Yik Yak App Should be Studied, Not Banned

An assistant professor and his students are taking a hard look at the app, and how social media and technology affect daily life.

by Alan Rizzo, Watertown Daily Times (TNS) / October 24, 2014

Yik Yak, the app that played host to a shooting threat Thursday at SUNY Canton, is an anonymous social media program that allows users to say nearly anything — as long as it isn’t a criminal threat. And while many of its online communities have seen hurtful and threatening commentary, a local sociology professor feels Yik Yak should not be banned, but understood.

Yik Yak was created specifically for college students as an app that permits users to post their thoughts without identifying themselves. Its appearance is similar to Twitter minus identifiers — such as handles — which make it clear who is posting, or “yakking.”

Yik Yak users can only be identified if their posts are interpreted as criminal in intent. Disparaging remarks, however — such as making fun of a person’s weight — remain anonymous.

Users are also able to give “upvotes” and “downvotes” to posts, gaining “Yakarma” the more upvotes they receive, according to an article in London’s The Guardian Tuesday.

After a certain number of negative or “downvotes,” a post will be permanently deleted, although Yik Yak founders Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington did not specify how many votes are needed for deletion. Offensive postings are often deleted when users report them. Posts expire after 100 days.

Conversations and postings on the app are also monitored by the company, which blocks or bans users who exhibit negative or harmful behavior.

Yik Yak’s content is typically light, contrasting with the more serious, confessional material on apps like Whisper and Secret, according to The Guardian.

App activity is separated into miniature communities of users, each one limited to a 1.5-mile radius. To create communities, the app uses a technology called geo-fencing, a virtual barrier that uses a global positioning system and radio frequency identification to define boundaries. As of Tuesday, more than 1,000 colleges nationwide are using Yik Yak, according to the article.

SLU Assistant Professor of Sociology Stephen R. Barnard, Ph.D., who watched Thursday’s incident at SUNY Canton closely on social media, said the app should be analyzed, not condemned. Mr. Barnard, who teaches a digital culture class called The Web in Real Life, is taking a hard look with his students at Yik Yak and how social media and technology affect daily life.

“Off and on we’ve been wrangling with Yik Yak as an example not just for cyber bullying but for identity, for self-expression, for jokes,” he said, explaining that they are considering what Yik Yak affords users, how it is built, and how people behave in the common space it provides.

“I think the jury’s still out on what Yik Yak is for,” said Mr. Barnard, remarking that the company’s response in the aftermath of incidents like SUNY Canton’s will steer the technology’s use in the future.

Mr. Barnard said social media sites facilitate behaviors ranging from joking to cyber bullying and the anonymity and close proximity inherent in using the app leads to a lot of inside jokes, something which the creators intended to foster.

He said it should be watched carefully, because a ban would not solve the problem.

“I’m usually not going to vote for a prohibition or a ban on something but rather a close, careful watch and maybe regulation of it,” he said. “Before Yik Yak, people were making these threats. After Yik Yak, people will be making these threats.”

©2014 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)