Yik Yak on campus: Safe space to vent or forum for hate?

By Evan Bush

The Yik Yak app, lower, left, is seen on an iPhone.
The Yik Yak app, lower, left, is seen on an iPhone. Associated Press file

At the center of a hate speech incident at Western Washington University during Thanksgiving week was an anonymous-posting app many students use and many parents may not know about: Yik Yak.

It was the latest in a string of events across the country that have students, activists and administrators across the country wrestling with how the anonymous-posting service, extremely popular with millennials, fits in on campus.

Some students see Yik Yak as a harmless distraction filled with campus in-jokes. Others say negativity and hate anonymously posted to the site overwhelm any feeling of community the app might promote.

Last year, Washington State University sororities and fraternities became so incensed by hateful posts that they led a campuswide effort to convince students to delete the app.

But some researchers say discourse on Yik Yak reflects less about the medium and more about the campuses themselves, for better and worse.

Yik Yak users post short, anonymous musings to a digital bulletin board organized geographically. For example, on the University of Washington campus, posts are generally directed to and read by UW students. Users can favor posts by voting them up, and show displeasure by voting them down. If five people down vote a post, it will disappear. Posts also expire with time.

Common sentiments seen recently on the UW’s Yik Yak: Romantic frustration (sometimes graphic), midterm stress and quips about roommate troubles and pizza. Normal college stuff.

A lot of stuff people post is so relatable. Sometimes you say, ‘Yes, it’s true! That’s how I feel.’

Andrea Jorge, a freshman computer science student at the University of Washington

Most of the time, the comments are benign, but some veer into troubling territory.

That’s nothing new, said researchers.

Nora Draper, an assistant professor of communication at New Hampshire University, compared Yik Yak to graffiti on bathroom walls, which was studied by researchers in the 1990s. “What researchers found is what people have seen on Yik Yak: Everything from homophobic, misogynist, racist speech to supportive speech for minority identity groups,” she said. “What Yik Yak has done is create a platform that makes that accessible and also creates a wider audience.”

Francesca Tripodi, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia, is working on a dissertation about Yik Yak. She observed comments on the app three times a day for an entire year and interviewed dozens of students who used it.

“For the students who already feel they belong to the university, Yik Yak is reaffirming,” Tripodi said. “The jokes were particular to their community, their campus, what’s been going on around them. They find it really relevant to their lives.”

And students often lift one another up through the app, she said. About once or twice a week during midterms or finals, Tripodi said she saw posts about suicide.

“The response is … overwhelmingly positive,” she said. Students share resources and encouragement.

She said most overtly racist, sexist or homophobic comments are down voted off the app quickly, but reflections of privilege, generalizations and discriminatory biases are sometimes celebrated.

Yik Yak spokeswoman Hilary McQuaide said, “Encouraging a positive community environment on Yik Yak is a top area of focus for us.”

She said users typically down vote offensive comments off the app. Yik Yak moderates photos before they post and attends to posts flagged by users. The company also suspends users violating its terms of service, she said.

If there’s a threat, Yik Yak provides police requested information.

The way people have been abusing it put me off. You can say things without repercussions. It leaves more room for people to be nasty. The things people say on Yik Yak — those are real thoughts. There are people on campus with those thoughts.

Hanan Burka, a University of Washington freshman who is black and Muslim

On the flip side, Tripodi noted that Yik Yak’s voting system can have the unintended consequence of drowning out minority viewpoints.

“If (black students) are trying to organize a protest or they’re vocalizing racial inequality, those posts will get deleted because it’s not the sentiment of the majority of users,” she said. “That’s an unintended consequence of the algorithm. It’s suppressing these opinions.”

Women’s and civil rights groups recently called on the Department of Education to provide guidance to universities to protect students from harassment on Yik Yak.

Tripodi said she understands why students want to ban Yik Yak, but that the service merely reveals problems in campus culture. Colleges (such as St. Louis University) that ban Yik Yak from their wireless networks are missing the point, she said.

“We’re blaming the tech without taking a deeper look at how it’s used,” she said.