Is Yik Yak the next Whitman Encounters?

Sarah Cornett

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Allie Donahue, Martina Pansze, and Audrey Kelly contributed reporting.

Walking around campus, it is not unlikely that you’ll hear a student or two talking about Yaks. While it is possible that they are speaking of large wild oxen, they are more likely discussing the latest social media craze to overtake campus conversations: Yik Yak.

In the past year, Yik Yak has taken both the country and Whitman’s campus by storm.”Who Spewed that abuse? Anonymous Yik Yak app isn’t telling,” read a New York Times headline last month. “Yik Yak Attack,” Bitch Magazine titled a story one week later. “Social Media’s Hateful Site” headlined a story in a Detroit newspaper two weeks ago.

An anonymous app that narrows what you see based on location, Yik Yak is meant to provide a platform for short, Tweet-like statements made on your phone that can be up or downvoted.

Because it is a location-based app, with results narrowed to a five-mile radius, Yik Yak is well-suited for college campuses. Started in 2013, its founders Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington started Yik Yak in an effort to provide a more honest platform for social media, a sort of communal bulletin board for college students.

Yik Yak is growing in popularity on the Whitman campus. Photo by Rachael Barton.

Yik Yak is growing in popularity on the Whitman campus. Photo by Rachael Barton.

The Consequences of Anonymity

The anonymity, however, has proved problematic at many campuses. While abuse of Yik Yak at Whitman hasn’t inspired significant administrative action, the three articles mentioned above focused on cases of abuse at campuses not unlike ours: Middlebury, Colgate, Kenyon and Lewis & Clark College.  These colleges are just a few among a huge number of institutions wrestling with how to handle Yik Yak and hateful comments made on it.

Cases of abuse at these schools have included racist, sexist and generally hateful comments. At Kenyon, a student proposed a gang rape at the women’s center. At Lewis & Clark, a gun emoji was used to target black students. At Middlebury, one student threatened to sexually assault another.

Though anonymity can make comments like these more prevalent, many negative posts are rarely seen because of Yik Yak’s down-vote system. If a “Yak,” as messages are called, gets five “downvotes” from users, it disappears from the screen.

This feature has erased many hateful and shortsighted comments from view. At Whitman, up-and-down voting is the way many students use Yik Yak.

“I don’t post on it, but I upvote and downvote,” said sophomore Valentina Lopez-Cortes, a Yik Yak user.

The community-policing feature of Yik Yak’s voting system allows for a sense of responsibility and involvement from users.

“It’s interactive because you can vote on things,” said junior Alex Hulse, another Yik Yak user. “Some people will post really sad things and other people will say condescending things or dismissive things, but I haven’t seen anything that is super targeted like I’ve seen at other places.”

While many students say that hateful comments are  rare finds on Whitman’s Yik Yak, the company has made changes to better moderate posts and user activity that have affected campus. In a move made this year, Yik Yak has hired college campus representatives to help moderate content. Whitman’s representative is first-year Arianna Wildflower, who says that her two main job duties are to promote Yik Yak on campus, as well as monitor and moderate posts.

Wildflower got the job after seeing a posting for campus representatives on Facebook. She said another big part of her work is “giving out free stuff to people” for Yik Yak promotion, which has included Easter eggs and chocolate, stickers, socks and hats. She says that even though she works for Yik Yak, she doesn’t have any special authority or control on the app. She up and downvotes the same as any other user, but she does reach out to the administrators if she sees hateful posts.

“I downvote and report things, and if something is really concerning I email the creators,” she said. “Sometimes there are nastier feeds and things that are really serious that need to be removed.”

Because so many people at Whitman use Yik Yak, a nasty comment can receive five down-votes very quickly, and hateful posts often disappear quickly.

Wildflower acknowledges that Yik Yak’s unique anonymous structure has created problems, but she points to the company’s efforts, like hiring campus administrators, blocking Yaks with triggering words and the downvote system, as an effective community-policing method.

“The anonymity is a double-edged sword because in addition to the friendlier posts, there’s also more hateful things. That’s something Yik Yak has been working hard to address,” said Wildflower.

Memories of Whitman Encounters

At Whitman, anonymous message boards are not unfamiliar. Many remember the promising beginnings of Whitman Encounter’s, a website created by students that offers a way for other students to post thoughts and feelings anonymously.

The student who created the site, who graduated in 2013, said that Whitman Encounters was designed to provide a platform for discussion in a campus environment “where niceness is valued more than honesty.” On it, students could (and still can) find intellectual discussions, pining and a host of other topics students feel like writing about.

Although the site had seen a fair share of hateful speech since its 2012 inception, during the 2013-2014 school year discussions about the discriminatory and abusive posts that often graced the page embroiled much of campus. A rally against racial harassment in November of 2013 brought together the Whitman community. Students and administrators organized subsequent workshops and discussion to figure out the fate of Whitman Encounters.

After campus-wide discussions with students and administrators last year, Whitman Encounters began requiring a login email so that students with @whitman.edu email addresses could only post. Since then, its popularity has decreased relative to its first two years.

In some ways, Yik Yak seems like a reincarnation of Whitman Encounters’ good qualities. It allows for anonymous comments (though unlike Whitman Encounters, there is a word limit) but has checks on its post with the trigger words and downvote systems.

“I really like that, unlike Whitman Encounters, Yik Yak is monitored and posts go away after down votes, so there’s a lot less offensive stuff,” said junior Yik Yak user junior Catherine Bayer.

For many students, Yik Yak seems to be the new preferred method of anonymous interaction.

“It is like Whitman Encounters, but more user friendly,” said Hulse. “It’s a lot easier to use and more interactive.”

While hateful speech on Yik Yak has been a serious topic at other colleges, the app at Whitman hasn’t yet necessitated any administrative action that resembles what happened with Whitman Encounters.

“I don’t hear a lot about issues on Yik Yak –– certainly not in the way we have in the past relative to Whitman Encounters. That is not to say it is or isn’t a problem,” said Dean of Students Juli Dunn in an email.

This hasn’t been the case at many other schools, where administrations and Yik Yak have collided.

At Lewis & Clark College, a racial threat accompanied with a gun emoji resulted in students only being allowed swipe-entry access for the dorm they live in, rather than all campus-owned housing. At Colgate College, a letter signed by dozens of faculty demanded the app be banned on campus after a series of threatening Yaks. Dozens of other schools have tried unsuccessfully to ban the app or garner the identities of posters who make menacing comments.

The founders, Droll and Buffington, however, are defending the anonymity that they say is essential in their app. The pair met at Furman University and started Yik Yak in an effort to provide “a level playing field” for social media. Though they’ve been active in efforts to make the app work better and limit hateful speech, they say it’s been a learning process.

Nearly all students interviewed for this article said that Whitman’s Yik Yak is most commonly filled with funny, relatable posts.

“[Yik Yak] promotes this very positive conversation. It’s not like its feeding on the evils of what college could be,” said Lopez-Cortes. “Yik Yak is a forum where you can be completely honest.”

“When I travel, I’ll check the Yik Yaks where I am, and I think that our quality of feed is way better,” said Wildflower, the administrator here. “I think that it reflects the people in the area … Mostly here it’s high quality jokes.”

Despite the anonymity, some students say that it promotes a community among users.

“I like it because you can see debates and how the community comes together when someone posts something negative,” said first-year Emily Johnson.

A quick scan of Yik Yak will most often turn up jokes, relatable remarks on campus life and questions directed towards other students. Events and activities are sometimes posted, too.

“I find it entertaining, and think it’s a good portal for finding out about what’s going on on campus,” said Bayer.

However, a sizeable amount of students have yet to jump on the Yik Yak train, in part because it is still pretty new.

“I’ve heard a lot about it from friends,” said sophomore Eric Treto. “But I have yet to jump on the Yik Yak train.”

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