TW: mentions cyber-bullying, sexual assault, and hate speech,
YikYak, a controversial social media platform, is back on iPhones for the first time in four years, after it was taken off of Google Play and Apple’s App Store after reports of bullying, hate speech, threats of physical violence including but not limited to: bombings, school shootings, rape, and after selling contracts of their staff to Square, a finance technology company.
On YikYak, anyone can post anonymously to an audience within a five-mile radius. No matter where the user moves, people can continue to view the “yak” if they enter the five-mile circle in which the post was made. From there, a user can either upvote, downvote, comment on, or report the post.
Psychologically, peer reviewed studies have shown that anonymity can encourage sharing intimate things about one’s self, being altruistic, and sharing helpful information regarding some taboo topics (one colorful study showed that we are more likely to point out a downed zipper in a darkened room to save another person from embarrassment). This might be inextricably tied to the anti-social behavior that anonymity encourages. We are more encouraged to be at our worst when we can’t be identified. Not only are you more likely to share personal information about yourself, but you might be more inclined to share secret information about other people. Not only are you more likely to share the best place to cry on campus, you are more likely to call a woman you don’t like a slur.
The Nashville-based company that holds YikYak promoted new features of the app that included automatic deletion of a post if it reaches a five-downvote threshold and updated community guardrails that supposedly are more active against abuse on the app. YikYak, a young business that depends on anonymous human behavior for engagement in its app, advertises its “community guardrails,” a list of obsequious yet vague HR phrases framed between emojis, to delineate between the types of anonymous behavior it wants and it doesn’t want.
The guardrails’ introduction reads, “YikYak is where communities are free to be authentic, equal, and empowered to connect with people nearby,” explaining further, “If you see a yak that doesn’t vibe with the Community Guardrails, please immediately downvote and report it… Through the upvote/downvote system, we rely on our community to help make YikYak a constructive venue for free and productive speech.” Whether through a cash flow problem that prevents them from hiring a more proactive content management team, or a purposeful eschewing of hands-on content guarding, YikYak is creating a dangerous place on its app.
The app needs good actors to both consume and construct its speech; the problem is, of course, there aren’t enough purposeful actors on YikYak to make the app work in this manner. The app’s safety apparatus requires you to not only be a user but also an outsourced human resources officer; most people on the Sewanee campus are just looking for something to make them laugh before they go in for an exam.
Though a role of many companies is to willfully misinterpret how and why their customers are using their products to avoid the distasteful shame that comes with that understanding (i.e. your mother’s “neck massager” had many uses) or avoid the liability that would come if company documented that use (i.e. CO2 cartridges aren’t just being used to pump up bike tires), this becomes an entirely different equation when your product helps those act antagonistically in a small community.
“You should never use hate speech or engage in discrimination based on race, age, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation or disability” the community guardrails read. On September 12, at 7:22 am, a user somewhere in the five-mile radius of Sewanee’s campus, yakked “Fuq that [phrases used to emulate the n-word].” Though reported, by me, this yak continued to exist for hours. For an automatic deletion, five users would have to downvote this yak, before anyone could counteract this act with an upvote, which negates the score of downvotes. YikYak is asking students on this campus to act out a virtual voting game for who wants the n-word in front of their eyes and who doesn’t.
This isn’t the only troubling content on YikYak, where students might see YikYaks on the same day, “Sewanee doesn’t protect survivors of SA [sexual assault],” and “As a new guy here I wouldn’t give a fuck if a senior girl got me blackout and did deeds that should never be spoken and I woke up the next day I wouldn’t complain.”
Perhaps the most violated of the guardrails is, “Don’t post anything that could be construed as bullying, abuse, defamation, harassment, stalking, or targeted hate or public humiliation toward other yakkers or people that are easily identified.” Though there is a constant stream of people at all times torrented with hate on the app. Our community members are constantly under attack. Members of the student government were yakked about for going out to parties near the testing window for COVID-19. Others were yakked about for talking negatively about other students in the library. Fraternities with queer members are talked down to with suggestive emojis. Students’ sexualities are wildly speculated on.
We know why we’re on YikYak. We want the drama of the day. We want to be informed. We want someone to anonymously praise our outfit of the day. We want to find out something nasty about a person we do not like. We want our most intrusive thoughts to be commonly shared. We want to spread the truth about our lives regardless of the consequences for another person.
It comes at the cost of our dignity. To yak today is to suspend your empathy for certain people. Our worst and best selves are the things we do in the dark. Don’t push yourself to that polarity for the small dose of dopamine that the notification, “Your yak has been upvoted for the first time!” brings.