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Universities Weigh Pros and Cons of Student-Made ‘Fizz’ App

As more universities make use of the anonymous social networking app Fizz to keep students connected, some officials have questions about cyber bullying, misinformation and other malicious online behaviors.

A white smartphone on a wooden table in profile view. There are digital icons of speech bubbles floating up out of the phone's screen.
With many higher-ed institutions looking for ways to maintain and boost student participation in campus life, students across the U.S. have increasingly turned to the anonymous social networking platform Fizz to maintain a sense of community and stay connected. However, higher-ed administrators and others have raised concerns about how the platform could be yet another avenue for cyber bullying and other malicious online behaviors.

According to a recent report from the business magazine Fast Company, Fizz, formerly known as Buzz, was developed by former Stanford students Ashton Cofer and Teddy Solomon, who dropped out as the network took off at campuses across the country. So far, the report noted, the app has raked in over $41 million in total funding and has been downloaded by thousands of students across 80 institutions, including Dartmouth, Rice University, Gonzaga University and Fairfield University, where it’s been met with mixed reactions and criticisms over being a medium for misinformation and bullying, as well as Fizz’s marketing tactics involving the employment of student ambassadors for the platform.

Dan Faltesek, an associate professor of social media at Oregon State University, said issues and concerns such as these are nothing new for universities, which had to grapple with similar conversations years ago with the advent of Yik Yak, another anonymous social media app that was shut down in 2017 before re-emerging again in 2021 with a number of updates. Like Yik Yak, he said, the hype around Fizz could just come and go at most campuses. He added that students may also “vote with their feet” and leave the platform themselves if they believe the cons outweigh the pros, despite all the aggressive marketing to get students on Fizz.

“The first time I was ever approached by people about a locative college app like this that was anonymous was over 10 years ago, and I was approached by the folks at the Pan-Hellenic Council, the Greek life folks, because they were very concerned about all the problems caused by this thing called Yik Yak,” he said. “But 10 years ago, it was literally what Fizz is. The promise, of course, was that you could have anonymous conversations. … We’ve seen this before, and Yik Yak also had street teams. They literally had pickup trucks handing out energy drinks all those years ago, and this time it is other stuff getting handed out by folks for business. So, a lot of the council saw this and asked, ‘Dan, how are we going to deal with this?’”

While Fizz’s developers say they believe its marketing and anonymity stimulates positive student engagement, Stephanie Fredrick, associate director of the Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bullying and School Violence at the University of Buffalo, said the ability to be anonymous on platforms like Fizz can embolden users to engage in abusive online behaviors and misconduct that they would otherwise avoid on platforms like Facebook, where users are expected to use their real identities and can be more easily held accountable to some degree.

“The ability to be anonymous certainly provides individuals with a lot more protection,” she said. “I think that’s been a concern, especially with cyber bullying and other sorts of risky online behaviors.”

Faltesek said that for the most part, many universities are still using more popular social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to connect students with one another and keep them informed of happenings on campus. He said universities can use social networking tools like Fizz to get a better sense of the general mood among students and identify areas where university officials could be focusing on student engagement, as well as a means of gauging bullying among the student body to create strategies to combat it.

“These anonymous locative apps among teenagers and young adults are just absolutely popping with energy, like who’s going to the bar, who’s going in here, who hates who. … The problem is that high energy is really hard to channel,” he said, adding that with that energy comes risks. “They kind of came about at the right time, with this need to foster student engagement in campus life and have mediums for that.”

Fredrick said she believes universities and platforms like Fizz should try to find ways to work together on strategies to prevent abusive online behavior on forums, in addition to providing student users with informational resources to navigate online social networking safely. She said that while there are risks, institutions should decide for themselves if the cons of encouraging students to use Fizz outweigh the pros, adding that she believes many contemporary discussions about social media’s impact on social dynamics place a disproportionate focus on the potential negatives rather than how those platforms could improve social cohesion and students’ ability to build connections with peers across their campuses.

“If the university is promoting these apps or platforms, I think it’s important to provide students or other individuals with information about online safety, [such as] how to remain safe on these online platforms and how to report risky or harmful behavior on these platforms,” she said, adding that moderators should consistently address reports of misconduct. “There are so many positive and negative aspects of using social media, but using social media can be a fantastic way to promote student engagement and community.”

Amrit Ahluwalia, director of strategic insights at Modern Campus, said the development of tools like Fizz speaks to the need for universities to rethink their approach to student engagement and use data on retention, student participation and other metrics to guide efforts moving forward.

“As more of these apps come and go, it’s just a wakeup call for how colleges can be looking at building more meaningful and sustainable approaches for student engagement stemming from the institution, but facilitated by students themselves, and also continued by students themselves,” he said. “I think this [tool] poses a really exciting opportunity to look at student engagement and involvement [and ask ourselves], ‘How can we actually create that experience on our campus so students don’t have to turn to something like this?’”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.