Yik Yak: A Story of Anonymity

By Ryan Davis '17, Contributing Writer The Internet Collides with Our Social Spheres and Our Daily Lives

yik yakThis fall, a new social networking application has flooded iPhones and androids alike called Yik Yak. Seemingly out of nowhere, this app has gained popularity across all social spheres on college campuses. The reason: Yik Yak promises anonymity to publish whatever you want, and have it be read and remarked upon by your college peers. This at first might not seems so different from the normal Internet, with social sites such as 4Chan promising similar anonymity. However, never before has this sort of anonymous micro blogging been available so easily to anyone with a smartphone and the will to share their thoughts. There’s no need for a username or password, just download the app, enter your mobile phone number, and begin publishing 200 character statements about anything you want, and no one can easily tie it back to you. What has made the app take off on college campuses is that it is designed to only shows posts that were writen in your geographic area. You can even set it to only include posts made on your college campus, although Skidmore has yet to be added to the expanding list of supported colleges and universities.

The system is interactive for both publishers and readers. Users can anonymously respond to posts written by others or simply up or down vote them. A post or comment is deleted after five negative votes, a rudimentary self-policing system. If a user’s comments are consistently downvoted, their profile may be suspended. If a comment shares personal information about someone or targets another person, other users can report their comment and its author can be banned from the community. Even so, a lot of damage can be done before a troublesome user is reported.

This whole system might at first seem kind of terrifying. After all, we’ve seen what troubles anonymity on the Internet has brought before. We all remember cyber-bullying episodes as far back as middle school. Cable news loves to scare parents with mention of the terrible things written on message boards by so-called trolls, or the power that hacktivist group Anonymous wields as a loose conglomerate of nearly untraceable hackers. While Yik Yak isn’t completely lawless, some people might argue that its anonymity provision is not enough, and that users must be identifiable to maintain accountability. Yik Yak’s local focus increases the potential damage of cyber bullying.

I have found these fears to be completely unfounded at Skidmore. Yik Yak is a breath of fresh air in the often-demonized realm of anonymous Internet publishing. At Skidmore, it is a vibrant and honest community.

The pages of Yik Yaks from the Saratoga area are dominated by the Skidmore College student body. What we say reveals a lot about who we are as people. Reoccurring themes range from loneliness and self-doubt, to stress over schoolwork and idiosyncratic events in our day-to-day lives. Despite relatively lenient repercussions for offensive posting, Yik Yak is a very calm and non-aggressive place. Posts are almost never negative toward specific students or groups. I’ve never seen one. Instead, there is a sense of unity from the unrelated nameless posts. Scroll through for five minutes, and I guarantee you’ll read about some little thing that you believed no one else did or saw or encounter a question you were afraid to ask. The lack of forks in dining hall or the fact that we are all a little embarrassed by the South Quad dorm bathrooms where your whole floor can hear everything are just a few examples.

There are many posts with a more serious tone. On weekends you’ll find many posts about those lonely or bored on Friday nights. Sometimes people question their self worth and vent self-esteem problems. If you were too scared to acknowledge that you felt lonely at night up here in the great white north, on Yik Yak you’ll find that you’re not alone. Nameless writers commonly inscribe things we might not even remark to our close friends for fear of embarrassment or seeming needy. The sheer volume of up votes and responses that these posts often garner is a testament to the fact that people are actively reading. For the first time in a long time, I feel that anonymity on the Internet has made me feel closer to those around me. That is an amazing thing.

This is not a perfect community. There are still the occasional negative comments, and there is a negative trend of making fun of the “white girl” stereotype and its associated iPhones and pumpkin spiced lattés. Sometimes people will copy the top comment from another school’s Yik Yak pool for up votes and self-satisfaction. Yik Yak is not a paragon of anonymous humanitarianism on the Internet by all means. It is a tool and it reflects those who use it. I can’t speak for everyone who uses the application globally; my experience has reflected positively on the Skidmore community.

Yik Yak should not be overlooked as another Internet trend. Twitter, another micro blogging site, was perceived to be a fad when it came out. Now, it is a thriving community and a powerful communication tool with a diverse user base including governments, celebrities, and maybe your roommate. It is frequently cited in news articles as a source for public statements. Yik Yak has the same potential for growth and influence.

Whatever the fate of Yik Yak might be, I think it is a fascinating mirror of the student body here at Skidmore. The posts show us that the people we walk by each day on Case Walkway are more like us that we could have ever imagined. We have the same fears and idiosyncrasies. We have the same desire to talk to someone cute who walks by or to reach out when we are lonely. Yik Yak is a physical representation of those inherently human qualities that we all share, but are so rarely acknowledged. Yik Yak is funny, it is endearing, it is vulgar, and it is untamed and untested, but the people who use it are honest. As its users, we must decide where it goes from here.

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