The anonymous social media platform, Yik Yak, announced its triumphant return to the iOS app store last week after a four-year hiatus.
It is a return we didn’t ask for.
The app is location-based and users can share anonymous messages with anyone within a few miles. It reached peak popularity on campus around 2015 as a forum for “free speech” under the guise of anonymity. At UNC, it was a breeding ground for jokes about UNC athletics and class registration woes.
The same thing that made it so popular, however, was also a source of cyberbullying and hate speech.
But now it’s back with new ownership promising “the same Yik Yak experience millions knew and loved." Hooray.
The company now says it is committed to controlling the spread of hate speech on its platform using Community Guardrails. It says bullying of any kind will result in banning users.
“In some cases where the category of violation is serious, users will be banned via our one-strike-and-you're-out policy,” Yik Yak said on their website. “These serious categories of violation are: using real names inappropriately; using Yik Yak to solicit dangerous goods or services; bullying; threatening and breaking federal or local laws.”
While these guardrails are certainly a step up from a few years ago, it is still hard to imagine a platform built on emphasizing anonymity could really be the haven of free speech it wants to be.
The major change from Yik Yak’s shutdown to now is its ownership, but even that remains a bit unclear. The company was bought by Square in 2017 before it crashed, but the new ownership has been unresponsive to several news outlets including TechCrunch and The Chronicle of Higher Education. This lack of transparency seems reflective of the app's entire business model: anonymity at all costs.
The website claims it is designed to reduce labels and promote equality. But if the fundamental idea of the app hasn’t changed from the original, then there isn’t much stopping this iteration from becoming the same cesspool of toxicity.
Posts, or “yaks”, can be upvoted or downvoted. If a post is downvoted five times, it will be automatically removed in the new version of the app. This user content policing may prevent hate speech from gaining traction on the platform, but it isn’t stopping controversy.
Just because a post is removed doesn't mean it hasn't been screenshotted, texted or tweeted to hundreds of other people. This was what made posts so harmful in the past, and it seems destined to happen again.
Social media experts said Yik Yak’s design includes a lethal combination of location, anonymity and engagement from other users.
Research from UNC also suggests the platform amplifies the voices of wealthy, white students while suppressing marginalized communities.
“This idea that you’re safe to say whatever you want is largely contingent on your existing place in society,” Francesca Tripodi, assistant professor of Information and Library Sciences at UNC, told The Chronicle of Higher Education last week.
Tripodi said people with privilege feel they have a right to say what they want on the app because they have less to lose, even if their anonymity is removed. Meanwhile, those who don’t feel they have connections on campus already are less likely to voice their vulnerable admissions because they have more to lose.
Anonymity will always be problematic for college-aged students because it is a time of vulnerability and self-doubt. Those feelings have been further amplified by a pandemic that has isolated us and made us more susceptible to the pain of hateful comments in a time when we desperately crave connection.
Yik Yak is bad for college students and its uninvited return only serves to divide us. No matter how many guardrails or changes the platform makes, the mask of anonymity on social media isn’t changing. After all, it’s still the same Yik Yak we all know and love.
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