Is Yik Yak a Safe Space for Students to Vent or a Forum for Hate?

Some students see Yik Yak as a harmless distraction filled with campus in-jokes. Others say negativity and hate anonymously posted to the site overwhelm any feeling of community the app might promote.

by Evan Bush, The Seattle Times / December 9, 2015

(TNS) -- At the center of a hate speech incident at Western Washington University over Thanksgiving week was an anonymous-posting app many students use and many parents may not know about: Yik Yak.

It was the latest in a string of events across the country that have students, activists and administrators across the country wrestling with how the anonymous-posting service, extremely popular with millennials, fits in on campus.

Some students see Yik Yak as a harmless distraction filled with campus in-jokes. Others say negativity and hate anonymously posted to the site overwhelm any feeling of community the app might promote.

Last year, Washington State University sororities and fraternities became so incensed by hateful posts that they led a campuswide effort to convince students to delete the app.

But some researchers say discourse on Yik Yak reflects less about the medium and more about the campuses themselves, for better and worse.

Yik Yak users post short, anonymous musings to a digital bulletin board organized geographically. For example, on the University of Washington campus, posts are generally directed to and read by UW students. Users can favor posts by voting them up, and show displeasure by voting them down. If five people down vote a post, it will disappear. Posts also expire with time.

Common sentiments seen recently on the UW’s Yik Yak: Romantic frustration (sometimes graphic), midterm stress and quips about roommate troubles and pizza. Normal college stuff.

Most of the time the comments are benign, but some veer into troubling territory.

That’s nothing new, said researchers.

Nora Draper, an assistant professor of communication at New Hampshire University, compared Yik Yak to graffiti on bathroom walls, which was studied by researchers in the 1990s. “What researchers found is what people have seen on Yik Yak: Everything from homophobic, misogynist, racist speech to supportive speech for minority identity groups,” she said. “What Yik Yak has done is create a platform that makes that accessible and also creates a wider audience.”

UW students’ opinions on the service varied widely.

Andrea Jorge, a freshman computer science student, said she checked the app most days as a means of stress relief.

“A lot of stuff people post is so relatable. Sometimes you say, ‘Yes, it’s true! That’s how I feel.’”

She said it’s comforting to see other people experiencing the same difficulties she faces at school.

“In a weird sense, it’s almost a safe space if it’s anonymous. People will talk about their problems or frustrations,” she said. Still, some sexist posts have left her shaking her head.

Alexis Jensen, a senior sociology and communication student, said she does not use the app and lost interest in Yik Yak after her sophomore year.

“You feel like you’re in the loop of what people are talking about and laughing about. At this point, I don’t care,” she said.

Hanan Burka, a freshman, said she won’t use the app because she had seen screenshots of derogatory comments on Yik Yak posted on other social media. “The way people have been abusing it put me off,” she said. “You can say things without repercussions. It leaves more room for people to be nasty.”

Burka, who is black and Muslim, said campus can be isolating for minorities.

“I’ll be in the room with 400 students and I’ll be the only person with a scarf or the only person of color. It’s awkward,” she said. She found organizations for people of color and “safe spaces” on campus that have eased her transition to UW, but said feeling comfortable is still “a work in progress.”

Yik Yak, she said, was not going to help.

Francesca Tripodi, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia, is working on a dissertation about Yik Yak. She observed comments on the app three times a day for an entire year and interviewed dozens of students who used it.

“For the students who already feel they belong to the university, Yik Yak is reaffirming,” Tripodi said. “The jokes were particular to their community, their campus, what’s been going on around them. They find it really relevant to their lives.”

And students often lift one another up through the app, she said. About once or twice a week during midterms or finals, Tripodi said she saw posts about suicide.

“The response is … overwhelmingly positive,” she said. Students share resources and encouragement.

She said most overtly racist, sexist or homophobic comments are down voted off the app quickly, but reflections of privilege, generalizations and discriminatory biases are sometimes celebrated.

Yik Yak spokeswoman Hilary McQuaide said, “Encouraging a positive community environment on Yik Yak is a top area of focus for us.”

She said users typically down vote offensive comments off the app. Yik Yak moderates photos before they post and attends to posts flagged by users. The company also suspends users violating its terms of service, she said.

If there’s a threat, Yik Yak provides police requested information.

On the flip side, Tripodi noted that Yik Yak’s voting system can have the unintended consequence of drowning out minority viewpoints.

“If (black students) are trying to organize a protest or they’re vocalizing racial inequality, those posts will get deleted because it’s not the sentiment of the majority of users,” she said. “That’s an unintended consequence of the algorithm. It’s suppressing these opinions.”

Last year, representatives of sororities at Washington State University put together a campaign with the hashtag releasetheyak to delete the app — a cause taken up by fraternities and other student groups.

Madi Phillips, who was Panhellic president last year and has since graduated, said nasty comments about body image and sexual behavior were directed at particular sororities and individuals. She said she saw racism and sexism in posts on the “toxic” app.

Phillips said Yik Yak “lost traction” as a gossip mill after the sororities’ campaign. “It eradicated a lot of hatred.”

Women’s and civil rights groups recently called on the Department of Education to provide guidance to universities to protect students from harassment on Yik Yak.

Tripodi said she understands why students want to ban Yik Yak, but that the service merely reveals problems in campus culture. Colleges (such as St. Louis University) that ban Yik Yak from their wireless networks are missing the point, she said.

“We’re blaming the tech without taking a deeper look at how it’s used,” she said.

That’s what’s troubling to Burka, the student who felt isolated at UW: not just the app but the messages on it. “The things people say on Yik Yak — those are real thoughts. There are people on campus with those thoughts.”

©2015 The Seattle Times Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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