbullying existed long before Yik Yak and it still exists outside of the app.” Getting students to use technology ethically will take more than targeted campaigns against specific tools. It requires general principles of empathy and fairness that encompass the whole person, not just what students do online.
Similarly, Yik Yak has introduced no problem for the classroom that didn’t already exist. Smartphone use during class is disrespectful and disruptive, period—not just because students can theoretically post anonymous remarks about the professor. Strict enforcement of no-technology policies is a much better way of combatting Yik Yak disruptions than efforts to identify and punish the occasional student who crosses the line. Most professors and teachers I know have figured out ways to live with technology, either by banning it outright or embarrassing students who flagrantly use their devices in class or even by finding ways to harness their technological habits toward pedagogical ends. Some professors have even gotten creative, taking up Yik Yak themselves in response to offensive posts from students.
College students are neither inherently predatory nor inherently vulnerable, and the proper response to technological challenges is not suspicion, fear, and punishment. With Yik Yak, like everything else, it’s hard to expect students to respect their classmates and professors, and to stand up when they feel wronged, if the university already presumes they’re incapable of doing so.