Opinion: Yik-Yak and Anonymity

Yik-Yak, the notorious anonymous messaging app, recently returned from a four-year hiatus after being shut down in May 2017.

Founded by Furman University students Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington and initially introduced in November 2013, Yik-Yak enables users to communicate with others within a 5-mile radius.

Here is the catch. This communication is anonymous. Incognito. The appeal is obvious. A digital forum environment where anyone can speak their mind without compromising their identity is a thrilling concept. Such freedom is intoxicating, and Yik-Yak is an unequivocal example of how this intoxication can impact a community, for good and bad.

Anonymity gives users the opportunity to say anything, like anyone, for any reason or no reason at all. The most concerning thing about the behavior this app encourages, albeit unintentionally, is the sheer lack of consequences. Consequences, good or bad, are positive things. They act as a gauge of value for the decision-prone human race, and the awareness of such implications often protects people from the consequence itself. On Yik-Yak, there aren’t consequences at all, at least for anything that isn’t the admission of a felony offense.

The lack of consequence presented by the anonymity Yik-Yak provides enables those cruel enough to bully without mercy or fear of retribution. This isn’t a new phenomenon either, as Yik-Yak was shut down in May of 2017 due to concern regarding the app’s potential to give cyberbullies a platform.

Here at Western Carolina University, most users on Yik-Yak engage with each other in pursuit of a one-night stand or a party to attend. Other users make fun of whoever they want, often weaponizing the use of real names and gossip. After all, the biggest disadvantage possible in an anonymous space is the lack of anonymity altogether.

In the brief time I used the app, I found the ability with which Yik-Yak enabled the spread of rumors to be astounding and terrifying.

I recall one morning when I opened the app to find users frantically asking about a shooting the previous night. Upon my due diligence, I discovered there had been no shooting, only an event organized by a fraternity on campus that utilized a starting pistol.

For 12 hours, some number of people had been convinced a shooting had happened on campus, when in fact, nothing of the sort had occurred at all. Yet, due to the emotional reaction such a claim garners, it spread like wildfire. Fortunately, this instance ended up being mostly harmless, but it makes for a great example of how quickly untrue information can spread when no one has an incentive to ensure it is true.

In an environment void of accountability, people have no incentive, to be honest. Honesty enables people to come together and be productive, while dishonesty cultivates a lack of trust in the community. It is profound enough to be noticeable in daily situations. For example, more people now make themselves appear less approachable in public. This is done by maintaining poor posture or walking with a phone in hand, both obvious signs of disinterest. Such behavior is concerning, and Yik-Yak is the virtual embodiment of it.

I am concerned about the enabling power Yik-Yak has in the WCU community. I am guilty of testing the limits of the anonymity Yik-Yak provides. Likely, we all are in some way. We may not all be the ones to degrade and devalue, but we are participating together in an environment that gives a platform to those who do.

I hope people can realize the negatives of Yik-Yak, and instead reflect upon how the app can be used for good or whether it should be used at all. It doesn’t come down to more restrictions or a better profanity filter. It comes down to the community taking responsibility for their actions on a day-to-day basis. We shouldn’t have to live in a world any more insufferable than necessary.