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The Yik Yak Dilemma

Campus | December 3, 2014

Fast-paced, comic, and completely anonymous, the mobile application Yik Yak has swept campus with unparalleled gusto. Meant to act as a sort of virtual campus bulletin board, the app was designed to allow anyone to post whatever pondering catches his or her fancy, without attaching any form of identity—not even a username. Yik Yak then generates a constant stream of comments, similar in appearance to Twitter or Reddit.

Today’s young people are familiar with social media applications that place emphasis on anonymity (think: Whisper, Secret, or Snapchat). But what sets Yik Yak apart from the ones already inundating app stores and inboxes is its heavy-handed reliance on physical proximity. The posts, called ‘yaks,’ are extremely localized; each user’s feed is gathered from a mere 1.5-mile radius. There is no better breeding ground for an app like Yik Yak than the Tufts bubble, a uniquely insular, fenced-off environment.

Tufts students interact with Yik Yak in a range of ways, from the compulsive posters who live for the adrenaline rush of making it to the “Hot” column to the purists who won’t even download the app onto their phone. Others fall somewhere in the middle, checking it every once in a while to stay current with the goings-on about campus or for a midday chuckle before Bio recitation. And this all makes perfect sense, given it’s a forum that allows us the coveted opportunity to read the inner thoughts of those around us.

We aren’t Yik Yak’s only users. Since the app launched in May of 2013, it has quickly found its way into the hearts (or at least the smartphones) of students at more than 200 schools around the country. Yet reception among Tufts students is divided: while some see this virtual microcosm of Tufts voices as bringing our community together, others find the more offensive comments isolating.

Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, the two Furman University fraternity brothers behind the controversial app, say they created Yik Yak to give college students a platform to express what’s really on their mind, with everyone around them as an audience.

“We saw on our college campus that only a few people really had a voice,” Droll told the Boston Globe. “They’re the people with big Twitter accounts, maybe student athletes, who had thousands of followers. My thought was: why can’t everyone have this power?”

But with anonymity eliminating any self-imposed filter, are some yaks better left unshared? Some Tufts students, including freshman Haley Pogachefsky, see keeping user identities hidden as “the only way to get honesty, to know what people are actually thinking.” Still, although many of the harmless, witty jokes cracked about roommates’ sexual escapades or the trials and tribulations of dining hall food would never grace Tufts’ feed if users had to reveal their identities, one must consider whether the campus community that exists on Yik Yak has an effect on the one that exists offline.

Freshman Aaron Frankl claims that Yik Yak “definitely doesn’t affect how I view other Tufts students. There isn’t very much name-dropping. It’s mostly good-hearted fun and hating on BU, which never ceases to be amusing.”

Freshman Ian Clark’s only complaint was that it’s “kind of weird to not get any credit” for his recent witty quips, including a few that racked up enough upvotes to make it to the exclusive “Hot” column.

Others, however, have a less innocuous view of the app. Another freshman, Anna Nelson, points at the instances of misuse. “One of my close friends here had her name explicitly mentioned in a not-so-nice yak, and the aftermath was really rough and upsetting to be a part of,” she explained.

Yik Yak allows students’ every whim to be broadcasted across Tufts’ own densely populated area and read by all other users, indiscriminately. Honesty is a worthy goal, but users hide behind a screen; no matter whom is offended, there are no lasting social or disciplinary repercussions for posts, except for also-anonymous downvotes.

At Colgate University earlier this year, students staged a sit-in for three straight days, demanding that the university take action against increasingly racist yaks. Examples included, “It’s not my fault the most noteworthy thing you’re [sic] people have done is to convince us to not enslave you anymore… And you couldn’t even do that without our help.”

The Tufts administration has yet to report an issue with Yik Yak use—possibly signaling that students here either know how to use the app responsibly, or it’s just viewed as a trifle and not necessary to take action. Yet still, discrimination towards certain groups on campus is impossible to ignore, and right now, students think it constitutes too large a portion of yaks.

Buffington and Droll, in response to criticism about inappropriate use of the app by younger users, have added an age restriction of 17 and blocked access on at least 85 percent of U.S. middle and high school campuses. But Buffington told the Upstate Business Journal that he sees college campuses beginning to “self-regulate in a positive way,” and Droll added, “as Yik Yak communities get larger and more diverse, the more effective these social policing mechanisms become.”

As more students join Yik Yak, those yaks that are discriminatory may be flagged more quickly and removed from our feeds. Thus, though it might seem incomprehensible, this app that keeps everyone anonymous has the potential to bring the community together, as Yik Yak’s tagline, “join the herd,” suggests. And not just online—sophomore Daniel Baigel points out that the app easily integrates into real-life social settings. “I use Yik Yak when I’m with my friends,” he explained. “Whether it’s laughing at the already existing posts or coming up with new ones, we always have a good time.”

Baigel is just one of the many Tufts students who agree that this app can be successful in fostering a tight-knit community, as was originally intended. When Jumbos read that spot-on comment about the line for Sundae Sunday in

Dewick, or the painful trek uphill, they feel more bonded to the people around them. Tufts students come from different countries, different backgrounds, different upbringings, but those posts that rise to the top of the “Hot” list, more often than not, speak to our collective experience.

For some students, Yik Yak is a big deal, while others have never scrolled through Tufts’ feed. The app has its value: it’s a forum for freethinkers to share their whimsies, a valuable tool for understanding our campus culture at its most uncensored, and a virtual space for us to come together. Yet users’ lack of accountability for their words can become dangerous to the very community Yik Yak nurtures, as shown by the friction it has created at Colgate University and at various high schools around the country.

Right now, even student users aren’t sure whether Yik Yak will have a lasting effect, positive or negative, on our campus. But if nothing else they do agree it’s, as freshman Oliver Yang put it, “a good way to kill an hour.”

Art by Tess Dennison.