There’s a cyber-beast living in devices across the country. Its users are nameless but its name is famous. Yik Yak celebrates harmless anonymity and has transformed into a space for cyber bullying. Some Elon University students are paying the price of participation.
First, students are enticed by Yik Yak’s lack of sign-up requirements — the app does not require a login or username. Next, it disguises itself as a social media application that, like Facebook and Twitter, has a bulletin board, newsfeed-esque interface allowing individuals to share posts with people within a five-mile radius — their “friends.” Once they’re signed up, identity boundaries are gone, and “Yik Yakkers” can be whoever they want to be, targeting anyone they choose.
The campus is already acquainted with the cyber characters “Elon Confessions” and “Gossip Squirrel,” but Yik Yak takes anonymity a step further by allowing students to post without a middleman. Though people across the nation have had mixed feelings about this lack of filtration, one thing is clear: While some are “riding the yak,” others are being trampled by it.
Last week, first-year Jamison “Katerina” Moore, became the target of several Yik Yak users. Comments such as, “Wait that Katerina b***h hasn’t left yet?” and “Nobody cares Kat,” inundated the feed, prompting varying reactions from the community.
Moore said the targeting was in response to her emotional posts on the “Class of 2018” Facebook page regarding her excitement to go to college and her mother’s role in deciding her major. The first-year student said she did not expect the harsh response from her classmates.
“I just thought people would be willing to listen and relate to some of my struggles, but it just turned into something big,” Moore said. “I was mainly shocked because after all, this is college. We are supposed to be more mature than we were in high school.”
Yik Yak is set up with game-like features, attracting users to stay on the app and build up their scores. The app gives users the power to “control what is hot,” according to the website, by “up voting” and “down voting” other peoples’ posts. The running tally of your “up votes” is called your Yakarma score, and users are encouraged to “create quality content” in order to get a higher score.
If a post receives five “down votes,” the user’s Yakarma score is decreased and the post is deleted. While this serves as a method to avoid cyber bullying, the model can also aggravate the issue since users can “up vote” a harmful comment and thereby provide negative reinforcement.
Moore said it wasn’t the hateful remarks or up votes that left a lasting impact on her, but the positive support from friends and strangers who backed her by down voting, reporting and posting encouraging comments.
“The anonymous Yaks that were kind to me helped me gain the confidence to defend myself,” she said. “I have really supportive friends who were there to remind me that there is nothing wrong with being myself, and that I shouldn’t let anonymous people hurt me.”
Maritza Gonzalez was one of those friends. Though Gonzalez had never met Moore in person, she publicly defended her by posting several supportive comments.
“I have seen too many people suffer from being bullied just for being themselves,” Gonzalez said. “So when I saw that people were judging her and harassing her, I reached out to her.”
In a Pendulum survey of 260 Elon students, 24 percent had been cyber bullied in their lifetime, 14 percent were targeted on Yik Yak and 18 percent had targetedsomebody else on the app.
While these numbers show that Yik Yak has been used as a hurtful tool, many respondents admitted in the comment section of the survey that being cyber bullied has not changed their opinion on the app itself.
“It’s all fun and games. It’s just an app,” wrote one student.
But 37 percent students surveyed indicated that they think Yik Yak negatively impacts the Elon community.
“If any administration saw what went on on Yik Yak, they’d be appalled that they let such terrible kids into their school,” wrote another student.
Despite this awareness, 88 percent of students claim they use Yik Yak primarily for entertainment.
Dr. Mussa Idris, assistant professor of anthropology at Elon, said that the central issue is anonymity’s removal of classic social constructs.
“When responding or reacting to a comment, understanding the context is an important part of the way we form interpretations. When you post something anonymously, that whole context is removed,” Idris said.
Many respondents said posts that don’t target specific people but offer anecdotes on “Elon-related problems,” help to foster some level of community at Elon.
“Yesterday, someone yakked about free cupcakes in Moseley, and sure enough, there were free cupcakes!” said a surveyed student.
On the anniversary of 9/11, users united with commemorative messages about the event. Some students also shared that they have turned to Yik Yak for comfort and to support.
“I feel like when we’re all anonymous, the Elon community is even more tight-knit and does a better job of taking care of our own,” said another surveyed student.
Communications Professor Amanda Sturgill said the responsibility to change the tone of anonymous messages relies on its users, not on the app.
“If more people were willing to use the platform for messages of support, it could change the tone of the medium and how it is used,” she said. “Any communication channel has both positive and negative uses. I think the channel is neutral — it is the communicators and the audience who create the issues. It’s not the app’s fault.”
More than half of the surveyed students indicated that they “down vote” hurtful comments targeting a specific person or group. Six percent of students said they report these comments while 10 percent indicated that they would “up vote” these posts if they agreed.
This level of community-building interaction and self-policing is what Yik Yak co-founders Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington envisioned for the app.
In response to the targeting of Moore, Yik Yak released the statement: “We continue to build this technology to ensure positive interaction, but as it relates to instances such as the one you mention at Elon, we are finding that as more users sign up and start using the app, each community begins to self-police itself in a positive way.”
When asked, “Do your Yik Yak posts reflect your genuine personalities, values and opinions?” nearly half of students surveyed said yes.
One surveyor confessed, “Yik Yak is a danger to any community and no good can come from it, but I will hypocritically continue to ‘ride the yak’ in an effort to not fall behind.”